Trench Warfare on the Board of Ed

By 09/01/2009

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I couldn’t believe it.

John, the new board of education president, had just proposed that we move “Old Business” to the beginning of our meetings.

I had spent roughly a year-and-a-half arguing that it made no sense to put Old Business at the end of each school board meeting, which usually arrived about 10pm, the third hour of these star chambers of modern public education. By then, most people, including the lone reporter, had gone home.  That, of course, was the point: Old Business was dirty laundry, things not done. Why flaunt it?

I had gotten nowhere with my arguments because my colleagues on the school board thought I was the devil.  I was the infamous “rogue” board member, the person that school board associations give seminars about. Not a team player. The local paper wrote an editorial about me that prompted a friend, after church, to remark, “I’ve seen kinder things said about murderers.”

In fact, I had slipped on to the school board as a write-in candidate, after a stealth, two-day campaign waged only by email.

I had spent the last five years haranguing the board, at meetings and in letters to the editor, for its failure to do anything about low test scores (only about 50 percent of the kids passed the basic state reading and math tests), high dropout rates (over eight percent, more than double the state average), low graduation rates (under 60 percent), huge achievement gaps (from 15 to 40 points difference between whites and blacks), and phenomenally high rates of special ed referrals (almost 20 percent of all the kids). I had set records for Freedom of Information Act requests.

Needless to say, my new colleagues were not looking forward to the prospect of sharing executive sessions with me.  And, after being sworn in, they went out of their way to keep me in the dark.  If the superintendent recommended hiring a new teacher and I asked to see the candidate’s resume, a motion was quickly made that school board did not want to see said resume.  It passed, 6 to 1.  When a special board meeting was called to approve $25 million in construction contracts, I asked to see the contracts.  “I make a motion that the board does not look at the contracts,” said one of my colleagues. “I second that, said another.”  Another defeat, 6 to 1.

One of my favorites was Board Policy #2510.  It was titled NEW BOARD MEMBER-ELECT ORIENTATION and it said, in part, that “Each Board member-elect shall, as soon as possible, … be given selected materials of the previous year covering the function of the Board and the school district, including (a) policy manual, (b) copies of key reports prepared during the previous year by school Board committees and/or the administration, (c) the School Law handbook prepared by the New York State School Boards Association, (d) access to minutes of Board meetings of the previous year, (e) latest financial report of the district, and (f) copies of pertinent materials developed by the New York State School Boards Association….”

My orientation consisted of the board president and superintendent sitting me down and saying, “You’re not getting anything.”  And so it went.

I once read the board’s orientation policy, out loud, at a public meeting, to the regional superintendent, a lawyer.  “Aren’t school boards supposed to follow their own policies?” I asked.  “The board can do whatever it wants,” he said.  I was shocked, because board policies are, in fact, laws and have to be followed–or changed.

He might have said, “whatever it can get away with.”  But his comment reminded me of a fundamental truth about public school systems: the buck stops with the people.

There is much debate in policy chambers and think tanks across the country about the value of school boards.  I am here to say we need them. And we need more of them.  They remain a kind of last hope for democracy, where a rogue can actually be elevated to position of authority, bringing a flashlight –- and, sometimes, a pulpit — to the process.  (The pulpit comes and goes; my school board quickly removed “Board Comments,” traditionally the place for board members to give speeches praising their friends and family, from school board meeting agendas in order to muzzle me.)

I will write more on my school board experiences on this blog.  For now, let us celebrate democracy, three newly elected board members, and a vote, this one 4 to 3, to put Old Business up front, where it belongs.

Comment on this article
  • Jay P. Greene says:

    I can’t wait to hear more about your adventures on a school board.

    But it seems like what you have described so far argues against “the value of school boards.” Even if, by some miracle, a dissenter can slip onto the board, there are tricks that the status quo uses to neutralize that person. And eventually they’ll organize a challenger who will unseat you. It sounds like elected school boards are a dead-end for reformers.

  • Peter M. says:


    I’m not sure whether to quote Winston Churchill, Milton Friedman or Burt Sugarman. (I’ll paraphrase). Churchill, of course, said that democracy was a lousy system — just that there isn’t anything better. Friedman said something like freedom is an end in itself . And Sugarman, the boxing analyst, commenting on Irish boxers, said, the Irish don’t care whether they win or lose; they just like to fight…. We need school boards to provide the forum by which we remind ourselves that schools are owned by the public. That is the only theory of change that can sustain a governmental monopoly, especially one which loves the bunker as much as nature abhors the vacuum: school boards, messy as they are, signify the possibility of change. –pm

  • Michael says:

    Amen, brother.

    I lost an election last spring – “no raising controversy in our little district”. we happened to have five people in the running, and the other four ran as a slate against me. Three incumbents, including the President, and the PTA’s VP of Fundraising.

    We are a very small and fairly affluent K-8 feeder district in the infamous Cook county, Illinois. District was originally gerrymandered in the ’50s to achieve the demographics to die for – $19K/student revenue. Our issue was that the superintendent’s salary is $171K+pension+benefits while the number of students is only 550. A handful of fairly easy Special Ed kids, with a separate K-12 Special Ed district to back us up.

    And yet, our kids are underprepared in high school. Everyone is excited about the phony ISAT scores, one of the more dumbed down state tests in the country. No one bothered to fix up the one elementary school in the last 20 years. Middle school building is a bit better. All bonding capacity was spent on operating expenses. The board is afraid of the referendum, as many in the district don’t like many of the individuals and their board friends from the years gone by.

    How can this happen? I don’t know. There’s one hint, however. We have quite a few stay-at-home moms, social workers and other soft-skill folks on the board. The lone SW-Asian engineer, who amazingly managed to get elected earlier with help of considerable Indo-Pakistani community, is invariably shunted off to the side.

    Can we really compete with the top schools in India and China with such governors? I think we’re heading downhill.

  • Michael says:

    One addition – our Board President is actually a high-end statistician. You’d expect her to push for better hard-skills achievements. But alas, I don’t see any new proposals from her. She does put a priority on running a tight board meeting, usually well under an hour. The students aren’t doing any better after graduation, though…

  • Bill Bartmann says:

    This site rocks!

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    To answer Churchill, there is an alternative to democratic control — at least when it comes to schools. That answer is market control.

    We certainly need a democracy to define the rules of the market, but there is no reason why schools have to be run by democratically elected boards.

    We don’t need democratically elected boards to run the grocery stores where food stamp recipients buy their food. We don’t need democratically elected boards to run the housing units where people use their Section 8 housing vouchers. We don’t need dem elected boards to decide how Social Security recipients spend their checks. Why do we need them for schools?

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    I would also add that charter schools seem to do just fine without democratically elected boards to run them.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    I’d agree that a free market in public schools is a nifty idea, but as long as schools (not kids) are supported by taxpayer dollars, it’s the organization that is public — and not at all like the corner deli — and so there’s gotta be some form of public oversight (boards, legislatures, arms of legislatures, etc). Also, I think you’ll find some disagreement about whether charters are doing “just fine.” But I think the free market education system you envision is voucher-based: the money goes directly to the student, who takes it into the (free) market and chooses his/her school. When that day comes, elected school boards will disappear on their own.

  • […] this page was mentioned by Charley Cowens (@ccowens), Melissa Clouthier (@melissatweets), Teachhub (@teachhub) and others. […]

  • Dave Hansen says:

    As Churchill said, democracy IS a lousy system, which is why it should be used as a last resort when the market is not sufficient. And given the awful performance of our school boards, which you have observed first hand, I’d take the markets, or at the very least vouchers, over democracy any day when it comes to education.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Dave, I’m reading Saul Alinsky (“Rules for Radicals”) at the moment and his advice (oft-quoted) is “start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be.” Or, “What is the alternative to working `inside’ the system? A mess of rhetorical garbage about `Burn the system down!’” He’s obviously writing for a different time (the book was published in 1971), but there’s no better place to gain an appreciation for where public education is than on a school board. I don’t think Alinsky ever served on a school board, but I wonder where he’d be on the school reform scale.

  • Janet Marsh says:

    Ah yes, democracy, equality of rights, opportunity and treatment….the common people as the wielders of political power, as defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary, is all about giving a ” rogue reporter” the opportunity to write himself in, make himself heard and force positive change.

    I applaud you and I agree, school boards are valuable and we need them. What we need from them is to remember that our schools are academic institutions .

  • George Mitchell says:

    School board elections are usually low-turnout affairs that work very much to the advantage of the status quo. In Milwaukee a “reform” slate was elected in 1999 but only with an unprecedented and ultimately unsustainable political effort spurred by Mayor Norquist and some school choice advocates. It would be interesting to hear if there are any tangible examples of an urban school board making real steps for change.

  • Catherine says:

    I hope you’ll write many more of these posts – and I hope you’ll give us details.

  • Catherine says:

    School boards are fantastically problematic. My favorite passage on the difficulties:

    Especially in a place like Arizona, the traditional school district is one of the biggest obstacles to improving the public schools. Today’s district is a rigid command-and-control system that offers dissatisfied parents no choices except, if they don’t like the district school, to send their kids to private school or to home-school them. Moreover, like the Soviet Union with its five-year plans, the districts do a poor job of management, for the reason F. A. Hayek pointed out: command-and-control systems suffer from an information deficit. How can a distant district office bureaucrat know how to run a school better than the principals and teachers who work there? Too often, the district just lays down a single set of policies to govern all its schools, imposing one-size-fits-all curricula and disciplinary policies on schools that may have very different needs. The system also seems impervious to reform from within. In my experience, those who join district boards, even those who start out reform-minded, eerily become co-opted and wind up defending the system tooth and nail. It’s just like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
    What is Public Education?
    Lisa Graham Keegan
    City Journal
    Autumn 2000

  • Peter Meyer says:

    George, Catherine,

    I am not much more than an interested student of school board history (see William Howell’s “Besieged” for a full and scholarly examination of the animal), but my sense of things is that school boards have been overtaken by the educratocracy — e.g. unions, specialists, certification agencies, consolidation, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations — and left in the democratic dust. It doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant — they are. But instead of seeing that irrelevancy as evidence of the need to hurry them out the door, we need to wonder whether it is — like the disappearance of the frog — an early sign of broader environmental stress. My own battle is one of getting the school board engaged in the task of educating kids, something, I must say, it hasn’t been doing much of in my community, to revive a sense of the relevancy of democracy itself. Maybe then we can begin to get folks to the polling booths.

  • Michael says:

    EducationNext would do well to publish its own “New School Board Member Guide” to counter the stuff that national and state School Board Associations push to all bright-eyed new board members.

  • […] by John Young on September 11, 2009 No one ever said it would be easy. It isn’t, but nothing or no one will put me off point, that is my promise to those that voted […]

  • Catherine Johnson says:

    […] EducationNext would do well to publish its own “New School Board Member Guide” to counter the stuff that national and state School Board Associations push to all bright-eyed new board members. […]

    Wonderful idea.

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