ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
A baker's dozen ways for improvement now
by Walter H. Warfield
Walter H. Warfield, a former school superintendent and executive director of the Illinois School Administrators Association, is scholar in residence at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
An old adage says: "We all drink from wells that we did not help to dig." This seems a very appropriate metaphor for the work done by school board members on behalf of the schools and students under their charge.
By taking only necessary sips of water from the wells, you can maintain vitality in order to continue the work of digging new wells and making old wells deeper so that students can quench their thirst for quality education.
But it also serves as a model for the work that lies ahead in these next few years that clearly seem to be times of intensified financial stress on Illinois public schools.
From the long history of public school funding, we know for certain that in the best of times school board members work to secure adequate school funding amid a myriad of public programs, many very worthy but others woefully covered in the cloak of "political pork."
We know the best of times has not guaranteed adequate support from state and federal sources. We know that in times of general financial stagnation or downturn like we currently are experiencing, state financial difficulties are certain to affect local school districts, placing even greater pressures on the already overburdened and generally less-than-popular local property tax system to support local school districts.
Simply put, the financial condition of public education is the product of two factors: financial conditions and commitment to education. The financial conditions of a local school district become the product of the community it serves, based on a sliding scale of what the school district is able and willing to support. This sliding scale is what makes it possible for two communities generally similar in financial resources to vary significantly on the quality of their school districts.
These factors, combined with an ultra complex system of school funding, make school finances difficult to understand, and even more difficult to explain. Even though districts have handled financial difficulties quite well, as evidenced by the quality enjoyed by the vast majority in Illinois, they often have received criticism instead of praise for past performances in the face of adversity. Cries of wolf, waste, inefficiency, incompetence and more creative charges have been common.
So what can a district do to face these newest, and arguably most severe, financially troubled times in ways that prove beneficial to the students and the communities they serve? The answer is simple, yet profound: begin at the beginning with this baker's dozen of strategies for improvement.
1. The reason you decided to become a school board member was to improve schools for students. As you face financial challenges, your goal should continue to be just that: improve schools. Goals should never be designed to manage the decline of the school system or even maintain it until the return of times of financial stability and growth. Goals must focus on school improvement.
2. Keep in mind that you do not have influence within your community because you are on the school board … you are on the school board because you have influence. People who care about schools and the students they educate have taken time from their busy lives to go to the polls and vote for you because they believe in your skills and trust that you will use them to benefit students. These skills will be called upon in the coming months as you communicate the overall conditions, goals and strategies to your constituents in ways that they will understand. Make certain you are both clear and accurate in what you say. Never exaggerate for the sake of emphasis.
3. Any organization as extensive as a school system can always be more efficient. Use the crisis to identify programs, services and/or activities that cannot only be reduced or eliminated to save money, but may contribute to making your school district more effective. Many things that improve schools do not cost more money. Even the smallest districts are far too complex to successfully argue to the contrary. Identify strategies where time, energy and the talents of those committed to school improvement can be harnessed and then focused.
4. Expect and receive timely, accurate information from your superintendent in formats that you can understand and communicate the condition of the school district to others.
5. Remind constituents that schools are different from other institutions. While inadvisable, other forms of government may be able to downsize personnel such as police, library and park services. Regardless of economic conditions, students will continue to arrive at the public schools with expectations of receiving an education that will enrich their lives for today and prepare them for the future.
6. Explain clearly to constituents the growing needs of all students, particularly those living in poverty, on the verge of poverty, or in families experiencing intensified financial stress, very foreign to the lives they have lived in the recent past.
7. Inform constituents that state and federal regulations and program mandates are not suspended in times of financial difficulty, and neither are the educational needs of the students.
8. Tell constituents that schools are doing more for students than they have ever before. Numerous health, nutrition, recreational, safety and other social programs have been added to the menu of school services. These have been added to the tasks of schools because schools have been shown to be the organizational vehicle best suited to deliver them effectively and efficiently.
9. Point out to constituents that criticism schools receive today is largely unfounded. Schools may not be perfect, but the most common and vicious criticisms are the "coffee shop" variety and come from those with access to the airways, but who have not graced the school house door for many years.
10. Emphasize that schools are, in fact, doing a better job than ever. More students are graduating and with higher learning skills. If this is so, and it is, what is the basis for the criticism? The margin between where the effectiveness of the schools is and where we need and want it to be is less tolerable than ever before. Where we agree with legitimate critics, let's work to find ways so schools can continue to improve. Regardless of finances, it is incumbent on all of us to improve the schools … and there is always room for improvement.
11. Work with the recognition that schools have never been funded to the level of the demands placed on them, and they never will. This is a simple reality that we must accept and then proceed.
12. Remind constituents that school boards are the most responsive governmental entities in the country. They are at the very core of local control.
13. Remember that it is not necessary for you to be able to speak to the intricacies of school funding. That is a job better left to the superintendent and other qualified school employees. Your job is to lend them your support and the credibility you bring with you to the position of school board member.
The task of continued school improvement in financially troubled times is not an easy one, but it is attainable and most worthy of the effort. As a school board member, you have been entrusted with the safe keeping and nurturing of your community's most valuable resources: its children. The people of your school district must certainly have great confidence in you to have entrusted their care, their education and our future to your skills. Prove them correct!
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