Here are five questions you might want to ask school board candidates or members running for re-election this fall. Because schools play a huge role in making communities attractive places to live and work, you might also talk with the other board members, whose seats aren’t up for election, about these issues.
–Are you committed to a yearly survey of families, students, graduates, community residents, faculty and staff about what they see as major strengths and shortcomings of the district and its schools? Are you committed to publicly sharing the results? This survey could cover many topics, from school safety to staff morale, whether families feel welcome and respected, and whether there is widespread understanding and agreement with key priorities for the district.
–Are you committed to yearly sharing the major ways you, as board members, evaluate the district’s (and individual schools’) progress? Part of this will be test scores and graduation rates. But there are many other measures that can be used, such as percentage of graduates who have to take remedial courses on entering some form of higher education, or strengths and shortcomings identified in the surveys mentioned above.
–What are your priorities for the district in the coming year? Why and how did you select these issues? No organization can do everything that it might like to do. So priorities must be established. Hopefully budgets are allocated to respond to the established priorities.
–What is your own experience with public education? (I’m indebted to St. Cloud Board Member Jerry Von Korff for this one.) How has your own experience influenced your work as a board member?
–Do you see yourself primarily as a representative of the community or as a representative of the school system? This is a key question. I’ve talked with many board members who start off seeing themselves as community representatives. But they come under great pressure to be spokespeople and advocates for the district. It does not have to be either-or. But the reason we elect board members is because we need them to represent us. This means sometimes questioning or challenging things that are (or are not) happening in the district overall or in some of the schools.
“Minnesota nice” sometimes hinders the kind of tough questions and concerns that need to be raised. But school board members need to blend praise for progress with a frank discussion of problems and priorities.
The goal of schools is not first and foremost to be an employer. Schools should be serving students, families and the broader community. But what employees, families, community residents and students think should be shared and used by effective school board members.
Understanding and using views, along with reviewing and using results, can help produce more successful schools.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.