Trench Warfare on the Board of Ed

I was the infamous “rogue” board member, the person that school board associations give seminars about.

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.

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