By Roger Sagal
Encouraging participation in a school board is not the easiest thing to do. The work can be time consuming, it requires homework, its unpaid, you spend evenings in meetings, and you tend to receive more criticism than praise. The job doesn’t exactly sell itself. Did I mention it’s not paid?
So why would anyone do it? Well, a few reasons. First, if you want a quality local public education system for your children you need a quality local school board, which requires quality people to fill the board. Is there a correlation between a high functioning, competent school board and a high functioning, competent school? Yes. And the converse is true: there is a correlation between a low functioning school and low functioning school boards.
Second, serving does have its rewards. For me, the most rewarding part of being on the board was hearing from students about what they were doing and learning and hearing from teachers about what and how they were teaching. I came away from my time on the board with a renewed appreciation for the teaching profession. One of the things that I take pride in is the efforts our board made to improve communications and trust between the board and the teaching staff. My hope is that we succeeded in some real measure in pushing a vision where everyone, from the board to the administration to the teaching staff to the students considers themselves part of the same team.
Third, if you do have an interest in how our public education system works, how it is funded, and yes, what roles our local school boards play in it, then you have no better seat to study it than on a local board. In Colorado, there is a constitutional mandate of “local control” by local boards of public education. In my short experience serving on a board, I was surprised by how much decision making of the board was dictated by authorities outside the board, such as the federal and state education laws. But just think of the fascinating discussions you can have with your fellow board members about the issue of “local control”! You can kill hours of your life hashing this stuff out and boring the souls out of most other sentient human beings.
Mostly, the reason why people should serve on the board is that the system requires people to step up and serve. Everyone involved with the school has a vested interest in making sure the board is filled with intelligent, caring, wise people who can deliberate with other board members to make the best decisions possible regarding the public education of our youth. If it’s your turn (and you know who you are) then don’t leave it to someone else. Step up.
Some additional factors that I hope give you some inspiration to run for the board:
- In Ouray County, people really do care about public education. And that’s a really positive thing. Speaking for Ridgway, I was amazed and appreciative of the huge amount of effort our parents and other stakeholders give to our schools, through the donation of time, effort, interest, and money. It is a cliché to say that the public school is the lifeblood of a community, but it’s nevertheless true here. In a community that is apathetic about its schools, I would think serving on a school board would be really difficult. That is not a problem here. Sure, you hear from people when they don’t like something that’s going on. But it’s because they are invested in the school, in the community, and in the quality of our education system. That’s a good thing.
- There are problems that need solving, and you get to be a problem solver if that is your thing. Maintaining teacher retention is a problem. The lack of affordable housing in our communities for teachers and staff is a problem. The “negative factor” in state funding is a problem. Oh, and our federal education system is now led by a person who holds the concept of public education in contempt and has spent her career dismantling public education. These problems need dedicated, smart people to solve them, and the solutions must come from the local level. But they can be solved.
- There will be real budget shortfalls coming down the pike that need to be addressed. The federal government as currently situated appears to want to gut funding for public education. There will be real consequences to this, and we will feel it in our schools and in our community. We need people on the board who will make intelligent, tough decisions regarding how we will be allocating our resources with less and less money coming to us. If you have that particular skill set, you are needed.
- Sometimes there are cookies and stuff at the meetings. Sometimes.
Here are some things that should not discourage you from serving:
- The time you need to dedicate to the job. Yes, it’s a time commitment. Especially at the beginning because the learning curve is steep. Some times of the year are busier than others. But it should not be overwhelming at all. If you have a good administration working with you and helping you, you can save lots of time and focus your energy on the important stuff that boards should be focused on. Administration appreciates good, smart, functioning boards because it makes their lives easier. Boards depend on good, smart, functioning administrators because they make the board’s work easier.
- The conflict factor. I doubt there is a school board anywhere that hasn’t had some conflict it had to deal with. I doubt that there is a school board anywhere that at some point didn’t have to hear from some angry constituents at a public meeting. I served at a time where the conflict factor was particularly high for a time. It wasn’t fun, but I think the school came through pretty well. It’s cyclical. There are periods of stability and periods of transition at every school. The more stable your board is, the more stable your school will be.
- The politics. School board should not be political. In my experience, the board (thankfully) was not political; at least it was not ideological. While the boards I served on had severe internal disagreements about policy, personnel issues and the like, everyone understood and advocated for a strong public education system. There was no rift that I could think of that was clearly driven by partisan politics. If you believe that school board should be political, partisan, or driven by some ideology that you wish to impose on the board or the school, do us all a favor and stay home.
A good public education system requires good people to serve at the top. It’s that simple. If you have talents, putting those talents towards your community school is admirable and worthwhile.
Roger Sagal is a member of the D3 Advisory Board and a former Ridgway School Board Member.