Commentary: Thank You, Your Work Matters

By Rich Moore

To all new and veteran Board of Education members, my message to you is: Thank you, your work matters.

It is my hope that you hear this on a daily basis from the members of your community. If you do not hear this enough in the next four years, feel free to cut this headline out and paste it to your medicine cabinet where you may be reminded daily.

The civic volunteer position you have just signed up for will be time-consuming yet rewarding. As I complete my second term as a board member, I can look back on the last eight years and share insights and muse about what I believe worked and some pitfalls I could have avoided in my efforts to contribute to the effective leadership of an excellent school district. While each school district’s stakeholders and environment are different, there are some universals that I believe one should consider as they begin their sojourn of school leadership.

As you look forward to your new position, I encourage you to review and take stock in the IASB’s Code of Conduct for board members.

Although it is your responsibility as a school board member to read and consider the entire Code of Conduct, let’s consider a few of the points here. As you read through this list of standards and principles, you can see that some are more easily attained than others. For instance, No. 2 states, “I will avoid any conflict of interest [which will result in] personal gain.” OK, that is easy enough. I’m sure my colleagues on the board would agree that we are on it to serve, rather than profit. You may read about some bad apples, but the tree is generally solid and of good moral health. Yet, as the board of education is an elected body, there is always the risk of “the appearance of impropriety,” which mandates your due diligence and scrutiny. You must have the ability to articulate to the stakeholders that all decisions are acts that will benefit the stakeholders of the system. For instance, as one of two board members on a teacher-contract negotiation team, and also a professional and practicing teacher in another school district, I was asked whether I would have an issue bargaining on behalf of the board. In no uncertain terms was I able to articulate my position as a board member representing the interest of the board, as a taxpayer, as a parent, and as a community member. The conversation was short and to the point, because I was aware of the potential perception and I had a strong sense of integrity and understanding of my role as a board of education member.

In that vein, the Code of Conduct No. 7 states, “I will prepare for, attend and actively participate in school board meetings.” While I am proud of my attendance record, I would not be completely honest if I said there were nights I would have rather been at home with my family. Yes, there were nights when the smoke from the birthday candles had hardly dissipated before I was gone from the table to attend a meeting. However, knowing that the work and the issues of the board of education are continuous, and not stand-alone episodes, your effectiveness will require some give and take between your board obligations and your personal life. Yet, you already know this and that is why you are up for the job.

Your attendance also requires “preparing and participating.” For example, participating by asking questions is good practice. In order to respect others’ time and expertise, come prepared with answers that can be obtained before the meeting, without violating the Open Meetings Act, so as not to overly extend a discussion and/or an entire meeting. In other words, avoid asking questions for the sake of participating. As your understanding is furthered by the discussion, ask questions as they arise and because they matter and can contribute to your understanding of the issue. Through authentic inquiry, you can contribute to building a critical, yet positive and effective culture of dialogue as implied in the Code of Conduct No. 9.

You were elected because you have a lot to offer. Use your expertise in or outside of education to make the most informed decisions possible. I have been a secondary school educator for almost 30 years. I have been a building administrator for a dozen of those years and have seen and implemented a vast array of innovations and changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. I am married to a teacher and my parents were teachers. I have had countless conversations with the amazing teachers who have taught my three children who possess three different skills sets. I have spent time in the Ivory Tower examining policy studies in education, piling over research and advocacy literature, and have had the opportunity to work alongside many experts in the field of education. I have eight years of experience on the board of education and have served as the board president and chair of the Policy, Education, and Personnel Committees in my tenure. I have used this expertise to inform my decision-making.

While I am the only professional K-12 educator on my board, these experiences alone do not make me the most effective board member and most expert in all that is involved in governance. In the spirit of adhering to the Code of Conduct No. 7, I agreed to “be sufficiently informed about and prepared to act on the specific issues before the board, and remain reasonably knowledgeable about local, state, national, and global education issues.” Yes, I believe I have used my expertise and experience to make informed decisions. However, it is only through active listening, empathy, and a real commitment to guard against my own biases that I believe I have been able to effectively prepare for each meeting and take on the many issues we have had over the past eight years.

As the board of education president during our global pandemic, I devoted countless hours reading and responding to hundreds of emails regarding what individuals perceived as the problem and what they believed should be the action of the school district. Although the overarching message came from two distinct and opposing camps, each individual’s position was informed by that individual’s knowledge and experience. It is on us, on you, to take all information and consider it if your goal is to become “sufficiently informed” to take action.

To combine and summarize the Code of Conduct No. 3 and No. 5, you are only one-seventh of the official vote and when the vote is made the body, 100% of the Board of Education, will “abide by the majority decisions of the board.” Rather than recalcitrate and bemoan the others’ actions, seek to educate yourself on why the majority voted in such a manner. An effective school board member should be able to articulate why other board members disagree with them, be able to defend a counterargument, and be open to changing one’s opinion as more information becomes available. This is exactly the opposite of what happens on social media, by the way, and too toxic for me to describe here. While your position on a particular item may not be realized in one year, remember that the culture, climate, and financial position can change over time.

For instance, when I began, I believed we needed an updated HVAC system. Although the other board members believed it was cost-prohibitive in one year, three years later a majority moved to explore and eventually act on updating the system. I kept the issue on the table, we acted on it, and when it was done, everyone said it was a “cool” idea, pun intended. Change happens.

Another example of this occurred in my first year when a unanimous board supported the superintendent’s recommendation that our kindergarten remain a half-day program. Although the issue is complex, board members cited the exorbitant cost to the district to move to a full-day program, that individual families who needed or wanted a full-day program could find programs to fit their needs, and that many other families communicated to the board that they did not want this option and did not want to be pressured to accept a full day for their student.

But again, change happens as culture and education are fluid.

Seven years later, a unanimous board accepted the same superintendent’s recommendation to move to a full-day program based on new cost-saving mechanisms and new data supporting the needs of our students and the effectiveness of an expanded program. While this issue also requires more than a paragraph to fully describe, the point is that as culture, costs, and knowledge about an issue evolve, so too should your understanding of the issue(s). Again, referring to the Code of Conduct Nos. 3 and 5, you will be effective if you seek changes through “constructive channels.”

If you do not already have this understanding, you will learn very quickly that your main job description is to develop and adopt policies that guide the actions of district employees and other stakeholders.

As a board member it is difficult to wrap your mind around the idea that you only have one employee — the superintendent.

Your job is to hire, evaluate, and hold the superintendent accountable for the goals the board of education has explicitly directed. There are policies in place for when you disagree with a superintendent and for when you and other board members feel that they are not meeting their specified goals. Now is a good time to remind you that you are responsible for reading and knowing the existing policies in your Board Policy Manual. The superintendent is the expert that the board of education has entrusted the entire system to and is accountable to the board. What an enormous, stressful, and hopefully rewarding job a superintendent has.

I believe the best way to achieve the Code of Conduct No. 10 and truly “respecting the superintendent’s authority to advise the board” is to understand their role and your relationship with them. Did you know that the same title is afforded the person who is in charge of a railway station?

The Station Superintendent oversees assuring all the trains in the station are operating, moving in the right direction, safe, and that everyone involved in moving cargo and people have what they need. Likewise, the School Superintendent oversees assuring that everyone in the school is safe, learning, engaged in their tasks, and getting what they need. Your job as a board member then is not to attempt to derail their expertise and have them direct their subordinates in the way you see best.

The classic example here is when a friend or neighbor has a complaint.

Unless there is an egregious concern or an emergency, the best advice is to have that friend or neighbor bring that concern to the teacher or staff member involved. If the results are not acceptable, then advise that the building administration become involved. In this way the superintendent can “implement board policy” and keep the proverbial trains moving safely and effectively in the right direction and you are able to evaluate their effectiveness.

There are 12 codes in the Code of Conduct. If I were to add one more and make it a baker’s dozen it would be this: You have your integrity. Keep it, because you will need to sleep at night.

Some residents will raise you up as a hero for agreeing with them, some will vilify you for not doing so, and most will be happy you have volunteered your time and energy. As your term ends in two or four years, know that you did not vote one way to earn the approval of friends and neighbors and you did not vote another way out of fear of incurring the wrath of the local daily social media detractors. Remind yourself that you took the considerations and concerns of a wide lens of your diverse stakeholders and know that you did your very best to make the most informed and thoughtful decisions. Most importantly, take heart that your work matters and you are contributing respectfully to your community.
Rich Moore is a member and past president of the Board of Education for River Forest SD 90 and a longtime educator, including teaching high school social science and serving as an Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction.