Last year, I published an eBook entitled Snowflake Schools. Its main purpose (outside of selling several million of them, of course) is to show how things work in our public schools and the simplest ways to make things better from the perspective of an insider, a teacher of thirty-three years, who coupled with his union activism experienced how both the classroom and the bureaucracy worked.
Schools are bastions of academia as well as hotbeds of political intrigue, but few teachers actively participate in the bureaucratic end of education, finding it unpleasant or too time consuming on top of teaching five classes a day. Those that do typically become administrators and thus ex-teachers, no longer spending time in the classroom working with kids. I thought my union a great opportunity to be able to participate in determining my “hours, wages, and terms/conditions of employment” as Illinois collective bargaining law states. So I did take part in over ten different contract negotiations, acted as grievance chair, and served three terms as local president (in two different locals). I liked having (or deceiving myself into believing I had) a small measure of control over my work life. But I kept right on teaching all those years as well, giving me experience with the grind of teaching (I read and evaluated over forty essays on my final working day, June 7, 2012) as well as the challenges of working with administrators and school board members (In 2006, we filed a grievance to prevent significant increases in insurance costs for over 250 very upset retirees. The arbitrator found in our favor). What I learned and Snowflake Schools’ fundamental premise is that no two schools, teachers, or students are exactly alike so we need to find unique solutions to educational challenges one school/situation at a time.
Of course I would be happy if you chose to buy the book (you can find details as well as excerpts at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html), but the preceding isn’t solely a commercial. I mention the book because it has sections on school boards that provide insights into what’s happening in the school district where I worked for twenty-five of my thirty-three years, Hinsdale Township High School District 86. To understand the current dynamics of this school board, you must recognize the different types of people who choose to run. While lumping individuals into groups would seem to contradict my whole Snowflake philosophy, experience has shown that most board members detrimental to their districts approach their responsibilities from one of three perspectives. All three of these categories of the to-be-avoided board members are represented in my district, so it should come as no surprise that controversy has dogged this board since its formation in the spring of 2013.
The broadest category of “difficult” board members is what I call the “Special Interest Activist” (SIA). As the name suggests, SIAs focus on single issues they find upsetting. Starting out as parents of children in the schools, SIAs can be angry about a specific teacher or coach, the way the school has dealt with their child’s unique issues, the school’s curriculum, or any of a number of things. I’ve known SIAs who didn’t like principals, book fees, school calendars, or grading systems. The key difference between anyone else who isn’t happy about some aspect of a school system (and there are plenty of people like that out there) and SIAs is that SIAs feel that being upset with one thing qualifies them to be on the school board. One I knew even went so far as to claim that he ran because, “The district was on fire and I needed to put it out.” Once elected, SIAs tend to approach other issues with the same all-or-nothing attitude with which they attack their pet peeve. That kind of fervor leads to inflexibility, especially when underlings challenge their views. SIAs often don’t work well with administrators or teachers, especially when they don’t agree with the SIA and have the temerity to say so.
My old district has two SIAs right now, but they developed quite differently. One focused on special education while the other challenged the school’s curriculum, specifically the movies that were shown. The first had a well-known reputation with teachers as being problematic for anyone in whose class the child was, challenging methodology and browbeating administrators; all of whom treaded very lightly whenever contact with this parent occurred. Now on the board, that full-speed-ahead method has led to many confrontations which don’t seem to bother this SIA in the least. Challenging problems aggressively has worked very well in both dealing with the schools and being a board member, so it’s unlikely that compromise or considering other points of view will become part of this SIA’s playbook anytime soon. This hide has been toughened in the fray, so criticisms just bounce right off.
The other SIA objected (before running for the board, as a parent) on moral grounds to the films used in one class, so this focus was much narrower and shorter term. Protests were loud and generated a great deal of publicity at the time (most of it pretty homophobic), but the administration ultimately granted this SIA only a partial victory: The material was still used, but procedures to give parents more advance notice of what teachers might use in class were added. This SIA then ran for the school board and has sided with the new majority consistently after winning, although in a much more low-key way than the other three. Perhaps all the public arguing has started to wear on this board member. It’s also possible (although this is total speculation on my part) that this SIA belongs in the sub-category of Special Interest Activists who use school boards as entry level for larger political ambitions. Very successful in public relations—this individual has avoided most of the criticism and controversy which has dogged the other three—it wouldn’t be surprising if this board member chose to run for higher office at the state or national level after a single term.
The next problematic category of board member represented on this school board is the “Super Teacher” (ST). STs come to school boards in their home districts as teachers from other districts. Sometimes, they were even passed over after applying for positions in their home districts, but they have an unshakable belief that they know more than just about anyone on the best way to run schools, based on their experiences. (Guess into which category I would fall in the unlikely event I chose to run for a school board.) That all schools are different (remember that “Snowflake” idea) doesn’t deter them in their certainty that they know the answer to every public education question ever uttered.
This ST fits that description well: Pedantic and persistent (He’s run for the school board in five elections, winning three—his second, third, and fifth tries, losing the first and fourth times), with a stilted speaking style, this person has probably alienated every teacher in the district—certainly every teacher with whom I have had contact has had nothing positive to say about this person’s many years on the board. A dissenting voice in the minority for over a decade, this ST is clearly enjoying being part of the new majority and regularly taunts the minority with historical anecdotes (often misapplied) of how they ran roughshod over the ST back when they controlled the board. Not only is the expertise from this ST tainted by teaching in a school district very dissimilar to the one where he serves on the board; but having retired from teaching several years ago, this expertise is aging rapidly, subjecting the ST’s evaluation of his career to the positive revision to which all of our memories are subject. It’s always easier to be certain when you have a carefully edited recollection which no else can fact check and to have your wisdom unassailable since you don’t engage in that activity any more. Probably the worst possible person to be spokesperson for the board, at least from the teachers’ perspective, this ST was elected as board president. Naturally the vote was 4-3.
Finally, and probably most directly responsible for a very difficult contract negotiations still on-going with the teachers is the “Financial Reactionary” (FR) school board member. FRs focus on saving money over everything else. Steeped in the arcane terminology of CPAs, FRs seek to make sure that each and every dollar spent in the district meets their standards for frugality. Personnel expenses particularly irk FRs since the need and value of a desk, computer, or multi-million-dollar aquatic center is easy to justify and inanimate objects don’t talk back; but human employees have independent opinions and will express them in the most annoying ways. Adding a couple of kids per class and firing expensive teachers makes perfect sense to FRs; squeezing more productivity out of fewer and cheaper employees has been standard operating practice for decades in the business world, after all. FRs also have no love for unions and dislike the collective bargaining process which requires board members to interact with teachers almost as equals, rather than as subservient underlings or cogs in their business machine, as they prefer. Rarely do FRs provide the drama or quotability of SIAs or STs, but their penny-pinching will quietly do the most damage to school districts over the long term.
This FR definitely believes that my 370+ old colleagues have it too good. In an email sent to a constituent, we learned that, “With the excellent work conditions and benefits teachers realized…, the salary levels would be lowered substantially by market forces. Our salary and benefits should be lower than other districts due to the great parents and great students and excellent work environment/conditions – not to mention the prestige our teachers enjoy in the education community. There are large numbers of unemployed and highly qualified teachers, so it should be obvious to anyone that we should not be paying above market wages with taxpayer’s hard earned money.” Objectively logical and brutally cold, there’s no feeling or concern exhibited here about the human beings who have devoted their careers to educating the district’s children. Despite claiming in other venues to value the hard work and dedication of teachers, this board member clearly would have no problem replacing all of them with more economical and obedient twenty-two-year olds right out of college with no teaching experience.
These types of more extreme board members evolve in communities which eschew any organized methodology for recruiting board members and have low turnout in off-year elections (less than 20% in District 86 in 2013). Let’s face it: The job of school board member is ridiculously hard, requiring significant expertise in areas as diverse as state school code, financial planning, curriculum, putting out items for bid, interviewing contractors, special education laws, small group dynamics, tax levies, and public relations (to name a few). And that doesn’t even take into account the significant amount of time which has to be devoted to doing the job well, or that anyone so inclined to take on this load will get no pay and heaps of public scrutiny (like this essay, for example). So although I wouldn’t want the people described above on any school board I would put together, I do give them credit for their willingness to take on such a difficult volunteer job.
Next time, we’ll take a look at why school boards so important they should never be left to self-selected zealots.