David E. Bartz, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Eastern Illinois University.
School board members are special people. They are sincere, dedicated, and committed to improving education for all children. Board members receive no pay and little recognition for the long hours they spend to make local control work. We should thank them, and frequently, for all they do for children.
In 2016, I attended the Joint Annual Conference for the first time in about 20 years to participate in two sessions. I interacted with board members during, before, and after the presentations and informally throughout the day. This positive experience renewed my faith in local government, controlled by local people.
As a resident of Illinois, I am aware of the ineptitude of state government and insensitivity to soliciting meaningful input from the general citizenry. In my 10 years as a school administrator, I became familiar with the ineffectiveness of government. I also served a 12-year stint as a consultant to a federal agency in Washington, D.C., which further educated me on the inflexibility and ineffectiveness of the federal government. Local control works, and board members make it work well.
In 2017, I was again scheduled to participate in two presentations at the Conference, both on Saturday. The previous year, I left Charleston early in the morning, drove to Chicago, and returned that same day for a 400-mile round trip. My 70-year-old back, as well as my psyche in the context of Chicago traffic (even on a Saturday) and trying to find parking, led me to think I needed an alternative. So, I arranged with my son, who lives in the suburb of Plainfield, to stay with him Friday night. We planned that he would drive me into the city early Saturday morning, critique my presentations, and drive me back to Plainfield later in the day. About a week before this year’s conference, he informed me his wife was going with us. I assumed he wanted to spend his time shopping or participating in activities with her. To the contrary, he indicated that not only did he want to attend the Conference and my sessions, but his spouse also planned to do so.
We arrived well before the scheduled time, so I could familiarize myself with the room and “get my head on straight” regarding comments I would make. The topic was the community engagement process. I presented “Transforming School Culture by Connecting with the Community” as a panel session with Patrick Rice, a field services director for IASB. Rice, a former student of mine, is a pleasure to work with because he presents presentation and discussion concepts in advance. This allows me to do a better job of preparing my comments, which, in the end, is beneficial to the audience members. I was expecting perhaps 100 people. The audience well exceeded those expectations. We had 260 people attend our standing room only panel presentation on the community engagement process.
This is a tribute to the interest board members have in systematically soliciting input from citizens to gain information for improving education for children. Effective community engagement is local control at its best. My son and daughter-in-law not only attended this presentation but also analyzed my performance and paid close attention to the behaviors of audience members. Their analysis of me: I need to give concrete examples to support my general comments. Otherwise, they said, it is difficult to link an overarching idea to a specific example. A point well taken.
What was extremely interesting to me was the praise family heaped on board members for their sincerity, eagerness to learn, and commitment to improving education. They also were impressed with the great interest board members had in the community engagement process, which focuses on soliciting input from citizens.
Saturday afternoon, I participated with a university colleague in the Carousel of Panels, three small group sessions each lasting 30 minutes. My son and daughter-in-law again reviewed my work, and again paid close attention to the participants. And again, they were impressed with the sincerity, positivity, active participation, and commitment of board members to obtain ideas to perform their roles more effectively. For example, a new and relatively young minority board member spent nearly half an hour talking with my colleague and me in her quest to gain insights and skills to better meet her responsibilities as a board member and work effectively in the context of a diverse citizenry.
On the ride back to Plainfield, my son and daughter-in-law continued to praise board members for their seriousness, active participation, and eagerness to learn. Both attorneys, they explained that their training and staff development, which they attend often, does not have the positivity and sincerity that was displayed by board members. These are two individuals in their early 30s who, through their observation of board members, reminded me of how thankful we should be for the services of these fine individuals.
My father was a board member from approximately 1953 to 1963. During this time, due to annexation and consolidation, he served on three different boards of education in six months and never changed residence. The effective use of the community engagement process was crucial to the approval of the consolidation and high school bond referenda.
Because of the efforts of my father and others like him, when I entered the ninth grade in 1960, I attended a brand new comprehensive high school that provided me with an excellent education. My father passed away in 1982. In recent years, I have been haunted by the fact that I never thanked him for his efforts as a board member.
So, I say to all of the board members in Illinois at this time, thank you for your service! You are rare birds — don’t change!