The ideal school board member: Not in foreclosure, not in search of an income and not in the dark on issues

The AJC has a special section this weekend on school boards, political bodies that garner scant attention considering the consequences of  their actions. While the Nov. 2 school board races in metro Atlanta lack the drama of the governor’s race, school boards oversee annual budgets that can top a billion dollars and set policies that can determine the quality of your child’s education.

Yet, few people show up for school board candidate forums or read the mailers from candidates. I have attended forums with as few as 15 voters in the audience. But I believe readers of this blog — whose presence here means they care about education — are aware of the importance of the upcoming school board races, especially in counties in transition like DeKalb and Cobb.

In evaluating school board candidates, here are some considerations that I think are important for voters:

— What’s been their historic involvement with the schools? Can they name the schools in their districts and the principals? As surprising as it may seem, some candidates can’t list the schools in the areas they want to represent.

— Have they attended school board meetings on a regular basis? Potential board members don’t have to show up at every meeting, but they have to attend enough to understand what the board does.

— What are their plans to improve student achievement? At some forums, candidates never address student achievement except to complain that it’s not high enough. But they offer no ideas about how to raise it.

— Be wary of candidates running because of a private gripe with the district over how their child was treated. Such candidates may be great advocates for their own kids, but lack a broader interest in the success of all students.

— Can the candidates work as part of a team? Everyone loves a rebel, but at some point board members have to work together to pass policy, hire superintendents and create goals for students. A board overrun with mavericks provides great drama but few results. And somebody usually ends up in court.

— Can the candidates put forth any proposals to improve student learning that don’t require piles of cash? Because there won’t be piles. Anywhere. For a long time.

— Listen carefully when candidates talk about their goals. Are they compliance-driven — do they talk about meeting the mandates set by the state Department of Education? Or are they performance-driven — do they focus on how to get students achieving not only to the state bar, but to national and international levels? You don’t want schools that just comply; you want schools that perform.

— What is their broader vision for the schools? And how will they hold the superintendent accountable for acting on the vision? Candidates ought to spell out specific sets of measures they’d use to assess whether superintendents are doing a good job.

— What do they know about the range of programs offered to students? For instance, are they aware of the state’s Virtual High School? If so, can they tell you how many high schoolers in the district are taking Advanced Placement courses online? Can they report how many kids are taking AP classes, period? Do they know why it’s important for students to not only take AP classes, but to take and score high on AP tests?

— Do they have other sources of income or are they regarding the school board stipend as their livelihood? As a rule, people with dire money problems — houses in foreclosure, no clear source of income, collection agencies at their heels — don’t make effective board members. They ought to straighten out their own finances before they manage a district’s finances. (One tip: If a candidate’s phone has been disconnected, he or she is not a good bet.)

— Is the candidate a current or retired school employee? In concept, boards are supposed to give parents a hand in their local schools, but they’ve come to be dominated by educators. That skews the focus of boards from student concerns to teacher concerns. Look for candidates without financial ties to the school system, either their own or family members.

–Watch for the perennial candidates who envision a career in politics and are looking for any foothold. School boards require people willing to slog through reports, scrutinize budgets and read the fine print. Don’t waste a vote on someone who sees the board as way to get their name in the paper on their way to the Legislature.

— On the other hand, beware  of lifers. After two decades or more, a member ought to step down and make room for new voices and ideas.

62 comments Add your comment

Fled

October 10th, 2010
12:02 am

North Fulton folks, please, please, please do yourselves and your kids a favor and dump the loathsome and despicable Ashley Widener. She is an absolute, total, complete joke: clueless and ignorant and vicious. While you’re at it, dump the clueless Katie Reeves, who represents all that is lacking in the USA today. Together, these two have been responsible for much that is wrong in your system: bad decision after bad decision after bad decision. Put someone in who cares about education, better someone who might possibly know something about education.

Ernest

October 10th, 2010
12:07 am

A key thing to look for is if candidates understand the role and responsibilities of a school board member. Some seem to have the idea they can be a ‘maverick’ and change the world by becoming a board member. As you indicated, it requires being part of a team and not getting involved in operational responsibilities as that duty belongs to the superintendent.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Akil Bello and MONISE SEWARD, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: The ideal school board member: Not in foreclosure, not in search of an income and not in the dark on issues http://bit.ly/dzbB6m [...]

Former Teacher

October 10th, 2010
4:30 am

I agree that you wouldn’t want a board dominated by teachers, but every board should have a teacher with recent school experience, if possible. I’ve been on the inside as a teacher and on the outside as a parent and community member. The picture is very different and the insider perspective should be included.

Peter Smagorinsky

October 10th, 2010
5:51 am

Great advice Maureen, and thanks for continuing to advocate for quality education in Georgia.

Color me confused

October 10th, 2010
6:46 am

As a rule, people with dire money problems — houses in foreclosure, no clear source of income, collection agencies at their heels — don’t make effective board members. They ought to straighten out their own finances before they manage a district’s finances. (One tip: If a candidate’s phone has been disconnected, he or she is not a good bet.)

And yet, Nathan Deal will probably be elected governor.

Proud Black Man

October 10th, 2010
8:24 am

“And yet, Nathan Deal will probably be elected governor.”

Sad but true.

Teacher

October 10th, 2010
9:47 am

I will vote for Barnes, just to keep the Republicans out!

GoldenEye

October 10th, 2010
10:36 am

@ Peter S. Love your research.

So, what are everyone’s thoughts on Gwinnette’s BOE?

Lifers … I think there are a few.

fultonschoolsparent

October 10th, 2010
10:59 am

I actually agree that having some educators on a BOE is an advantage. Usually they don’t just represent teachers, but student interests as well. Better an educator BOE member than a real estate person! I’m also in agreement with Fled about those particular Fulton BOE members. The latest push in Fulton by the BOE and Super. towards becoming a charter system is just another power play by this sorry group of people. And watch out for who the spouse might be of a BOE candidate. Some times the BOE candidate is there because their spouse is power hungry! Maureen, where can we find a list of who’s running?

ChristieS.

October 10th, 2010
11:09 am

@fultonschoolsparent: you can access your list of candidates here. http://www.fultoncountyga.gov/images/stories/Elections_2/Candidates_List_November_2010c.pdf

The info on board of ed candidates is on page 3 of the .pdf.

Concerned 1

October 10th, 2010
11:13 am

Board members should be required to spend quality time in the schools they represent. In addition, they should be required to teach a class in the lowest achieving school and the highest achieving school. The schools involved should be given only 24 hours notice. Yes, I said teach. You don’t get a feel for what’s going on unless you actually walk in the shoes of the persons in the trenches.

In addition, Chambers of Commerce should only be allowed to wine and dine Board members once per year. They should also be required to attend a district wide PTA meeting twice per year. The first one would be to hear from all stakeholders. The second would be to show what had been done to address the needs of the district.

Board members would only serve two years at a time and would have a limit of 2 terms maximum. This would keep the board cleaner and members like those in Atlanta would not be there for life. Superintendents would also have 2 year contracts. They would not be able to stay in that position more than 8 years maximum. This would get rid of complacency and keep them on their toes. Think about our U.S. House of Representatives; they have to answer to the people they represent every two years. Why should local school boards be different?

Former educators should be eligible for boards like others. However, people who have investments in textbook companies, testing companies and any for profit education companies should not. It is a conflict of interest.

Where?

October 10th, 2010
11:18 am

Where is the special section? Is it only in the print edition?

Ken

October 10th, 2010
11:44 am

@ Concerned 1: Those are excellent points toward building a better-informed Board. I would add an additional requirement: All School Board elections must be contested on the general election (November) ballot. School board elections (in Marietta for example) are contested on an off-year March ballot, a ballot placement that encourages light turnout—traditionally less than 10% in some wards.

Maureen Downey

October 10th, 2010
11:53 am

@Where, It is in the print paper, but will go online today. I think they are “building” the page now. Maureen

say what?

October 10th, 2010
12:47 pm

@ Concerned 1- As the chambers are business focued, and are heavy into politics and networking, I think that they are willing to do in the students best interest to ensure they get what they want. If chamber members are not Partners in Education within a feeder pattern, are PTA members of said schools, and do very little in supporting the teachers, tehn they (business entities) need to keep their opinions to themselves. Those who complain yet do not offer daily, weekly monthly support to schools are not worthy of helping in the selection of leaders in schools. How can you form an opinion about leadership if they only information you gather is from the media and busy-bodies?

No group should have more authority than the voters.
I hope that this blog post remains faily positive as it is a good one.

Happy Sunday.

Dt. Tim

October 10th, 2010
1:00 pm

The rules are quite simple actually: A Board sets policy, then hires a decent Superintendent to carry out that policy. The day to day operations are the Superintendent’s job, not the Board member’s. Members who get involved in operational decision making are dangerous, as most of them have never worked in a school and know nothing about schools or teaching.

Enlightened

October 10th, 2010
1:11 pm

Do they have other sources of income or are they regarding the school board stipend as their livelihood?

I would add a couple of cautions to this.

Does the outside income involve contracts or programs with the school board? Everyone would think that would be an ethics violation but if it’s not written in the rules then it’s not. But I think many would feel that it impacts your ability to govern. There a couple of state school board members who have contractual agreements with the districts whom they represent.

Does the outside income/responsibility preclude them from being effective board members?

I personally would prefer their only focus to be the school board. Maybe we could lose the bottom of the barrel ranking that we have.

catlady

October 10th, 2010
1:32 pm

AND who will not even consider hiring or proposing for hire or in any form family members, nor conduct any business in any form with any branch of the system.

BUT who will be willing to yank the chain of a superintendent who does not follow the board’s directions. AND who will not accept unquestioning the proposals of the superintendent. AND who will demand information to account for the success or failure of various programs. AND who will value academics above sports.

Enlightened

October 10th, 2010
1:36 pm

@GoldenEye

I think it has long been time for a change. The last election for Louise Radloff’s seat emphasized many feel that way. She very narrowly won and had it not been a Presidential election, I don’t believe she would have won. When the board named the school after her they joked that now she can retire but she hasn’t.

Per the AJC article, several of the Gwinnett BOE members have family who work for the system. One runs a program in one of the schools and I was told it’s a non-profit but I’ve not verified that part as of yet.

Finally one of the districts, District 4, has the opportunity to elect a candidate that wasn’t hand picked by the status quo. Mark Williams is an educator who balances staff and students’ perspectives well. It would be nice to have someone with balance.

bootney farnsworth

October 10th, 2010
2:13 pm

gee, a column that states the obvious.

East Cobb PARENT

October 10th, 2010
2:17 pm

Catlady, you nailed it. I hope the constituents in Post 2 Cobb County are paying attention. It is time to remove Holli Cash. She is nothing more than a rubber stamp for anything the Super proposes. She so busy cheering for Fred that she leaves the nanny to supervise her kids.
I think there should be a limit as to the number of board members with ties in education, such as teachers. In Cobb those individuals have failed to make changes. I’ve often wondered if they have a difficult time shifting gears – no longer reporting to the Super therefore are reluctant to oppose him. I find the attitude of many board members extremely condescending. Just because a parent is not a teacher, it does not mean that the parent does not have valid comments or positive ideas. Any that watched the board meeting when Cobb laid off teachers this past year, will recall the eye roll of several board members when students and parents spoke.

middle school teacher

October 10th, 2010
2:41 pm

@enlightened – Two of the Gwinnett members have no family working in the system. Louise Radloff has a former daughter-in-law. Carole Boyce has a daughter-in-law who teaches special education. Finally, Robert McClure has a daughter and son-in-law who work in the district. Considering that the section listed aunts and husband’s cousin in other districts, I don’t think the amount listed for Gwinnett is out of line, especially since many of these board members have lived in Gwinnett for quite some time. The special section seems to point to Gwinnett’s stability and achievement as being directly related to the long-serving members.
Maureen, I appreciate the information that is provided in the special section and the emphasis on improving education in Georgia. I don’t agree that the educational system of Georgia is “broken”, but I do agree that there is room for improvement.

[...] second report by Maureen Downey writes about what qualifications you should seek in a school board member. Surprisingly, we seem to have some pretty low standards. I know as a [...]

paulfromatlanta

October 10th, 2010
3:46 pm

Funny – the first three things I thought of don’t appear in the list – being extremely smart and having gone to an extremely good high school and extremely good college so s/he knows what first class education is and has a decent chance to replicate it.

oldtimer

October 10th, 2010
3:47 pm

Teacher …Surely you jest! Barnes already lied to teachers once. Fool me once shame on you…Fool me twice shame on me……I would not vote for Barnes for anything!!

catlady

October 10th, 2010
4:51 pm

I note that Ms. Copelin Wood apparenty declined to list her family members who are employed by Dekalb Schools. She should not be elected, especially with her poor attendance record, inflamatory behavior, and unwillingness to “sacrifice” like the rest of us. Zeporah Roberts is also a poor excuse for a board member–threatening to strike another person.

I think any family members who are employed AFTER the board member is elected should be dismissed as a matter of course. And in the future any board member who wishes that their family be employed should resign first–let the board member give up their position.

I see too much (stuff) committed by “preferential hires”, and too little real work. Yet no one will do anything because of the family relationship. And the PSC offers no protection to anyone who might report.

oldtimer–better elect a liar you know than a profligate about whom we find more everyday.

Alan

October 10th, 2010
5:05 pm

Placing our children’s education in the hands of LOCAL POLITICIANS (because that’s precisely what school board members are) is a very, Very, VERY BAD IDEA. If you want to improve education in America, ABOLISH SCHOOL BOARDS and allow educated, trained professionals to run schools – not buffoons from the community who have NO training in running an education system. Otherwise you end up with ilk like Katie Reeves, et al, who “serve” on the school board solely to advance a personal agenda. Parasites. All of them. Abolish school boards.

paulfromatlanta

October 10th, 2010
5:21 pm

>>Parasites. All of them. Abolish school boards.

The problem with this is that any other choice is usually seen as giving up local control to a faceless state or Federal government.

say what?

October 10th, 2010
5:40 pm

When will the AJC write and display a report card on the largest school system in the state, as well as the one that is on the cusp on having non-whites as the majority in its schools. Gwinnett should be in the news as it has the largest school budget in the state. It seems that since AJc is now closer to Gwinnett County, even moved some operations into Gwinnett, we should have more coverage of the county.

MB

October 10th, 2010
5:46 pm

Fled. Ashley’s not running for re-election, but I understand she’s endorsed Liz Hausmann’s next-door neighbor for the job.

See Maureen’s allusion to people using school board as a stepping stone to a political future. Liz Hausmann – worthless as a school board member – left Johns Creek Council to run for Fulton County Commission.

Fulton doesn’t have an educator (or former educator) on the board, but one (Marti Elliott) is running for Ashley’s seat. As a couple of folks have noted above, having someone with an insider perspective can be beneficial.

Maureen Downey

October 10th, 2010
6:43 pm

@say what, Gwinnett is part of the special print section on school boards, but must have been left out when the package was converted online today. I have alerted AJC.com to please add Gwinnett to the list since we did do it.
Maureen

d

October 10th, 2010
6:48 pm

Just think, Louise Radloff has been on the Gwinnett BOE since Richard Nixon was president. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. Dan Seckinger’s signature is on my high school diploma from 1997 as chair and I know Bob McClure was at my graduation from Shiloh to represent the board. Now that I work in DeKalb, I’ve often asked which BOE is more messed up. I know there’s a few on the DeKalb board really in it for the children but when I see board members (Ms. Roberts) not even vote to allow board members to take a voluntary pay cut, I have to ask who they are in the position for.

Ella Smith

October 10th, 2010
7:25 pm

I think every school system needs individuals who are interested in improving public education. Sometimes we make mistakes by making too many regulations. The voters are smart enough to make these decisions on their own.

I do feel that it is important to have educated school board members. However, I do believe all individuals should have equal access to run for school board positions if these individuals have an interests and are qualify according to current standards.

I always find it interesting that many want to discriminate against educators in determining if educators are not qualified to run for school board just because they are educators. It is fine for a doctor, a lawyer, a secretary, or any other citizen to run for a school board position but for some reason some people want to discrimate against educators. I have always seen this as interesting and possible stereotyping behavior in nature. If you exclude one group of individuals from doing something that others have the opportunity to do this is discrimination. However, an educator should never be a board member in a system they teach at and there also should never be any formal conflict of interest by them being on the school board. This should be true of any individuals on the board or running for the board and has nothing to do with the individual being an educator.

Educators in many ways have a better understanding of what is happening in the schools and it is benificial to have a presence of educators on any school board. As someone who has been involved in school board races I have always found this very interesting and if you will go to my website you will actually see a letter from the State Board of Education regarding this issue. I addressed this issue a couple of years ago. Some do have an opinion that educators should not be on school boards. However, I see this as being extremely sad. Educators do know what is happening in our schools and also have degrees in education.

oldtimer

October 10th, 2010
8:23 pm

Somehow, many people serving on School Boards are looking out only for number one..or their kids. I have taught in ATL, Dekalb, and Clayton…retired and now live in another state..with no income tax. I do follow Clayton news. I invested a lot of time there. I know it is not best, but sometimes I think when we elected our superintendent…they behaved better. For all of Clayton and Dekalb’s issues, there were many good people who invested time to make things better. I do think Pam Adamson is doing a good job. I knew her as a math coordinator..she was supportive and did a good job. When I attend meetings she is a voice of reason.
I do believe a person’s tax liability and financial standing should influence voters..but we have leaders at the federal level who were tax cheats…
I worry about the future…I love learning and education, but I no longer believe the government is the best choice, only the last choice if you cannot do anything better. I think parents can make better choices with their money and vouchers or school choice than being made now.
Educators in the school do know what is happening.

Fled

October 10th, 2010
11:54 pm

MB. Thanks for the info. I suppose Ashley figures she’s done as much damage as she can. I completely agree that Liz Hausmann was a total joke. Like oldtimer, I don’t live in Georgia any longer (actually, not even in the US), but I still care.

Fulton has so much potential that it continually breaks my heart to see what Ashley and Katie have done to what could be an excellent school system. My son was in one of the “good” north Fulton schools, but when we moved overseas he was far behind his peers. He was shocked to learn that, yes, he has to do his homework and, no, he cannot talk in class. I am glad I fled, but I know that many people cannot leave.

Private School Guy

October 11th, 2010
3:16 am

The issue with elected schools boards is that a minority of voters know or care about the candidates. This allows special interest groups such as professional organizations or big box churches to sway the election. The handicap that comes with “concerned community people” being elected is that so many of them have no experience in making decisions involving 100’s of millions of dollars. School boards need to be appointed by higher profile officials who would have to answer to the public if their appointees created problems in the schools. There should also be no pay involved for serving on the boards.

teacher&mom

October 11th, 2010
8:30 am

The considerations you listed for school board members should apply to almost anyone in elected office. Just think what a difference it would make if we required the members of the governor & state legislature to attend educational training 12hrs/year? The damage they have wrecked across the state doesn’t even compare to the local school boards.

For those of you that would like to see school board members appointed or abolished, be careful of what you wish for. Look at the large urban systems where only one or two are in control. It is scary and there is no accountability. Just ask the parents in NYC what happened to their voice when Bloomberg gave control to Klein and took control away from the NYC boroughs.

Once you leave the metro area, the school board pay is minimum. I think our board members make around $50/month.

Doris M

October 11th, 2010
8:32 am

There should be term limits for boards of education. Once a member stays on too long, they get the “big head” and think their opinion is the ONLY opinion. The terms should be staggered so that at least some members have some history.

school choice supporter

October 11th, 2010
9:12 am

How can we oppose independent autonomous public charter schools with the dysfunction we are currently seeing with all of these school boards? Parents deserve public school choice, choice that is NOT dictated to them by local boards of education. Hopefully, the Georgia Supreme Court will see this as well and uphold the May ruling by the Fulton County Superior Court.

Help in Henry

October 11th, 2010
11:05 am

The recent series of articles on school boards is very enlightening. It is too bad not enoygh light is being shined on the race for the school baord in District 5 of Henry County. Ryan Davis, the 21 y/o son of Rep. Steve Davis is running against R.C. Christopher. The younger Davis has not completed his college education and has no formal work experience. he has not attended many board meetings since he was waay at college. He was unavailable to attend a debate and his father stood in his place to debate his oppenent. Recently, WSB-TV broadcast a recording of Ryan Davis threatening his oppenent with information about Mr. Christopher’s past. The information Mr. Davis was threatening Mr. Christopher with was false and inaccurate. Rep. Davis sees this as the position as the springboard for his son’s political career. I hope the people of Henry County will pay attention and realized that a 21 y/o with no real expereince should not be placed on the “Board of Directors” of the largest employer of Henry County. I just wish the AJC would spotlight this brazen attempt of nepotism by the Davis family.

The voters in District 4 should else vote for Taifa Butler who is running against the incumbent Erik Charles. At best, Mr. Charles is ineffective and incompenent. At worst, he borders on a buffoon unable to communciate effectively. In eight years, Mr. Charles has provided the residents of District 4 inadequate representation.

Henry in Distressed

October 11th, 2010
11:35 am

I am a resident of Henry County who is fed up with the lack of integrity in our political process. Due to cuts in state funding for education, Henry County was one of many counties who have terminated bus service for kids who live within 1 mile of their school. The streets in Henry County are not conducive to have kids walking to school safely. One must also consider the safety issues at schools with high traffic. Mr. Christopher, a candidate for District 5, has proposed a monthly fee that would be charged to parents if they wish to have their kids ride the bus. His proposal is an attempt to address a potential safety issues in light of limited funds. I don’t like the fact that I would have to pay an additional fee, but his proposal has some merit. At least, he is offering some ideas. His opponent, Ryan Davis a 20 y/o college student, has characterized this proposal as a tax increase. Mr. Davis has not offered any solutions. If this fee is a tax increase, then the recent decision to continue with the tolls on GA 400 is also a tax increase.

elle

October 11th, 2010
12:40 pm

This was a great report. I find it fascinating that people are willing to easily vote for someone to manage a multimillion budget when they have filed personally either filed bankruptcy and/or have a foreclosure. Here’s a news flash if you have a foreclosure you likely didnt pay your taxes and you are apart of the problem, not the solution. Please manage yourself before you try to manage someone else. I would appreciate a credit and background check for these positons.

atl_native

October 11th, 2010
12:58 pm

I wish they would have covered Henry county. For some reason we are left out a lot

wordsmith

October 11th, 2010
2:20 pm

At the VERY LEAST all school board members ought to be able to spell correctly and at least write a sentence that makes sense, Ms Smith. For those reasons, among several others, we should require advanced education of the candidates.

Fedup

October 11th, 2010
2:45 pm

Mark Twain said it well when asked what was wrong with American schools, his response was simple, yet on target….”school boards”.

Free Market Champion

October 11th, 2010
2:46 pm

This is a political office. It will always be driven by politics and little else. This is not the free market. There will be no customer-driven service. There will be no responsiveness to customer demands. There will be no other choice. You cannot expect from government anything but what government is. This blog doesn’t seem to get that. Government school supporters haven’t gotten it for well over 100 years.

Vindicated

October 11th, 2010
3:03 pm

The Fulton County School Board is a joke. All bored house wives. Katie Reeves has run that board for sometime, someone up there must have an interest in getting the system going in the right direction. Reeves made sure her kids went to new schools. She and Ashley Widener even used school system resources and lies to try to split Fulton County.

Reeves has run interference in the day-to-day operations of the school for far too long. She chased off a couple of Superintendents who stood up to her and lied about the capital program that was wasting money building a school from General Funds dollars. Fulton County has lost millions behind her antics but time after time she’s re-elected because no one wants to run.

Too bad Fulton Schools will always be second class with her and that group. Linda Bryant is no better; check out all the family that’s on the school system’s payroll.

Fedup

October 11th, 2010
3:14 pm

Vindicated, someone at the AJC HAS/HAD to be on the take for all these years since Dr. Dolinger left….this group makes the Clayton County Board look like model citizens………….

Vindicated

October 11th, 2010
3:53 pm

Fedup, you’re probably right. After Dr. Dolinger a number of Superintendents were marched through until they settled on Dr. Loe. What’s really frightening is the amount of money that has been misappropriated through the construction of all the schools. Parsons was somehow involved in the overcharging of the system. Several former employees were allowed to retire instead of face charges for their malfeasance.