Opinion: Chaos at school board meetings doesn’t serve students

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Educational leadership professor: Restore sanctity of public board meetings

In a guest column, an assistant professor of educational leadership says the raucousness at many school board meetings of late does not benefit students. And much of the controversy and chaos are about issues outside of the province and purpose of boards of education.

Now on the faculty of Mercer University in Atlanta, Tracey R. Deagle spent 20 years as a school administrator and teacher, most recently having served as deputy superintendent for a prekindergarten through 12th grade school system. Additionally, Deagle served as a board member for the State Board of Education in Ohio.

By Tracey R. Deagle

Passing through a metal detector to attend a school board meeting — a once unconscionable thought — is reality in at least one metro-Atlanta district. Board of education meetings, considered in the past to be mundane, are now scenes of conflict and anger.

As arguably the most contentious period in local school leadership — where COVID-19 policies, mask mandate, and critical race theory are the topics of scorn and aggression — board meetings typically lasting one or two hours are now edging into the early morning hours. Often, these meetings spend little time improving the education of students and end with school officials being escorted to their cars by security. Teachers and administrators report feeling attacked by their communities and undefended by their board. Some are planning for an early exit from public education, leaving in their wake anticipated record numbers of unfilled classroom jobs.

Credit: Adam E J Squier

Credit: Adam E J Squier

This is not a regional issue. The National School Boards Association has requested federal assistance in preventing disruption and unsafe conditions at local board of education meetings. As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice has pledged its support to local law enforcement agencies who wish to prosecute those disrupting official board business. While seen by many as a necessary step to regain control of the sanctity of public board meetings, the more meaningful conversation should be how school board members will fulfill their obligations to Georgia’s children.

Amid this upheaval comes the opportunity to redefine priorities and hit the reset button. January is the perfect time for a shift in conversation as recently elected board members will be sworn-in for official duty.

School boards were created for a very specific purpose: to hire the superintendent, set school policy, govern and allocate funds to operate a district. The actual day-to-day administration of schools is tasked to the superintendent and their identified district and building leaders. Student growth and achievement suffers when boards move away from their intended function. School climate suffers as board governance expands to administration and the advancement of political agendas.

Here I offer my recommendations for new and newly reelected members:

  • Engage in training: Most school board members elected haven’t worked in a school or as a teacher or administrator. Their involvement in school governance offers new perspectives and approaches to public education. However, school districts are complicated. Those who lead in schools are required to have advanced degrees with hours of specific coursework. It is logical to expect that being a successful board member would also require a level of training. On this point, Georgia legislators agree, leading to new legislation in 2010 that added teeth to the existing law requiring 12 hours of training per for first-time members and six hours every year thereafter. Members should focus on public budgeting, school law, ethics, strategic planning and setting policy. Placing agendas aside and engaging in training and development — in a learning posture — not only mitigates legal issues down the road, but fosters functionality and collegiality among board members.
  • Create a strategic plan: Developing a vision for student success in a fast-changing world must be a priority. Equally important is that a board provides goals to the superintendent along with a budget to support the vision. Strategic planning should not be done in isolation. Visioning work is best done in concert with community/parent representatives, as well as administrators, teachers and staff, after analyzing key data that tells the story of the district. It is important for board member to leave their preconceived notions, specifically what is going right and what is wrong with a district, at the door. Listening, asking key questions and checking what is heard with the data is vital to ensuring that goals are created to better meet the needs of students. Often, I have witnessed a member of a school board acting on information for which there is little evidence. This is unfortunate and could be a contributing factor to why parents now believe the loudest voices are those most heard by district leaders. As our schools work to address the drastic change in the rate of student learning as a result of COVID-19, should we be debating masks or language acquisition concerns; the ill-conceived notion that elementary teachers teach critical race theory or the achievement gap is growing as opportunity gaps are perpetuated? A clearly articulated, closely followed vision provides the school board and district administrators with the ability to respond to external pressures before they reach the public forum.
  • Educate parents and set parameters for engagement: It is through the election of a board and participation in public forums that a community can feel connected to their locally-funded school district. Yet, as we have seen of late, the electorate can be swayed by a few emotional issues that are not typically the function of a school board. Traditionally, low voter turnout for school board races has made these boards more susceptible to pressures from special interest groups. Compounding the issue is the racial and economic separation that tends to occur within large school districts. Voter turnout and parent participation is often lower in the areas where opportunity gaps for children most exist. For all these reasons, input from parents is important to school governance, yet can become dangerously divisive and harmful if expectations for engagement are not set forth. Board meetings should not devolve into “must watch TV” where communities are making popcorn before settling in for the show. Children hear what is being said in these public forums. They see the anger and the accusations against their parents or the teacher who cares for them all day. I have worked in districts where the board and superintendent use their legal team to ensure the obligation for public engagement is preserved without doing harm to the greater community of adults and children. It can be done. Usually, it begins with creating ground rules for engagement, such as public participants will not name specific people, school anti-bullying rules apply to public participants. Creating avenues for civil engagement in the many layers of a school district also works. For example: key communicator groups convened at the building and district level, curriculum parent advisory groups or PTAs can serve as forums for stakeholders to be heard and for parents to pull the curtain back and see the complicated multiple sides of every situation.

As board members take their new oaths, I encourage them to consider the needs of students. An investment in learning board governance, respect for the distinction between governance and school administration, along with creating a system for civility and collaboration, will benefit our students and communities by lowering the temperature currently engulfing our schools. The anger and division must be mended now, or we stand to lose many great educators and board members who work in service to children.