For William M. Soult, a member of the St. Vrain Valley Board of Education, Feb. 10 was just another routine day.
He was up early, as is his custom, in plenty of time to meet a group of high-school administrators at 6:30 for breakfast.
After a full day of work at Lexmark, an affiliate of the International Business Machines Corporation, Mr. Soult dropped by a 7 P.M. gathering to socialize with members of the district’s teachers’ union.
And in between, he fielded a call from a parent, telephoned a principal, and talked to an official with a board of cooperative educational services on which he serves.
His school-related activities, Mr. Soult says, keep him busy “seven days a week.’'
To provide a picture of how an involved school-board member spends his time, Mr. Soult agreed to keep a weekly log of his activities for Education Week.
During the six weeks that he paid special attention to his schedule, there was only one day--including Saturdays and Sundays--for which Mr. Soult had no entry.
The rest of his days were filled with early-morning breakfasts, board meetings and work sessions, telephone calls, time for reading educational materials and writing letters, and attendance at district and state basketball games.
On the weekends, he taught several sessions at Central Presbyterian Church on the history of American public education and the church’s involvement in it.
One snowy Sunday night at 10:45, he talked to a parent who wanted to know if school had been canceled for the following day.
And he found time to squeeze in a series of Spanish classes being offered to the district’s teachers, in the hope of being able to communicate a bit with Spanish-speaking parents and students.
At 53, Mr. Soult, a financial planner for Lexmark and a 24-year resident of Longmont, epitomizes the type of civic-minded board member who can be found in school districts across the country.
If Mr. Soult seems busier than the average board member, he is. He is involved with a lengthy list of organizations and is a past president of the Colorado Association of School Boards, the vice president of the National School Boards Association, a member of the executive committee of the Colorado High School Athletics Association, and the chairman of the board of the federal Mid Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.
Although he finds it difficult to separate his activities, Mr. Soult estimates that he spends 60 percent of the considerable amount of time he devotes to education-related activities on local issues.
“Obviously,’' he says, “I’ve had opportunities that less than 1 percent of local school- board members get, in terms of having access to firsthand discussions with national education leaders, people in Congress, and the Department of Education.’'
People here say they have reaped benefits from Mr. Soult’s experiences. Because of his contacts, for example, St. Vrain Valley is piloting a parent-involvement program being developed by the U.S. Education Department.
But this same exposure--and the knowledge he has gained from it--is also a source of some concern for Mr. Soult. He ticks off a list of things he knows school districts must address: meeting the needs of an increasing number of children living with just one parent; applying new knowledge about how students learn; helping teachers learn to use technology; boosting parental involvement; coordinating services for children with other governmental agencies; and grappling with the issue of school governance itself.
“My real frustration,’' he says, “is that of all the things we ought to be discussing and facing and really need to get involved with ... we spend time on things other than that.’'
In his 15 years on the school board, Mr. Soult has dealt with many of the perennial issues in American education. Debates over teaching evolution or creationism and allowing parents to teach their children at home crop up here periodically.
Last fall, the district got a lot of attention from the local press after a group of parents complained that a mural painted on the wall of an art classroom had Satanic overtones.
“There was a brouhaha for almost two months on whether we could censor kids’ work,’' Mr. Soult remembers. Finally, the board decided to paint over the mural, which he describes as an “ugly’’ painting in the mystical “Dungeons and Dragons’’ style.
Although solving such matters goes with the territory, he laments, “it just takes an inordinate amount of time.’'
Asking Tough Questions
Despite such forays into side issues, the board of education here generally receives high marks from community members, administrators, and the head of the teachers’ union.
“As a whole, the board is very willing to look at new ideas and not be conservative,’' says Mary White, the principal of Erie Middle/Senior High School. “They are cautious, and they want research, but at the same time they are not going to be close-minded.’'
“The bottom line with the board,’' Ms. White adds, “is what they will ask you--'Is it good for kids?’''
Mr. Soult, in particular, is regarded as a knowledgeable, influential, and conscientious board member who asks tough questions and keeps a sharp eye on the district’s finances.
Mr. Soult began his working life as a teacher. After graduating from college, he spent seven years teaching physics and mathematics in Harrisburg, Pa. In his typical fashion, he was involved in a lengthy list of outside activities, including coaching football and baseball, and advising the yearbook and newspaper staffs.
Then he joined I.B.M. in New York State, which he says has given him an abiding interest in educational technology.
Mr. Soult and his wife, Laura, a preschool teacher in the district, raised their son and daughter here and are known for their enthusiasm for all types of sports.
His friends also tease Mr. Soult for his obsessive organization. For an annual overnight drive to Kansas City to watch the Royals play baseball, for example, Mr. Soult uses his computer to devise a detailed driving schedule complete with scheduled pie-and-coffee and gas-and-toilet breaks. If a driver fails to reach his destination in the allotted time, he has to buy a round of drinks.
While he is known for his attention to detail, Mr. Soult’s acquaintances say he also brings valuable, broad state and national perspectives to his work on the board.
“He’s a visionary--he sees what needs to be done,’' says Duke Aschenbrenner, the principal of Longmont High School and a member of the Royals road-trip group. “I’ve also seen him not get so hung up on what color the building should be. It’s the detail stuff that might bore Bill sometimes.’'
Even with 15 years of service, Mr. Soult, the board vice president, is not its longest-serving member.
Henri Kinson, the current president and a retired junior-high science teacher who now owns a motel, has been on the board for 17 years.
The rest of the seven board members have been in office for five years or less. Until a few years ago, the board members were all men--several of whom wore cowboy boots.
One of the two women on the board once joked that it was made up of “two legs, three boots, and two fossils.’'
Consolidation an Issue
Together, they govern a sprawling district of 411 square miles that includes seven incorporated towns in three counties. The communities range from Longmont, the home of several high-technology firms, to outlying rural areas with just a few mom-and-pop restaurants and a gas station.
Mr. Soult notes that the corridor from Fort Collins to Pueblo has as many high-technology companies as California’s Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Boston, but he regrets that it has not gained a similar reputation.
The reason, he says, is that “we’ve got 27 to 30 communities that each have a vision that extends to the community boundary and no further.’'
“But if one community fails,’' he adds, “they will all fail out there.’'
Mr. Soult and Fred E. Pierce, the superintendent, serve together on an economic-development committee that grapples with such attitudes. And one of the touchiest issues now confronting the school district can be traced to the same intense community feeling.
The principals of two combined middle and high schools in the rural communities of Erie and Frederick, serving fewer than 300 and 475 students, have proposed making one of the schools a middle school and the other a high school.
While the idea makes sense educationally, since the schools could then offer a wider range of courses, Mr. Soult says he has little appetite for proceeding in the face of significant community opposition.
“I don’t think schools ought to be the vehicle’’ for forcing a regional outlook, he says. “I’m not in favor of ‘edicting’ consolidation at the school level, even though, from an educational standpoint, it has some merit.’'
At a recent meeting of board members and three mayors from the outlying towns, one mayor threatened that there would be “absolute rebellion’’ if the schools were forced to consolidate.
But board members shrugged off the threat and let the mayors know that they did not have the option of keeping things as they are.
“If consolidation isn’t the solution,’' Mr. Kinson said, “you can help come up with one.’'
The board’s general philosophy, Mr. Soult says, is to allow local communities and their schools to devise plans that fit their needs. The district’s administrators have the same freedom.
“The board allows the administration to make recommendations, and if the board doesn’t like it, we don’t try to fix it--we send it back for rework,’' Mr. Soult says. “You get into problems when boards say, ‘Do it this way.’''
The approach appears to be working. In the past few years, the school district has changed all of its junior highs to middle schools, striving for a more supportive environment for adolescents.
The high schools are in the process of moving to “block scheduling,’' in which students study a subject for a semester instead of a year, but in longer class periods that allow time for more hands-on activities and group work.
While making such modifications can be extremely disruptive--people here are very aware of battles in neighboring communities over middle schools--the St. Vrain Valley district appears to have made the transitions with relatively little upheaval.
One reason may be that the changes have been gradual, which suits the community’s style.
“Change has been incremental,’' says John Grauberger, the principal of Frederick Middle/Senior High School, “and that’s probably the best way.’'
Things did not always go so smoothly, Mr. Soult recalls.
The first time he ran for the school board, in 1973, he was roundly defeated. Shortly after he was elected in 1977, the board voted to buy out the superintendent’s contract. Because school-board members in Colorado are required to cast their votes alphabetically, Mr. Soult cast the final vote in a 4-to-3 decision against the superintendent.
Enraged residents launched a recall drive against him in April of 1979.
“The community was very divided, and the board was divided,’' Mr. Soult remembers. “There was no real direction.’'
Mr. Soult and Mr. Kinson, who voted to retain the superintendent, also found themselves personally at odds for a time. Board members finally smoothed over their differences with the help of the state school-boards association.
“We finally decided that it was O.K. to disagree,’' Mr. Kinson says, “but that we would never take it outside the board meeting.’'
‘A Major Influence’
Mr. Pierce, who has been superintendent here for two years, is credited with creating an atmosphere that encourages extensive parent and community involvement in all significant decisions.
Until Mr. Pierce arrived, the school board had a tense relationship with the St. Vrain Valley Education Association. In fact, the two sides were minutes away from a strike two years ago, says Donald E. Specht, the association’s president.
“In my view, Bill has always been a major influence on the board,’' Mr. Specht says, “so when things didn’t go well, Bill took the resentment, and, unfortunately, when things went well, I don’t think he received enough benefit.’'
Because of his skill with numbers, Mr. Soult has presented the budget to the school board every year since he was elected, rather than have a staff member handle the task.
Under Mr. Soult’s leadership, Mr. Specht says, the school board has been “ultraconservative’’ about holding down taxes.
Despite such differences, the teachers’ association and the board now enjoy a good relationship, both sides say. The board is also a convivial group, often gathering at a local tavern for a beer after meetings.
Mr. Kinson laments that Mr. Soult’s numerous state and national activities, and the international travel that his job requires of him, often mean that he cannot join them.
Both Mr. Kinson and Sandy Manly, who was elected to the board last year and is the parent of a school-age child, say they believe Mr. Soult has lost contact with local issues.
Ms. Manly proudly points out that she intends to visit every one of the district’s schools this year.
But Mr. Soult says it is not his style to visit schools frequently.
“It’s good that we have board members who are able to do that,’' he says, “but it can also lead to a false sense of understanding of what the true picture is, when you pop in and pop out.’'
Together, the school board and Mr. Pierce have established goals for the district that include continuing the attention to middle schools and high-school restructuring, developing programs to help students master technology, and addressing the needs of at-risk students.
A large portion of the board’s time in meetings is spent overseeing a $47-million bond issue that is paying for renovations and additions to schools throughout the district.
A review of a year of agendas shows that roughly one-third of the “action items’’ before the board for a vote concerned the district’s building program. Naming general contractors, approving change orders, awarding contracts, and selecting architects were some of the decisions the board made.
During a board meeting on Feb. 13, 1991, for example, the board accepted the resignation of a district administrator, voted on block scheduling, adopted a policy on admitting exchange students, awarded a contract to build a middle school, contracted for hazardous-waste services, approved two change orders, and made appointments to a district committee.
Mr. Soult says the bulk of the board’s educational discussions occur at work sessions, which are usually held once a month.
But attending these gatherings takes up only a fraction of Mr. Soult’s time. He also talks to Mr. Pierce about three times a week, usually to discuss upcoming board business.
During the six weeks he kept the log of his time, Mr. Soult received three calls from parents. After the area received 20 inches of snow, he fielded numerous other calls from people complaining about the district’s decision to wait until Monday morning to cancel school.
Mr. Soult says newer board members are more likely to get calls from parents, since he has a general policy of referring them to administrators. Still, he was glad to talk to those who called about a child’s problem with reading, a concern about a parent-teacher conference, and a problem
with a coach.
He logged several meetings and phone calls with the district’s director of staff development to discuss the parent-involvement program.
Attending meetings of the various organizations with which he is involved also took a lot of his time.
One night, Mr. Soult was faced with the choice of four local meetings to attend, all on pressing issues: whether to consolidate the outlying schools; how to better serve low-income Hispanic elementary students; how the district should handle teaching about Columbus Day; and what should be included in the new sex-education curriculum.
He chose the meeting on consolidation, he says, because he believed it needed strong school-board representation, because voters in the area had supported him, and because it posed a number of educational questions.
Despite the frustrations and limitations of his position, Mr. Soult clearly finds his work as a school-board member meaningful.
The flood of criticism now swamping board members, he says, is simply counterproductive.
“I officiated football for 25 years,’' he says, “and I don’t know, ever, of any coach who said he liked officials, but I also never found one who wanted to play without one.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: Seven Days a Week