Virus-free school board members

Hundreds of Iowans won school board elections last week. Bruce Lear has ideas on how to combat some pitfalls that may await them. -promoted by Laura Belin

Since that cold day in 2017 when Republicans demolished public sector collective bargaining in Iowa, our kids and our educators have needed independent thinking school board members more than ever. But how can independent thinking candidates stay that way after being elected?

I have often marveled at the transformation of some candidates when they begin sitting around the board table. The once feisty crusader becomes as timid as a Donald Trump cabinet member. What happens?

There are at least three kinds of viruses that may threaten independent thinking on a school board. Fortunately, if the virus is caught early enough, the board member can be safely inoculated.

The single-source information virus

The main symptom is simple to identify. It’s when a board member cannot answer even a simple question from the public or from an educator without parroting back the superintendent’s report verbatim. Another symptom might be complete denial of what is taking place in private.

The best example is in the area of contract negotiations. School board members who don’t ask pointed, sometimes awkward questions in closed sessions are kept blissfully in the dark about a contract that impacts every aspect of the school district.

Even worse, the superintendent may not be the one withholding the information. In many school districts, an out-of-town lawyer handles bargaining. Board members may have no clue what the district has or hasn’t proposed.

It’s always been critical for board members to be informed about collective bargaining, but since 2017 it is now essential that independent thinking board members be knowledgeable in order to protect educators where the new bargaining-lite law fails.

For that reason, I would suggest representatives from the board be full participants at the bargaining table. These are closed sessions, so the majority of the board can’t be present (that would be a violation of Iowa’s open meetings law).

When I say full participants, I mean talking, responding human beings capable of making independent judgements. Gone are the days when the board members all convene for the opening proposals, smile, and then turn everything over to a lawyer making $250 dollars an hour who has no stake in the community. That is short-changing the public and harming kids and educators.

The groupthink virus

This virus strikes when a group of people talk themselves into believing something, with no real analysis of the problem trying to be solved.

Ever try to get your family to decide where to go eat? After endless talking, everyone says yes. Then, you go to the restaurant, only to find no one was really hungry in the first place. That’s groupthink.

For a board, groupthink usually happens when chasing free money or some other shiny object. After all, no one is against getting money for free. But it is never free. If one independent thinking board member tries to slow down the process–to find out how the money will be used or what strings are attached–the dissenting board member is labeled a trouble-maker.

A variation of this is the “flavor of the month” discussion. A popular administrator pitches their latest and greatest idea after returning from that very important seminar in Las Vegas or some other warm place. The applause from the majority drowns out independent analysis.

The vaccine for this is to slow down the speeding train. Groupthink happens because no one really stops to consider the long-term consequences. An independent thinking board member needs to call a strategic time out.

I got my pet project virus

Often school board candidates run because they have a pet project they would like to see implemented. One may be a band parent who knows there is a need for more tubas. Another may want more advanced courses for their talented and gifted child. The specifics don’t matter. They might have run for the board solely because of this issue.

A smart school administration knows the desire of each board candidate. They also know completing the pet project will make the new board member happy and content.

Here is where the virus starts. The board member is so appreciative, s/he slips into thanking the administration over and over by never seriously questioning them on other issues and therefore never rocking the boat.

The inoculation for this one is for the board member to be reminded that if the project is a good idea for the whole district, it should be implemented. “Pets” should be left at home and not brought into the board room to potentially bite the whole district.

If identified early and treated, none of these viruses will extinguish independent thinking on a school board. After all, those who agree to serve on school boards are some of the most self-sacrificing, community-minded people. Don’t they deserve to be healthy, and don’t our kids and our educators deserve virus-free fighters?

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for 27 years for the Iowa State Education Association.

Tags: Education
  • Ask more questions

    Great post. Case in point regarding the groupthink issue and never questioning is the current mess in Cherokee.

    Board meeting erupts over school nurse …

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