Friday, September 14, 2012

Defining the Role of a School Board Director

Someone asked me the other day how I would define the role of a school board director.  It was a good question and after our initial discussion, I pondered it some more and decided to share my thoughts here.  

As I see it, the school board is elected from members of the general public in the district as representatives of the public.  Some districts have the district sectioned up and elect a board member from each section and often, one "at large" member.  That means that each section is represented, in theory, by someone who cares a lot about those neighborhoods and schools.  Everett just has general Directors from any part of the district.  The only requirement is pretty much that you live IN the district.  

Once a school board member is elected, I believe their number one obligation is to the public who sent them there with their vote.  In my mind, they should be in constant contact with the public.  If there is an important issue, they should reach out to the voters for feedback. Their own votes should be cast only after taking the pulse of the taxpayers, not based on some assumption or personal political agenda.  

It's so easy today to do this.  Decades ago, reaching out to the public meant phone calls, letters, paper surveys, expensive postage, time, etc.  Today, the district can reach out to every parent with an email address.  Yes, I know, there are more taxpayers than just parents in the district.  But, I am sure that for the purposes of the school board, a list could be set up of non-parent taxpayers who want to be informed about what the school district is doing with their money.  After all, 46% of all home-owner's property taxes go to fund schools in this state.  I have several neighbors without children in the schools, but I believe they should have say in the matter, too, since their dollars are there.  

But with social media and other tech advances, reaching out to the public is as easy as a few clicks of the mouse.  It took them a long time to start videoing the school board meetings.  Director Olson had requested it for over a year.  I believe they started mostly because SHE was videoing them from her own seat.  Suddenly, a camera quietly started appearing in the back corner of the room (of course no credit was given to her for the suggestion).  However, suggestions they involve high school students in web-casting them live was ignored.  

I am puzzled as to why our current School Board doesn't maintain a Facebook page.  Actually, I'm not THAT puzzled, because they seem to not want anything to do with social media.  One current Director called our group on Facebook, "Social Media Chatter" with a disdainful tone. I don't expect them to all take to Twitter, but come on - how hard is it to set up a Facebook page and allow people to hit "LIKE" to get updates?  They must believe their web page is user friendly and interactive.  It's not. Meeting reminders and links to agendas, minutes and videos showing up in Facebook feeds is a lot more user friendly and interactive.  The public doesn't know where to find this stuff so, if you truly want the public involved, you'll make it easy for them.  

Are they afraid of knowing what the public thinks?  I think so.  Director Jessica Olson has her own Facebook page and she has faced some uncalled-for attacks there.  But, for the most part, she is just sharing information and listening to the public - which should be the desire of the other 4 members of the board.  They represent the public, yet, at the same time, seem to not want to hear what the public thinks.  

The Everett School Board Project has our own Facebook page and with almost 200 parents and taxpayers over there, we often have good discussions about our schools.  I know the Everett School District (and the media) are paying attention, but none of them, except Director Olson, has chosen to participate in our discussion.  They most likely sit around mad because we are often critical.  But, if we feel like they aren't listening to us, what else are we supposed to do?  We feel like we have no voice in the people we elected to BE our voice and we all understand how easy it would be for them to connect with us.  Choosing not to sends a clear message.  

We must remember that these 5 people are all equally elected to represent the interests of the public with regards to the schools and to oversee the schools on behalf of the public.  They should be talking to the public and they should be asking the hard questions the public wants them to ask.  I am often dismayed to sit in a school board meeting and listen to a presentation about MSP scores or new programs, etc. and at the end of the presentation, when the directors are given the opportunity to ask questions, most of them sit silently as if there was nothing to ask. REALLY? There's nothing in that presentation that you'd like clarification on?  You don't feel the desire or need to question how things are REALLY going, how the money is being spent or whether or not a new program was effective?  That is shocking to me.  

Think like the public and be aware of what the public thinks. Then communicate with the public - all simple "Marketing 101" concepts for entities that would like to serve their "customers" well.  These are things we should all expect from the five directors of the Everett School Board but don't feel like we are getting.  I hope that in the next election of 2 school board members in 2013, that the public chooses people who feel a sense of obligation to the public and not to the Union, the superintendent or the other board members.