Discussion: What Are The Characteristics Of A Good School Board Member?
On Tuesday, April 8, voters will take to the polls to elect board members for their local school districts. April elections, with their focus on local issues such as schools and municipalities, traditionally have a low turnout. However, the results of these elections have a big impact on people’s day-to-day lives, including the policies implemented in their children’s schools.
With an eye to elections in school districts ranging from Parkway to Normandy and University City to Ferguson-Florissant, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh spoke with three local education experts about the important role school boards play in the education system:
- Kathleen Sullivan Brown, Ph.D, Chair and Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
- John Wright, Ph.D, retired public school administrator, former Assistant Superintendent with the Ferguson-Florissant School District, former Interim Superintendent with St. Louis Public Schools and the Normandy School District, as well as a former member of the University City School Board, the St. Louis County School Board and the St. Louis Community College Board of Trustees.
- O. Victor Lenz, Ph.D, member of the Missouri State School Board. He served for 39 years as an administrator in the Lindbergh School District, the last 15 years as Assistant Superintendent, and is a former President of the Lindbergh School Board.
But first, St. Louis Public Radio education reporter Dale Singer laid out the somewhat unusual situations going on in Normandy and Ferguson-Florissant. In Normandy, it is unknown whether the district will even continue to exist beyond this year. And in Ferguson-Florissant, recent controversy over former superintendent Art McCoy has created tension.
What does a school board do?
“The primary role of the school board is to set the policy for the school district,” said Missouri State School Board member Victor Lenz. “The school board has one employee, and that is the superintendent. The school board hires the superintendent, the superintendent then runs the district.” In addition to setting policy, the school board also approves the budget for the district, he said.
“If you want things changed, you go to the board,” said John Wright. “Just don’t take it upon yourself to change because you can get major conflicts. And the board has to always remember its role. Not to run the district, but to provide guidelines from which the administration should operate.”
Like Lenz, Wright has been both a school board member and a school administrator.
School board members take on a lot of responsibility for no pay. In return, they face big demands on their time and become the focus of complaints and controversy. So why do school board members run for the office?
“Many people do it because they do feel that it’s apolitical. It’s not supposed to be partisan politics. They feel they can contribute to their schools and they feel that the education of our children is one of the most important jobs in our communities and in our society and in our democracy. And so they step up,” said University of Missouri-St. Louis education professor Kathleen Sullivan Brown.
“I had children in school [at University City],” said John Wright. “Having served in education, I thought I could bring some clarity and some assistance to it. I think many people who run for the board have no idea what they are getting into. And I think when you serve as an administrator, you do have some idea.”
Is the school board truly apolitical?
“It is definitely apolitical on the local level in particular,” said Lenz. “Because if you’re going to be on the board, your first thought had better be for the kids in the school district.”
“It all depends on how you define political,” said Wright. “You do find people who get on who have agendas. You have people concerned with school closings, classroom, pupil-teacher ratio, services provided by the school. And so all of those are impacted by people saying if you don’t do this you won’t get my vote. I’ll campaign against you. I’ll run for the school board to take out certain people.”
Who should be elected?
“I’ve seen people come on boards who don’t have a clue of what the law requires. Because if you do it wrong, you can end up costing the district quite a bit of money. You can cause quite a bit of chaos and end up doing more harm than good,” said John Wright.
So who, beyond someone who is well-informed, should be elected?
“A school board should not be all of one kind,” said Lenz. “You need, I think, some former educators, you need some people who have been in business, we’d like to have an attorney, somebody who understands finance. Because all of these things are involved in the running of the school district, and that is what the school board is there for, to make sure that is done right.”
Missouri is ahead of the game in one regard: all elected board members are required to undergo 16 hours of training within their first year of service. During today’s conversation, it was suggested that the requirement should be advanced to apply to all candidates for school board in order for them to be informed from day one.
A caller from Ladue commented that some people running for the board appeared to be more concerned with property tax rates than with the state of schools.
In response, Wright noted that sometimes people do run with such an agenda. “The best thing is to get involved,” he said. “Listen to what they say before you vote.”
Representing the community (race and gender issues)
“One of the problems, and this is true nationally, is that about 80 percent of all school board members are white. And whether they have children or not, they do not necessarily represent the demographic population of their area,” said Brown. “That was an issue in Ferguson-Florissant, where you had an all-white school board and a black superintendent in a majority black district. And people do feel disenfranchised.”
“I think you need a broad perspective on the board because sometimes people are not sensitive, and they don’t understand how they impact all of the students in the district,” said Wright. “That has to become part of your psyche as you serve on the board. Am I getting representation from the total community, all the components of the community?”
Why elect a school board? Is this a practice that should continue?
“There are people who think local school boards are an anachronism, that maybe we shouldn’t have them anymore,” said Brown. “As education has become so complex…is this something that we should continue to do? Critics of this say it is historically an anachronism, that they don’t necessarily represent the people of their community. They are responsible for huge budgets. In some cities, the school budget is the biggest economic factor around. That they are too political, that they are run by factions. That they are people who have personal agendas.”
Lenz and Wright, however, still see the school board as relevant.
“I would say you need the board but we have to be careful about hustlers,” said Wright. “They think the money is a gold mine, a pot of gold for friends. So we have to make sure we keep local citizens involved in the process, and not turn it all over to corporations.”
“To me, local control of the school board and the school district is critical. And I would encourage the listeners to be totally aware next Tuesday’s when they go to the polls who’s running because that’s the most election you can vote in. When you vote for president, it’s way off somewhere. When you vote for school board, you’re voting for who determines the property values in your district, who determines your taxes, who determines the education of your kids,” said Lenz.