What Makes a Good School Board?

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By John Abel (SVUSD Board Trustee 2010-2016)

As Election Day in November approaches, I have been approached by many community members asking for my thoughts on the candidates running for the Scotts Valley School District. Rather than respond with just a list of names, I often try to educate the community member on what qualities I believe make up a good school board, provide clarity on the role of the board, and outline what I consider are the keys to success for a school board.

After serving on the SVUSD board for the last six years, under the goal of bringing clarity and communication between the district and the community I felt that sharing some observations from my experience may help our community make a more informed decision on who they believe are the right candidates. So here are a few thoughts that I believe are important for the community to know and consider as they make decisions;

Role of the Board

Just like commercial entities, the role of the board is to support, guide and at times challenge the CEO, or in the case of a school board, the Superintendent. The board does not get involved in operational activities or the running of the district but provides oversight and governance to ensure policies are being followed and that good fiscal management is taking place. The board can only hire or fire one person, the Superintendent. One very important point many people may not be aware of, being on a public entity governing board, like a school board or city council, all members are subject to what is known as the Brown Act. This is a legal statute that prohibits a majority of board members discussing any item related to board business not listed on an agenda at a publicly scheduled meeting. This law is in place to avoid corruption and members of the board trying to control votes or decisions outside of a public meeting. It also means that individual board members cannot take it upon themselves to drive personal agendas. As you would expect, there are many policies and laws that govern school districts. As a result of these, it is actually very challenging for a district board to do anything innovative or creative that probably has not been tried before. So often the board will basically be endorsing decisions or recommendations from the superintendent that follow the law/policy etc.

Diversity is Important

I was privileged in my six years on SVUSD board to serve with esteemed colleagues on the school board. Our board was made up with an engineer who was very detailed, a senior citizen with a long history of knowledge which came in useful, a retired educator and school administrator who helped other board members with interpretations of the many laws governing the school district, a project manager with experience overseeing government capital infrastructure projects, which is helping throughout SVMS rebuilding project, and finally myself bringing more of a corporate and technology viewpoint and looking for ways to run our district as an efficient business. For our next SVUSD board, I would encourage voters to look at experience of candidates and understand what each brings and ensure similar diversity.

Consistency is Key

While change is good and I am a strong advocate for ensuring different ideas are brought to the table. It is extremely important a board knows some history and what was tried in the past and use those lessons for future success. Over the last six years I believe that a combination of new ideas from board members with less tenure, in conjunction with those members that had the lessons learned from prior building bond and tax measures, is what enabled our district to navigate the worst financial crisis for education in California and remain solvent, in addition to successfully passing measure K and measure A. Going forward, a level of consistency is extremely important to ensure we build upon success. The current relationship between site staff, district office, superintendent and board is very good. Challenges remain but when all of these groups are aligned, great progress occurs. If any one of these relationships is strained, it will impede progress, for example the relationship between teachers and administration prior to 2010 led to many challenges, failure to get extra funding, etc.

Board Members are Frustrated Too!

Sometimes, although not very often, during my tenure I would hear parents or staff express frustrations. Teacher to student class ratios, compensation comparisons, problems with facilities, particular leaders or teachers that perhaps were deemed unsuitable for the role or how come we get less funding than other districts, etc, etc, etc. Almost in every case anyone in the community would mention items like these, I would be in full agreement. The expectation was that as a board member I would be able to change or fix it. Just like in Corporate America, when you have a problem, you do whatever is necessary to fix it. Make cuts, hire or fire, increase prices, launch new products or services, tell customers you are making a change. Well in school districts, as I covered with “Role of the Board”, you cannot do that! Firstly, one board member cannot do anything alone. It requires a majority. Secondly you are constrained by so many rules it can often feel like suffocation. It is a very frustrating feeling and for the wrong type of person can cause stress on the relationships that I mentioned are key. Board members should be level-headed, good listeners and communicators who can understand all points of view and be strategic to help the superintendent. Finally, as point for clarity and eliminating a myth for many voters, Board members at SVUSD do NOT get paid! There is no compensation, health care benefits, stipends or financial incentive of any kind. The reward is purely helping our community and our students, something I considered an invaluable experience.

Finally….My own endorsement for SVUSD Board Candidates.

I am delighted to see the number of candidates who have come forward to run for our district in the upcoming election. I applaud all of them for the willingness to sacrifice their time for the next 2 or 4 years to serve this worthy cause and I wish the elected board continued success in the years ahead. We are privileged to have a great school district and therefore the decision of who we elect to provide governance and oversight should not be taken lightly. After long and careful deliberation and comparing all the candidates against the criteria above, my own endorsements for this election are:

4 Year Term: Michael Shulman, Sue Roth, Kim Shultz 2 Year Term: Roger Snyder, Gia Schwarzer

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