School Boards: 2. Why They Matter

Last time (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/school-boards-1-detrimental-approaches/), we went over how three categories of less-than-desirable school board members took over my old school district in 2013 (I retired in 2012 after 33 years of teaching English).  Special Interest Advocates (SIAs) run for school boards to right the wrong they have determined needs addressing, experienced teachers or administrators be damned.  Super Teachers (STs) believe they have all the answers to educational policy since they worked in public education, regardless of how dissimilar the districts in which they taught are compared to the districts where they rule as board members.  And Financial Reactionaries (FRs) squeeze all money until poor George Washington is so bruised that your dollars have turned black and blue.  Four of these types (two SIAs, one ST, and one FR) now control my old district (Hinsdale Township High School District 86), and little besides controversy and bad feelings have resulted since they took over.

An understanding of how important and powerful schools boards are is crucial to the avoidance of these kinds of situations.  We all need to recognize why they are so significant in order to take our responsibility in board elections more seriously.  No matter how much we’d like to dump all the blame for a school district’s problems on the board members themselves, these positions are democratically determined, and board members take control only after they have received a plurality of votes.  We can try to challenge their legitimacy based on how few in the community bothered to vote or bemoan how board members are acting much differently after elected than they did during their campaigns, but ultimately communities get what they vote in, pure and simple.  From what I knew of the current majority in District 86 before they took office, the controversy which has ensued following their election comes as no surprise.  And the residents of the district have to recognize that the only reason this group is in control is because residents elected them.

And dismissing board elections as unimportant will continue until communities become more aware of the impact schools boards can have.  Board members are stewards of a community’s most valuable resources—its schools—which influence many vital aspects of a community’s identity.  First, schools take care of something pretty important, our kids, who also happen to be everyone’s future.  The attitude that since many people don’t have children in school anymore means they shouldn’t care about public education is shortsighted to the extreme.  Our society is based on a well-educated electorate, so a good school is something every citizen should be able to access.  Educating tomorrow’s voters and leaders alone should make finding reasonable, pro-education people to be school board members a top priority for everyone.  But there are plenty of other reasons to worry about who’s on your board, even if you’ve gone over to the dark side where you see kids primarily as nuisances to keep off your lawn.

How much your house on that precious lawn you’re protecting is worth correlates directly to the schools.  It’s no surprise that homeowners—especially those in wealthier suburbs—see their property taxes go up even if their overall tax rates remain static or decrease:  their houses have increased in value significantly.  Tax hikes are a pain, I realize, regardless of why they have gone up, but people should recognize that at least these increases have been for positive reasons.  If you were taxed at $1.20 per $100 of assessed valuation when your house was worth $425,000 fourteen years ago, yes, you will be paying more in taxes now if your house is worth $850,000 (about the rate of increase on the average house in Hinsdale since 2000).  That $1.20, by the way, is the current tax rate in my district, which compares quite favorably to the rates in nearby suburbs, like $1.55 in Lyons, $1.61 in Downers Grove, $1.84 in Glenbard, or $2.53 in Oak Park for their high schools.  Now, how much of that property value is due to the quality of the schools isn’t something anyone can tell you definitively; but if you check with real estate agents, you will find that one of the key factors in the desirability of any property is the reputation of public schools of the community in which it resides.  And for many years, my district has been considered one of the better places to live, to go to school, and to teach.

But reputations are fragile things, and how your town is viewed by the outside world is influenced significantly by your public schools.  My old district’s reputation has plummeted in the last year, and it’s already beginning to impact things.

The first thing a declining reputation hurts is hiring.  Teachers talk to one another. (And you thought you wouldn’t get any brilliant insights here!)  Guess what they’ve been telling each other about my former district for the last eighteen months and especially this past summer?  That’s right:  This board hates its teachers, wants to pay them much less than other places pay, and is interested only in cutting costs.  Also—Do NOT seek employment here!  The board has been countering this by claiming that it has hundreds of applicants and résumés on file, but that stockpile is largely from the glut of teaching candidates which was around before this board majority took over.  It would be interesting to know how many of the certified teachers who have registered for employment consideration over the past five years would not be willing to work there now.  Even more revealing would be to know how far down the list of desirable places to work District 86 has slipped.  Just because you can find somebody to fill a vacancy relatively easily doesn’t mean you got the top person out there.  You also will never be able to know just how many applicants who would have been outstanding teachers didn’t even bother to apply to the district based on what they’d been hearing.  One way to get some insight into this is to look at the experience level of new hires.  If you examine this for most of the recent hires in District 86, a larger percentage than normal are teachers with no prior teaching experience, which is different from the way it used to be.

Yes, there have been more retirements lately as we baby boomers have left and thus more first-year teachers might be expected, but in the past, this district was always able to lure experienced teachers from other districts a healthy percentage of the time.  I used to refer to high schools in unit districts (K-12, like Naperville), where the teacher pay for is much lower than it is in high school districts like District 86, as the “minor leagues” for my district as we would regularly hire away quality teachers with four-to-eight years’ experience.  That’s not happening much anymore, nor will it become common for quite some time since the word is out that this is not a good place to work.  Keep in mind that reputations are based on the “Telephone Game” (Remember how garbled the original thought became after it had been repeated all around the room?), so exaggerations and untruths develop lives of their own and are very, very hard to change.  The damage on the “good place to work” reputation of my district has definitely already happened.  I wouldn’t recommend this district to teachers seeking employment right now unless they couldn’t find another more stable high school district (even if it paid a little less), and I loved my twenty-five years teaching there.  And we’re not even addressing support staff (aides, custodians, and para-professionals) who have been resigning in droves the last few months.

The second hiring problem reputation causes is at the administrative level.  When the education world learns that a district has a bad board, the only administrators available are people moving up the ladder who have no experience with the job for which they are applying.  Recent hires in my district include a superintendent who had never been in charge of a district before being moved up when the previous superintendent left a week before school started last year; two principals in the high schools who had never been principals of high schools before this year, and a financial officer who came to the district from the business world and had no experience with the finances of a school district.  That’s not to say that all of these people might not turn out to be wonderful (although apparently there was some controversy over one of the principals).  It’s just that most of us get better in our jobs the longer we do them, and typically, the best high schools in the area have been able to hire individuals who had plenty of experience doing the same administrative job in a different school.  Again, administrators talk to one another, and the way the District 86 board has acted is well known throughout the area, and the best administrators from other districts won’t consider moving there now.  If nothing else, the pool from which the district’s administrative candidates come has shrunk considerably.  No, you can’t objectively prove that and the school board will deny it, but you can be certain that people employed in schools around here know this to be true.

Finally, a bad reputation will eventually hurt property values.  After “location, location, location,” schools are the most important non-floor-plan factor people will consider before buying a house.  As I already mentioned, the towns in my old district were top real estate markets in large part due to the high schools.  Now, everybody—whether supportive of the board or not—seems to be complaining.  Board advocates are attacking the teachers as greedy and protesting outrageous property taxes while those opposed to the new majority complain viciously about “tea party” board members destroying the schools. Regardless of who is most correct (and make no mistake that my belief is the board is most to blame for the troubles), the end result to outsiders is a school district in turmoil, not something that appeals to potential community members.  There are way too many stable school districts in other nice towns for home shoppers to want to pay premium prices in this district.  The erosion of real estate prices will take much longer to become significant, but that process has also begun, especially with all the publicity the current contract process has generated.  And most ominously, this aspect of a community’s reputation is also the hardest to reverse.

For reasons both noble (a child’s education) and craven (how much you can get for your house), everyone should care about who is elected to a school board.  But few seem to recognize how important these positions are until a crisis such as the one which has developed in my old district takes place.  That indifference is the first problem we’ll address next time when we go over the steps necessary to making sure that the issues which have befallen my old district don’t happen elsewhere.  And to be sure, these steps would help to right the problems there as well.  Before any of these remedies can take place, however, it’s important to understand and accept that school boards are much too important to ignore to degree that most of us do.

For more on school boards as well as many other aspects of public education that are often overlooked but important, see my eBook, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which are located at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html, and as always, thanks for reading.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: School Boards: 3. Getting Good Ones |

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