In a few short weeks we will elect four school board members. This represents a majority of the entire board. The composition of the board could change dramatically as a result of the election. Keep in mind it is a mid-summer election that generally has very low turnout. As few as 800 votes could be cast in any one district. That means as few as four hundred and one voters will decide who serves on the board. Your vote will count.
School board elections usually get very little attention but I would argue that they might be the most important elected positions over the long term for any community. The health and welfare of a community can be linked directly to the quality of its education system. A strong school board leads to a strong superintendent, that leads to strong principals, that leads to strong teachers, that ultimately leads to strong schools.
With this election in mind I have a few questions (and a little commentary) I would like to ask each candidate. I hope you add to this list and ask your own questions. A school board should be made up of leaders who can help the superintendent develop the vision. In addition, they can help develop the local framework on which the system will be measured. Hopefully these questions can serve as a primer as you think about who you want to support and vote for in a few short weeks.
What is the purpose of the school board? I hope the answer sounds a lot like this: A school board is not another layer of management. A school board’s only employee is the Superintendent of Schools. The Board hires and manages the superintendent by setting the goals for the district (school system) and for the superintendent. It is the superintendent’s responsibility to create the strategies and initiatives necessary to accomplish those goals. The board governs, and the superintendent manages.
Our school system has shown some improvement over the last few years. That is commendable. However, at the end of the day, we are at or near the state average, in the 49th worst state in the country in the country ranked 23rd (among 35 industrialized nations) in overall education. That is nothing to rest on. Every year, LaGrange High, for example, sets a goal for its self — to be the next state champion, number one. Do they reach that goal every year? Of course not, but over time they have developed a program that consistently ranks among the best in the state. Do you think that would happen if their goal each year was to be slightly better than the state average? At the end of the day the team performs better because of a unified and aspirational goal. What is your goal for our system? Specifically, how can we do better? What will you do to significantly improve our performance? Why can’t we be number one?
Based on financial projections the school budget will see deficits for years to come. Declining property values, reduced state funding and increased spending mandates will further erode projected revenues. These reductions will far exceed any cuts to the administrative staff. I am sure every candidate will state they will cut these roles. Every politician cites waste and fraud as the places to cut. However, according to the projections that will not be enough, in fact it will not be close. Given this fact, what areas will you cut to balance the budget? What is off limits? What is needed but we can no longer afford?
At what point, if any, would you consider an increase in the tax millage rate to offset the budget shortfall?
Several of the candidates are proposing a reduction in school property taxes for senior citizens? Do you support this proposal? If so why? One could argue while this is a compassionate thing to do, it is bad policy. Education benefits the entire community. It seems unfair to pick and choose who pays for it. The consumer of education is sporadic (school aged children) but the benefit is a lifetime. Following that logic, would you exclude parents without children? I would argue that the best support government — in this case the school system — can give our senior citizens is a vibrant, growing, low crime community, all of which are direct benefits of a strong education system. The leveraged effect of this type of community would far offset a small reduction in the school tax.
What is the significance of .5 percent? That is one-half of one percent. That is the number of teachers that were terminated for low performance in the years 2010-11. That represents approximately six teachers out of the entire school system of 1,100+ teachers. That number is no fluke. It was .5 percent in the 2009-10 year and only .3 percent in the 2008-09 year. While we have many, outstanding teachers, every organization has employees, in this case teachers that under perform to the extent they must be let go. I would argue no high performing organization has forced turnover that low. Teaching is real time. A child never gets that year back. We must ensure that we put the best teachers possible in front of our students every day. What is your reaction to this number? What would you do as a school board member to remove under performers from the school system?
These are but a few of the difficult issues our school board will face. Each school board member will play a key role in how well we respond to these challenges. This role is much more than ex-teachers, long time members of the community and people with good intentions. It requires outstanding leadership and vision. We have some very capable board members. There are some capable candidates running against them. Now is the time to educate yourself to make an informed decision this July. Our community depends on it.
Kirk Hancock is a LaGrange resident and former member of the LaGrange Writers Group.