We had a little ritual. Sometimes, when meetings got contentious, my colleague would lean over and whisper, “This is a thankless job!” “We’re not here to be thanked,” I’d remind him. The response was both true and somewhat calming.
Both of us were new school board members in a large Philadelphia suburb conflicted over whether to build a new middle school. Prior to my becoming a member, the previous board contracted for a professional survey whose final report indicated that population trends justified the new structure. In the best of all worlds, most residents would have supported that conclusion because of its ostensible positive effects on quality of education. The new school, however, would require significant increases in school taxes and, equally controversial, mandate relocation of a religious order then occupying the projected site. Clearly, it wasn’t about to become best of all worlds.
Sometimes at the board table, in moments of wheel-spinning, I thought about the process that had brought me there. I’d been approached by the chairman of the local Democratic Party, a friend, who, unexpectedly, asked me to run for the board. As I stared incredulously, he informed me that no Democrat had ever been elected to that body, so my chance of success was negligible, but by running, he felt, I’d send a message that the party wouldn’t tamely cede all control over education.
I thought for at least a week about my response. I valued privacy, so the prospect of entering politics, being considered a “politician” with all that term’s negative connotations, didn’t exactly resonate. Finally, though, I decided on principle to be a sacrificial lamb. Slim as my chances were, continued one-party rule loomed increasingly unacceptable.
On election day, thousands of ballots having been cast, I won by a landslide of seven votes. Ah, the unpredictability of democracy! As an English teacher, I couldn’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s, “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.”
I didn’t realize then that I was about to receive quite an education myself. The fight over the proposed middle school became increasingly nasty. In temperamental exchanges at board meetings, emotion often overwhelmed logic. And, on two occasions at social events, I was confronted by adversaries with whom I might have exchanged more than words if not for intervention by more sensible attendees.
There were assorted, less volatile irritants. Once, at a meeting of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, without warning, I was denounced for simultaneously being a teacher and a school board member. That dual association constituted a conflict of interest, according to my critic. I responded that my professional experience (in another school district) helped me make informed, disinterested decisions as a board member. I asked him about the source of his own expertise in so important a position. There was no answer.
Later, as president of the board, I was approached regularly by people who wanted my help in procuring jobs for friends or relatives. I quickly developed a standard but not unfriendly response: The district’s hiring process was outside the realm of my responsibilities.
“Politician” never seemed an appropriate descriptor of a school board member. In my view, someone serving on a school board has to be civic-minded, thoughtful, and, when necessary, willing to go to the mat for principle. That last quality has been tested lately in many districts as a result of various Covid disputes. So out of control have some areas become that lunatic fringes have threatened lives of some board members.
The idiocracy has no concept of what a board does. Its unpaid members have responsibility for establishing educational policy that administrators implement. In a well-functioning district, a symbiotic relationship exists between the two entities. Administrators provide professional insights to help guide deliberations of the board. Their shared goal, perpetuation of an effective school system, is pursued usually with relative smoothness. During my years on the board, however, a few members had only a single interest, e.g., torpedoing the proposed middle school. For the most part, though, my colleagues were responsible people who devoted a significant portion of themselves to benefitting their community.
That a segment of these civic-minded people today has to function under such duress is unthinkable. Certainly, citizens have a right to question board judgment. I can attest to the fact that sometimes boards can be wrong. Case in point: that new middle school was never built because of errors in the professional survey originally supporting it. In most other instances, I think, the board was wise in its oversight of the district. Fortunately for us, we weren’t confronted at that time with mask mandates or other anti-Covid measures.
Given the storms assailing many boards now, how many objective, well-informed people will volunteer to serve on one? If the answer is what I fear, local education in parts of the country needing the positive influence of school boards will face dire times.