Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thank You School Board (Yes, You Read that Right)

So given the hard time the media generally gives government institutions, you might think that as a journalist, I probably have a pretty low opinion of elected officials.

That's true in specific cases I suppose, but in actuality, I have a lot of respect for people in public office.

It can't be easy. After all, for starters, they have to deal with nosy jerks like me all the time.

This being January, it is School Board Appreciation Month and the best time I can think of to make that clear.

In the past I have mostly ignored this event as a way for people who already get a lot of press to pat themselves on the back.

Then I remember that most of the press school board members get involves a controversy. As I have explained to many, "it's not news when somebody does their job."
The Pottstown School Board

But I also recognize that this means most of the press these volunteers get is when they screw up, or they have to clean up somebody else's mess -- these days that mess is most often made in Harrisburg.

And now that I am writing a blog every day, I am constantly on the hunt for new subjects and a happy result of that search is I have found myself re-examining some the assumptions I work under and finding room for re-consideration.

One of those things is making note of School Board Appreciation Month.

Now if you have ever been to a school board meeting in January, you'll know it usually falls on the superintendent to make note of this event, read a resolution and present the board members with some token gift.

The Owen J. Roberts School Board
The resolution invariably talks about the contribution of time and effort necessary to be a school board member in Pennsylvania -- an unpaid burden if ever there was one.

And they're right. It is all those things and each board member comes to it according to their gifts, be they few or many.

Here a few factoids about school boards from the Pennsylvania School Board's Association:

  • 4,500 school directors serve Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts; all boards have nine members.
  • The “typical” Pennsylvania school director is male, well-educated, married with two or three children attending public schools, and voluntarily devotes 16-20 hours per month to school board business.
  • 16% of those serving on school boards in 2012 are retirees.
  • The number of female school directors was 35% in 2012.
  • More than 72% of Pennsylvania school directors have attained a college degree or beyond.
  • 22% of Pennsylvania board members have more than 10 years experience in 2012.
  •  57% of all districts involve students at their local board meetings. Of those districts, 95% rate their involvement with students at meetings as satisfactory or highly satisfactory.
  • During their meeting, most boards, 51%, allow two public comment periods; 48% allow one. Most, 72%, impose time limits on those comment periods.

I was triggered into this line of thinking about these elected officials by an e-mail I received over the weekend from Upper Pottsgrove Commissioner Elwood Taylor, himself a school teacher and beneficiary of school board wisdom.

It included a link to a blog called "Government is Good," a web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College.

Called "A Day in Your Life," it makes a laborious point about all the things that affect your life each day that might be impossible without government.

Laborious though it may be -- it goes on for three pages -- it is a point worthy of consideration.
In 2010, Four Daniel Boone High School graduates

had their diplomas signed by their fathers, who
were school board members.

We're big on taking things for granted here in America and this post makes the point that we should instead take a moment to consider where these things come from, and for what our taxes really pay for -- clean water, food and building inspections, home ownership.

(The election point made by then-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren about how society and government helped businesses get built -- and the ensuing Republican response of "We Built That" -- is a case in point of how this discussion plays out nationally.)

While the backbone of government is arguably the people we pay to do the work, Democracy, however occasionally (?!) imperfect, does not work without the elected people who make the decisions.

Photo by David Powell

The Spring-Ford School Board at work in 2011
The worst form of government, "except for everything else," Democracy is the only option we've found that effectively allows those affected by policies to have some say in them -- and that say comes through those we elect to office to make decisions.

Technically, that makes this a Republic, not a pure Democracy where everyone votes on everything, like in Greece, or New England.

And while I'm tempted to make a joke about school boards indeed being the worst form of government, this is School Board Appreciation month so that would be rude...:)


Seriously though, as the post I mentioned talks about the National Weather Service, drug safety and organization of the airwaves all being government functions we take for granted, so too is this true of education.
Upper Perkiomen School Board

Given that school taxes are the largest slice of the property tax pie we pay, the actions of those school board members certainly bear constant scrutiny -- but they occasionally also bear a tip of the hat.

Each day, when I grumble about dropping my son off at band practice at 7:15 a.m., I should remember that not only does the teacher have to be there as well (and then deal with the little terrors while I go back to my coffee), but so do the custodians, and the principal, and the secretary, and the teacher's aides.

They have to be paid and the people who make that decision, who approve that organizational structure, who have decided that spending money on music, on athletics, on art or extra science help, are themselves volunteers who give an extraordinary amount of time to what I have long said is the most thankless job in local government.

The Perkiomen Valley School Board
Consider your time as a school board member dear reader:

  • Hours of meetings, mind-numbingly boring details and, if you're lucky, someone standing at a microphone shouting about some decision you made and telling you you're an idiot.
  • If you're really lucky, you can get yelled at even if you voted against whatever citizen X is yelling about.
  • About half the time, Citizen X will tell you to "listen to the people," as if that were an easy thing to do. Because experience has taught you that only the people opposed to something are there yelling and as soon as you change the decision, the other half of "the people" who agreed with the decision in the first place will show up at the next meeting to yell at you and tell you to "listen to the people."
  • Then every four years, (if you were me anyway) you pray that someone else throws their hat into the ring so you can bow out gracefully and go back to your life.
  • But given how unattractive and thankless the job is, all too often you're left with little choice but to run again because no one else will.
  • Are their spirited races? Sure.
  • Usually its because someone is angry about something. But anger is hard to sustain over four years and soon you either become an ineffective member, shouting in the corner, or you figure out a way to work with the others and try to win them over to your point of view.
  • Heck, you can even spend money on an election to win a seat that pays nothing. How's THAT for a great deal?

Yeah, who wouldn't want that job?

But I would imagine that there are rewards.

It's not too often THIS happens at a school 

board meeting.
Certainly there are those that come from serving your community. And yes, there are those who take back-patting for that element to an extreme, but heck, sometimes that may be all you've got to show for the effort.

And after a school concert, a championship season, a science fair, or a student presentation, I have heard enough school board members say "that's what this is all about" often enough to believe there must be some truth to it.

I would think most must feel this way. Otherwise, why do it?

To some extent, sitting on the platform at graduation, I would imagine many school board members look at the stream of graduates, listen to the valedictorian's speech, both touching and maudlin at the same time, and shake the hands of the students and parents there and think: "Yeah, I helped build that."

So for that, for doing a truly thankless job, I sincerely thank you school board members.

Now, about that secret meeting....

1 comment:

  1. Well, thank you Evan. You're right and it's nice to hear a complement now and then. For me, graduation is what makes it worthwhile.