By Deborah Gatrell
School board meetings. They’re not the most exciting show to watch, but if you care about the district policies impacting your classroom, these meetings are crucial to understand and attend.
The connections between Boards and classrooms are Board priorities and initiatives. Things like boundary changes get parent attention. New construction and school bonds get media attention and rile the public when eminent domain is used to seize property. Less noticed are subtle shifts in direction that dramatically impact how we do business: Discussions about homework and testing. Technology vendors. Social media. Philosophical conversations about what grades actually mean. School pattern redesigns. School safety.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. At the direction of the Board, district officials conduct research and present reports. These reports often paint rosy pictures about potential policies. Unfortunately, conclusions drawn and presented in these reports are sometimes faulty. I’ve seen it happen. When policies are supported by flawed analysis, the policies themselves are inherently flawed, but educators are still required to carry them out once the Board approves them. It’s incredibly difficult to change policies once they’re voted on.
Board members are involved community members who care deeply about the education of our children. They serve as part-time supervisors of school districts, but few have background in education. Only rarely do they bring recent experience as a classroom teachers. Unless someone informs them otherwise, Board members assume district-provided information is complete and correct. Without the benefit of classroom perspective, which district officials and administrators have often lost sight of, policies that seem like good ideas on paper are sometimes disasters in practice.
The good news is that Board members, as government officials, are available to the public. Board members’ email addresses and phone numbers are published and most Board members are very responsive. Some will even monitor email and text messages during meetings for insights the public may have on topics under discussion. This is good, since the public is not invited to comment at board meetings unless scheduled in advance (with rare exceptions, at the discretion of the Board).
Board members are also members of our local communities. They attend town hall meetings and events at local schools when invited. Invite them! They listen to patron concerns with open minds. This includes the teachers in their districts. If you live within your school district’s boundaries, you may have two board members – one for where you live and another for where you teach. By reaching out, especially face-to-face, you develop relationships. Over time, if you stay positive and present concerns in a solutions-oriented way, Board members develop trust in your perspective and ideas.
Time is the key. Showing up to a Board Meeting where an issue of concern is being discussed is good. Filling the auditorium with concerned patrons (teachers and families) has an impact and can cause a Board to change course – I’ve seen it. But attending consistently is better. This ensures recognition and demonstrates commitment, building trust. It also helps you understand the pattern of board actions and the flow of priorities and concerns. If you hear a report of interest, you can contact board members with concerns and suggestions before policies are presented. If you hear policies presented, you can reach out to board members after first readings, before they take final votes.
Once Board decisions are made, they are almost impossible to undo. Bad policies should never get in the way of good teaching and learning, but it happens. Too often. This is damaging to students and educators. Remember the Atlanta racketeering case from 2014 that sent teachers and principals to jail for falsifying test results to meet district-mandated improvement goals? Or the Salt Lake District school where elementary students were publicly shamed by having their school lunches thrown away in 2014, causing a public relations nightmare? Who knows how long withholding lunches had been policy. Proficiency Based Education did not work as advertised after six years in Maine, so the Legislature removed the requirement in 2018. Multiple Utah districts are moving this direction – have we learned Maine’s lessons? Undoing grand initiatives is embarrassing when they fail, so it often takes significant time and public outcry.
Let’s get ahead of the decision-making and ensure we participate so district policies are better informed.
To sum up: You should go to Board Meetings as often as your circumstances will allow so you can develop relationships with Board Members, understand policies under consideration and share the expertise of your classroom experience. Practicing teachers have valuable insight which is often missing at the Superintendency and School Board level. It’s our responsibility to provide this perspective to district-level conversations before we suffer the impacts of bad policies.
Pro Tip: Boards are required by law to publish agendas prior to meetings, so you can easily set up reminders to check online agendas in advance. This is helpful if you can’t make it every month or can’t always stay for the entire meeting. Since meeting materials are published, you can still stay aware of what policies are under consideration.
As an added bonus, everything I just said also applies to the State Board of Education too!