For more than a month we’ve been analyzing school boards (See “,” “,” “,” “,” “” and “”). Finally, we’re ready to suggest improvements to the current system. But let’s not kid ourselves that anything here will be quick or easy. Just getting the most minor reforms enacted will take years of toil, kind of like being a board member in the first place. Meanwhile, individuals so motivated to change the culture of school boards could probably more positively impact their communities by just getting themselves on their local school boards. But, let’s assume that we’ve got committed, influential, smart community members who want to improve their school board without running for election. What can they do?
The most important characteristic of good board members is their realization that this is a difficult, thankless, necessary job and that their role in that process is mostly to hire quality people and then gently supervise them to make sure they are working hard at their tasks. Good board members believe in public education and have open minds about the specifics on making that good thing better.
They understand the emotional nature of money and agonize over where to draw the line between responsible spending and overly burdensome taxes. They grasp that the loudest voices at their meetings usually represent tiny minorities who have used the media and outrageous statements to grab a disproportionate share of influence with previous boards.
They recognize that although they cannot “micromanage” their administrators by questioning every decision made, they need to have some forum for interacting with their teachers to confirm that the spin put on issues by their administrators has some connection to reality. They see the “trendy” nature of various educational fads and are slow to leap aboard the latest train to nowhere, whether it is methodology or technology.
They comprehend that business managers will inevitably underestimate revenues and exaggerate future expenses. They get the importance of public relations and community support, but they also educate their constituencies on the realities of property taxes and necessary revenue “enhancements.” They have a handle on state and federal regulations, and apprehend the value in both obeying and challenging those laws based on their impacts on the schools.
In short, good board members have the wisdom of Solomon, the political skills of Sam Rayburn, the leadership talents of Coach K, and the infighting instincts of Joe Frazier. If you can find people like this around you, you probably shouldn’t elect them to your school board—you should marry them.
Okay, so there aren’t millions of people like this around, and it isn’t likely that seven individuals with these skills will independently make the decision to devote huge chunks of their free time to this unappreciated volunteer job. So we have to persuade them. That’s right; the simplest way to improve the quality of boards is to have a community group which does nothing else but recruit, select, endorse and campaign for school board candidates.
In my district, we had a group that did this for many years. It would solicit applications from the community, interview potential candidates, question school employees (like the superintendent and union president) on what they thought made for good board members, endorse those whom it had determined would be the best candidates, and campaign to get them elected. Like any process this complicated and subjective, the “caucus” system (as it was named) didn’t always cull the bad apples from the orchard of candidates, but it had a much better average than the laissez-faire approach most communities have created through neglect.
Of course, this caucus is subject to the same special interest groups that plague our school boards, but it is much easier to get quality people to commit to this limited role in school improvement than it is to find stellar board members. How people get on this caucus is a key to its success. In my district, any “community group” could designate one of its members to participate. School-parent organizations, “ladies” societies, neighborhood clubs, sports associations, and business groups were all eligible to participate, which did give disproportionate representation to the smaller groups. The Garden Club, with its 16 members, might have equal representation as the high school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, with its hundreds of members.
There were even bogus groups, formed just to get representation on the caucus, a testimony to its success. Loud minorities—especially the anti-tax people with no children in the schools—tried to exert more influence than they were due, but creating a large body helped to mute their power. When someone is lobbying for candidates who will increase class sizes because his tax bill went up $75 last year, he is explaining this to the mom whose child will be sitting in that English class with 32 students his “vision” would create. Might she have something to say about his cavalier, self-centered approach to her child’s educational home? The radical groups out to take control of districts have a much harder time doing so with a caucus system in place, which is a huge step in the right direction to improve school boards.
A second way for school boards to improve is to require training, internship and/or tests to guarantee that anybody serving on a school board has a basic understanding of a board member’s duties; of what financial, legal and organizational knowledge board members should have; and of what small group skills a board member needs in order to function as part of a group. The current mandates for Illinois school board members are ridiculously inadequate (See http://www.iasb.com/training/mandatoryboardtraining.pdf for required “training”).
Education critics harp that tenure laws protect bad teachers, but when was the last time you heard of a school board member being kicked off for incompetence? Trust me; there are legions of poor board members, but there doesn’t seem to be any standard for evaluating their performance as there is for EVERY TEACHER IN ILLINOIS.
“Accountability” is a term often tossed about with regard to how teachers, administrators, and districts perform—where is school board accountability? In Illinois, new teachers can be fired without cause any year during their first four. School board members should face the same possibility during their initial term. If tens of thousands of teachers get evaluated each year, why can’t these seven people per district undergo similar scrutiny? Instead of being isolated governmental bureaucracies, state boards of education need to get more involved in evaluating their own, ensuring that knowledge and professionalism become standard procedure on all school boards.
Everybody needs a boss, feedback and all those annoying things that make sure we’re doing our jobs well, or least meeting minimal standards. School boards don’t have that. Sure, they get harassed by community members on special interest issues. But nobody ever comes in who has authority to point out their inappropriate, destructive behavior. Yes, they can be voted out of office in four years, but you have no idea how much damage bad board members can do in that time.
If the state board won’t commit to more rigorous standards, the community group that recruited and campaigned for candidates could be the force to evaluate and rate board members once they are on the job. This is the group that came up with the criteria by which a quality board candidate would be selected; it makes sense that they would thus be in the best position to determine if those elected had delivered. As we all know, it is easy to talk the talk. Unless these board members follow through with the walk, however, they should be called to task.
Think of the credibility this group would generate if it had the courage to state publicly, “Yes, when we made our decision to endorse Board Member X, he seemed like a good candidate. After seeing him on the job, though, we realize we made a mistake. He has pointlessly obstructed the board’s work, and he is often unprepared with the most basic knowledge of issues before the board. We feel we have no alternative but to call for his immediate resignation.” Talk about a powerful motivation for board members! A board’s quality would increase significantly if board members knew that an influential community group would be issuing a public critique of their performance. Since every part of a school system is evaluated, it seems absurd that school boards have been ignored for so long.
One final idea for improving school boards is compensation. If we want to have the best school boards possible, we might have to pay them. There are lots of different possibilities, ranging from token stipends to salaries for all seven members. I would suggest a middle ground, at least to start.
The school board president is its most important member—she has to approve each meeting’s agenda, work with the superintendent to plan the board’s work, find ways to present issues to other board members so that compromises can be reached, and communicate with the media as the district’s spokesperson. Given all these extra responsibilities, the president would be the most likely person to merit some form of compensation. Do we want the board president to be a full-time position? I’m not sure, but the job could easily occupy somebody for 50, 60 hours a week.
Right now, school boards have little contact with the school’s day-to-day functions—they meet once or twice a month to hear how things are going and to set policies. Since those policies can directly impact how things go, school board members should be in schools much, much more than they are. Currently, when a board member visits occasionally, that visit becomes a state affair, with school officials swarming around and everybody acting differently. “Normal” comes to a screeching halt as soon as word gets out that a board member is in the building, so any worthwhile observation becomes impossible with everyone bustling about to make things look like we think the board member wants them to look.
If that board member were paid a full-time wage, he could be in the buildings all the time and have a first-hand view of what goes on, which would be invaluable information for the full board at their monthly meetings. He could talk to teachers, watch classes, see how new technological innovations were working, observe the crowded conditions, know how an administrator handled a “situation,” and just generally exist in the environment that the board’s decisions so directly impact.
You see, “disconnect” is one of the biggest problems in the relations between school boards and teachers. Administrators are supposed to serve as the link between those teachers and boards, but as we’ve discussed earlier, administrators often have agendas that have little to do with reality. Boards often have no clue what’s going on in the schools.
Ultimately, the only way that school boards are going to get better is for the community to recognize how important they are and to get involved in improving them. In the 2011 school board election in Hinsdale District #86, only 19 percent of registered voters elected three board members (See http://cms.dupageelections.com/uploads/JID37_4%205%2011%20Election%20Summary.pdf [p. 30] and http://results.cookcountyclerk.com/Detail.aspx?eid=040511&rid=625&vfor=3&twpftr=0 for election results), despite the reality that those elected are making decisions on how over 90 million property tax dollars are spent annually, not to mention the recently approved $18 million bond issue this board approved for air conditioning. Board members set property taxes each year, they make policies that impact the curricula and methodology used in teaching the communities’ children, they hire teachers and administrators who work with those children every day, and they directly impact the schools’ quality which has huge implications for property values. That last one alone should motivate the community to find quality people for the board and to turn out in significant numbers for the elections. We all need to participate in ways that will ensure that we get quality school boards.