A few weeks ago, I attended my first school board meeting at El Rancho Unified, the district I work for. Given that there was a lot of criticism around the fact that all administrators had been pink-slipped for the first time, I attended the meeting in support of my colleagues while also to take note of how other board meetings work (I am a School Board Member in Lynwood Unified).
I could describe what the entire meeting was like, but it would only cause folks to cringe and probably cause more questions than anything. Instead, I want to allow for that meeting to serve as a lesson on what school boards are and the importance of working with them, even if in disagreement, for the greater good.
Schools Board 101
According to the California School Boards Association, “the role of the school board is to ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their communities. Boards fulfill this role by performing five major responsibilities:
- Setting direction
- Establishing an effective and efficient structure
- Providing support
- Ensuring accountability
- Providing community leadership as advocates for children, the school district and public schools
These five responsibilities represent core functions that are so fundamental to a school system’s accountability to the public that they can only be performed by an elected governing body. Authority is granted to the board as a whole, not each member individually.”
In simplest terms, school boards are locally elected public officials entrusted with governing a community’s public schools by working together to support and advocate for a quality education for all students. Whether all school boards are able to actually work together is a whole other issue but at the core of it all, it is important to remember that in order to advocate for children, we must work with the school board. It is also important to note that a school board’s only employee is the superintendent. This means that the school board members are not actually able to evaluate teachers or administrators themselves; the only individual they are able to evaluate is the superintendent. This is critical to understand because when it comes to board dynamics, as navigating the system is all about understanding protocols to get your point across:
1. If you have a concern with your child’s teacher, always address the teacher first. If that does not work, request to have a meeting with the principal. If that doesn’t work, then go to the district. As a board member, I don’t get involved in the day to day management because I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Therefore, even if I get a call from an angry parent, while my initial reaction could be to solve it, I request that they follow the protocol and go through the chain of command. Yes, I still follow-up on my end as well, but I ask for them to follow the chain because the only way to solve systemic issues is to bring the issue to light the right way. If I were to simply fix the issue, it would be like putting a band-aid on a broken arm and pretending that will fix it. The chain of command allows for bigger holes to come to surface which in turn allow for a school board to make more informed decisions. Also, as a board member, I don’t have authority over anybody. I only get to provide input and guidance to the superintendent so by getting over-involved, I would be breaking rule #1. Therefore, to ensure all parents have equal access, remember to share that protocols are in place for a reason.
2. Sometimes there are issues that we feel absolutely passionate about, and we feel the best way to approach it is by discussing it at a public meeting (which is a smart move but I will say more on that later). Some of these hot topics are often around teacher contracts, pink slips or ending of programs. While these are all heated topics, the one thing many folks forget once they get up to speak is that they are representing others and that the secret to getting their point across is to remember that board members are human too. I highlight this because at the meeting I attended, I was disappointed to witness speaker after speaker go up and attack different school board members numerous times. While they were there in support of the administrators, so much of what they were trying to get across was lost in the anger and disrespect. I couldn’t help but think back to a few months ago when I too had to sit at the dais to hear teachers speak their minds regarding their frustrations with negotiations. While they were upset, they spoke with so much dignity and grace that I couldn’t help but put myself in their shoes. At the core of it all, we were all there for the same reason, and we just needed to work a little more on reaching a contract that was sustainable while still maintaining students at the center of focus. Eventually, when our negotiating teams reached an agreement, we were all able to get back to work in peace, but the biggest lesson I learned as a board member throughout that entire experience was that there was power in agreeing to disagree and doing so in a way that was respectful went a long way. So next time, address the board by touching their heart. What matters to them? How can you make them understand where you’re coming from? By providing them an opportunity to connect, you are creating a bridge of communication rather than a barrier.
3. Lastly, while I am a huge proponent that public meetings are a great opportunity for parents and stakeholders to address us, I also believe in the power of written communication. Not only does sending an email to us create a paper trail, but it also makes things more personal. Protocols are in place for a reason, but if you want to invite a board member to an event or want to ask them a question about how to navigate a school per se, don’t be afraid to email or contact a board member. I know some board members host coffee hours or make themselves available via email often and receive very little feedback. Communication is key in every relationship. When it comes to serving our students, a working relationship with the school board is critical in ensuring success for our schools. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but learning to communicate can go a long way.
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