In Search of the Elusive Reform-Minded School-Board Member

There’s nothing worse for a rogue member of the school board than sitting on a stage with graduating high school seniors, looking into an auditorium packed with adoring friends and relatives. The speeches gush with encomiums for the school that you (i.e. me) have been criticizing for years. “Don’t listen to the negative,” the congressman tells the class. “Unity,” gushes the valedictorian, recounting all the things he has learned from “the great teachers” he has had. The salutatorian cries. Applause.

I have been trying to “fix” my little district (2,300 students fifteen years ago, less than 1,900 today) ever since my son entered first grade (he is now finishing his third year in college). I ran for the board, won, quit, helped start a charter school (which crashed on the shoals of racial politics), started an email listserv dedicated to watching the district, and ran again for the board, winning another five-year stint—and a warning from my wife: Don’t quit again. I didn’t.

Three nights ago I attended my final meeting as a member of the board, after five years and some several thousand meetings. I had outlasted two superintendents and a good half-dozen board members. But despite being the senior person on the board, I leave sitting in the same seat, literally, as when I began—the very last place in the always-awkward line-up of tables and chairs stretching across whatever room we were in; seven board members, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, the business manager, the student representative. In a line-up where power radiated from the center—the board president and superintendent sat in the middle—I remained an outcast.

And the district remained in the same place, based on student academic achievement, as it was when I joined the fight, more than a dozen years ago. Though I can’t prove a causal relation, I do think that the system discourages reform-minded people from running for the board and, should they win a seat, defeats their best efforts to improve things.

I will save an accounting of my victories and defeats for later posts, but I still have a printout of Jay Greene’s early email counsel about my school board enthusiasms (expressed in this Education Week essay in 2009) taped to a long-dead computer screen:

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.

I unseated myself, choosing not to run again. It had nothing to do with weighing my chances of winning; it was simply time. I was satisfied that I at least helped establish a new dynamic and, most importantly, helped bring a new superintendent to the table. Leadership change always brings hope. Will it bring improvement? The challenges, especially in districts that have been failing for some time, are daunting.

During my first (brief) stint on the board, in the late nineties (recounted in Education Next), I recall one elderly member of the community, mother of a board member, who would sit in the front row at board meetings and knit. She took to calling me “Mr. No!” and so addressed me, with a scowl, whenever she saw me, in the supermarket, at the newsstand, in church. I laughed, but what was interesting was that she had dubbed me “Mr. No!” not because I was saying “no” to everything, but because I kept making proposals to change the district, to improve it. (She was one of the nice ones. As I became more militant in my reform efforts, the local paper once editorialized so brutally that a friend remarked, “I’ve seen them say nicer things about murderers.”)

My first offense was that I was an outsider; it was a tight community (last Friday’s graduation was the school’s 129th!), with a well-honed pecking order and strict, if unwritten, rules about speaking up, let alone speaking out of turn. Thus, at first, no matter what I proposed—a new bus route, a paint job for the flag pole, or a curriculum—I was ignored. In order to get a pile of old lumber and rusty nails removed from the edge of a playground I had to threaten to dump it in the superintendent’s driveway! It was one pile of rusty nails after another and as a one-time news editor used to having things done yesterday, my first board experience seemed part barroom brawl and part waterboarding torture. I quit after six months.

I spent the next seven years pressing for reform from the outside—most of my reform efforts were aimed at getting a curriculum, stopping the disproportionate disciplining of African-American students, and the over-identification of special ed students (almost a quarter of the student body). Eventually I saw an opportunity—no one was on the ballot to fill an empty seat—and waged a stealth email campaign to win a write-in slot.

Even though the community had by then gotten to know me and I found a small reform-minded following, personal politics on the board almost always trumped rational or research-based decisionmaking. In fact, I was so hated by the board that I joined (I had been a regular presence at board meetings, criticizing them there and in the letters column of the newspaper), that the board would vote not to see documents, including multi-million-dollar contracts, for no other reason than to keep me from seeing them.

Thus, my first two years of my recent five-year stint was a fairly aggressive campaign, taking on board members and administrators in heated public meetings (and more-heated executive sessions) and letters to the editor and a listserv that I started. I won that fight; several board members and the superintendent quit. For the next three years, I rolled up my sleeves and ran the board curriculum committee, chaired a task force on academic performance, and a committee on the Code of Conduct. On these endeavors the enemy has been the culture of low expectations. And that’s a tough one.

It is the existential question of school board membership: Can you suggest improvement without appearing to criticize the current administration, the current system? The answer is No. The truism is true: Everyone thinks the education system is broken—except in their school. My district is rated eighty-third out of eighty-six in the region, a position it has pretty consistently held since such lists have been kept, and yet one of the most common comments I hear when the subject of school failure comes up is, “We have good schools here; you just have to take advantage of them.” Then, of course, the conversation turns to the “lousy parents” and the “kids who don’t care.”

For better or worse—mostly, if you are a reform-minded board member, it’s worse—change comes hard. And, unfortunately, school board members trying to improve their schools must face the harsh reality about change agents. They are it. Le change, c’est moi. It can get terribly personal. At one point I created a “Meyer bashing” folder on my email program. It’s lonely when you step out of the foxhole.

In my recent series The BIG Question, Robyne Camp exquisitely explained the dangers of being a reform board member in the leafy suburbs of Westchester County, proving that reform is hard for the rich as well as the poor. And Tim Kremer, head of the state school board association, called for “student-centered, forward-thinking, intelligent school board leadership.” Is that possible? Current thinking among school reformers is that school boards should go the way of the Edsel. (Our own Checker Finn has not been a fan of school boards for some time and as recently as 2010 wrote, in National Affairs, that “it seems increasingly clear that our revered system of `local control’ by elected municipal school boards cannot cope with today’s realities of ­metropolitanization, ­mobility, and interest-group politics.”)

I have written about many of my board adventures in my Field Notes on this blog (here, here, here, here). Now, I would like to hear from fellow reform-minded board members. Are you out there? What is it like trying to turn around a tanker with a paddle? Are you a flamethrower or consensus builder? Did you win any fights? Were you able to improve your district? Have you come away from your experience as believer in boards of education or a determined skeptic?

Send your essays to me, They should be between 250 and 800 words; though a good haiku or other creative verse will be considered. I will work with you to create a great essay. At the end of the summer, Fordham staff will choose the seven best and the seven will convene, by email, as a school board, and suggest what governance policies are most necessary to most improve our public education system.

Spread the word. The only requirement is that you serve, or have served, on a school board and have tried to improve education for all children.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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