School Boards: 3. Getting Good Ones

In parts 1 and 2 of this three-part series (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/school-boards-1-detrimental-approaches/ and https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/school-boards-2-why-they-matter/), we saw that certain types of board members can plunge a stable, quality school district into a maelstrom of negativity and decline. The types of detrimental board members typically found are Special Interest Advocates (SIAs who focus on a single issue they want to “solve”), Super Teachers (STs who believe their teaching experience in other districts makes them omniscient), and Financial Reactionaries (FRs who rail against every expense, especially those involving personnel). We then analyzed how important school boards are since they impact everything from the quality of education our children receive to property values. Bad school boards can destroy hard-won reputations of districts and communities in a few months. A case study in this process is currently going on in the school district where I taught for twenty-five years, Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (I retired in 2012) where two SIAs, an ST, and an FR have formed a majority to impose their vision on a place that had an enviable reputation as one of the best high school systems in the state, but is losing that positive aura fast.

The question then becomes how does this happen, and what can well-intentioned community members do to make sure this kind of divisive problem doesn’t befall their school districts. The answer is simple; unfortunately, like many simple things, it is far from easy to accomplish.

Everyone has to recognize right off the bat that the democratic process lends itself to a variety of individuals being able to run and to win whenever elections occur. (I know how patently obvious that sounds, but ignoring that platitude is what got my district into its situation.) Just because your school board has always been a bastion of reasonableness and educational support in the past doesn’t mean it will perpetually stay that way. Potential problems are never more than one election cycle away, or more specifically, every two years when either three or four of the seven board positions will be on the ballot. And since only four votes out of seven board members are needed for the board to begin the process of dismantling all the good (or bad, for that matter) work of the previous boards, things can change in a hurry.

My district went from exalted and stable to extreme and problematic following the April 2013 elections when three of the above poor board-member-types joined one already on the board to create the havoc of the past year-and-a-half. But this was hardly the first time this kind of takeover had been attempted. In most of the previous elections over the past twenty years (if not longer), a faction of community members had tried to elect candidates just like these in this district. Every board election, there have typically been two “slates” running as teams—the better to share campaign expenses—because campaign money is definitely a problem in these elections for non-paid positions.

Each election cycle, the more moderate/more pro-public education slate was able to put together a majority, generally 5-2 or 6-1; but that dark side of the force maintained a presence that was heard. That voice stimulated enthusiasm, apparently, because they kept coming back again and again, until this current batch was able to use a mobilized base and small turn-out in the election to garner its 4-3 majority. And those who aren’t crazy about these people now being in charge need to look in a mirror when they seek sources of blame in this situation. Unless a community is vigilant—which ironically enough requires knowledge through education—the takeover is always a possibility; those on the fringe are nothing if not persistent.

And while it’s easy to blame and focus on the rogue board members themselves, that’s only part of the story. Apathy, ignorance, and laziness aren’t traits that many of us like admitting, but they are the main reasons that led to the mess that happened in my district. Barely 18% of eligible voters showed up in the 2013 election that saw three of the four poor board members elected, and a two-term board member who had done an “okay” job (at least he hadn’t plunged the district into the conflicts the current crew has) lost to one of the new majority by less than 200 votes. As we went over last time, the position of school board member is way too important for this kind of pathetic turnout ever to happen. Some 250 demonstrators showed up with signs at a recent board meeting, protesting what was going on. But all of them should also have been asking themselves what more they could do in the next election to make sure that this kind of demonstration wouldn’t ever be necessary again. I certainly hope that all of them voted in April 2013.

My colleagues still teaching in this district can only hope that voters in the district have learned their lesson and that there will be much more significant polling totals in April 2015 when the next election takes place. Unfortunately, reasonable candidates have to win all three of the seats up for election as three of the four board members who have precipitated this crisis will still have two more years (at least) on the board, since their terms run through 2017.

And that’s the next issue that the communities have to confront: the candidate pool. There were other candidates on the 2013 ballot who might have been worse than the three elected. For example, one candidate has remained in the spotlight by speaking at virtually every board meeting and was hired by the new board majority as a temporary financial chief. This individual has gone out of his way to attack the teachers as greedy and has encouraged the board to lockout current teachers if they won’t accept the draconian contract the board has proposed, with the intent of hiring cheap, inexperienced replacements. We can only imagine how much worse the situation in the district would be if he had won. (He finished last out of eight candidates.)

But being a board member, as we discussed in our first article, is a difficult, thankless, complicated, volunteer job, so most busy, reasonable people are reluctant to run. School boards have all the problems of other political offices with few of the benefits. That’s why it’s crucial that communities recognize the dangers of neglect in making sure that moderate, pro-education individuals are on the ballot and in turning out the vote.

In other words, given how tough the job is, those concerned both for the students and their towns need to step in to make sure that responsible community members are urged to run. As we’ve pointed out, the position is quite difficult and demanding, but another negative outcome of poor boards is how much harder they make being a board member seem. Endless wrangling and controversy don’t have to dominate school boards. When the overriding concern is quality education for the kids and all parties are looking to compromise and cooperate to make that happen, the task of overseeing a school district becomes much easier. Right now, it’s understandable that District 86 community members would shy away from being a board member, but things would be much better if all the adults were looking for common ground instead of political victories. It’s a tough gig, no question, but it shouldn’t be this tough.

Over fifteen years ago, District 86 had a Caucus group whose sole purpose was to find and elect quality school board candidates: Committed individuals (one of whom is a current board member not part of the new majority) worked with various community group representatives and school officials to determine what traits and skills made for good board members. After establishing the appropriate criteria, this group would seek out qualified people to run, interview them, select those they felt to be the best candidates, help to finance their election efforts, and campaign on their behalf. Of course not every candidate fielded by the Caucus turned out to be a great board member, but at least the Caucus worked to screen out extremists and usually found people who were at least supportive of the concept of public education, something that seems lacking in the current majority.

The Caucus disbanded years ago, unfortunately. Now, the candidates for a school board come from those who select themselves, usually based on a motivation to fix something wrong with the district or to advance the agenda of small community groups (like Citizens for Clarendon Hills). As has been on display for over a year now, this process has led to administrator flight, granting questionable access to student records for board members, “settling” a lawsuit already won repeatedly, losing revenue that will compound forever by not using its levy power, significant increases in numbers and salaries of district administrators, the mass exodus of underappreciated support staff, and of course the on-going mess of contract negotiations with its teachers. Like any complex organization, the Caucus had its flaws, but it would never have endorsed some of these candidates. School districts’ communities would be wise to recognize the challenges of good people wanting to devote the energy and effort to school boards by convincing quality candidates to run and helping them win elections. Otherwise, those with axes to grind and resources to use (often from groups outside the community) can and will take over school districts, leading to irreparable damage.

And that damage is building in District 86. This week the teachers’ union (Hinsdale High School Teachers Association or HHSTA) began the month-long process of beginning a strike. And the board immediately fired back that it had contingency plans to keep the schools open in the event of this strike. This comes on the heels of the teachers filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the district for its negotiations tactics. And community groups have formed to protest the school board’s actions with outside bloggers heaping criticism on the school board, not all of it accurate or fair. The wounds from this war will take a long time to heal, and the scars will impact the schools and communities for years to come. And all because Dennis Brennan didn’t get two-hundred more votes to edge out Victor Casini for the last board seat in the last election.

In the meantime, it’s important for teacher supporters to apply the right kind of pressure—letting the board know how much they value the teachers; publicizing that nobody wants the teachers to take a pay cut; insisting that a salary schedule comparable to Lyons, Downers Grove, Glenbard, Lake Park, Glenbrook, and every other high school district in Illinois is a good thing; helping everyone to understand that the financial condition of District 86 is excellent and that the FRs can’t fool them into believing otherwise; and demanding that the board work much harder to compromise and reach a settlement that won’t send every teacher scrambling to find another district in which to work. What nobody needs is bitter pointless attacks; labeling board members with some negative tag; or challenging someone else’s morality based on a difference of opinion, no matter how justified you feel those actions might be. There’s no question that this is a challenging agenda for those who live and work in District 86, and we can only hope that things will work out in a way that improves the toxic educational atmosphere in the district.

As for those of you who live elsewhere, learn from this mess and take steps now to make sure that your precious school system never has to weather the kind of storm currently lashing District 86.

For more ways to improve school districts by recognizing the strengths already there, see the eBook, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: What We Learned from District 86: School Boards |

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