It’s two years since I last served on the school board, and I don’t want to go back to it—ever. I’m not the only one to feel this way, either. Gary Lister, a school board member from Georgia, has compiled an e-book, 99 Reasons to Never, Ever Again Run for School Board, with contributions from current and former board members from around the country.
So what if there are actually only 54 reasons given? (No. 4: “Education gobbledygook intrudes into your conversations.”) The overall point is still valid: School board service can be traumatizing.
In fact, I seem to exhibit some of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, flashbacks, and extreme distress from personal “triggers.”
I can’t sleep after I attend one of my daughter’s school events. I become agitated whenever I read an article in the paper about the district. Even worse, if I happen to bump into a current board member, or an antagonist from my former days as board president, I feel an unhealthy impulse to gouge out their eyes.
You wouldn’t know it from my bitter state of mind, but the only thing I ever wanted to do during my six years on the school board—six years of arguing, compromising, begging, dreaming, and, most of all, meeting—was to help kids.
Of course, that’s not what current board members say.
“You’ll never guess what they say about you!” my last remaining friend on the board exclaims.
That I fornicated with goats at the farm next to the high school?
I started out believing that, as Anne Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, puts it, “in a democracy, school boards are the closest thing to the ground.” I’ve ended up believing kind of the opposite.
School board service can be traumatizing.
Now I believe that school boards spend most of their time dealing with minutiae: hiring (or firing) the football coach, screening textbooks, listening to complaints about school bus stops; that they communicate poorly, not only with administrators and each other, but also with the public; that, in the narrowness of their goals and the haphazardness of their operations, they may hinder more kids than they help.
Am I being too harsh? There may be only one way for me to find out: attend some school board meetings.
I cringe at the prospect. And can you blame me? If you’d narrowly escaped death in a cave-in, you wouldn’t hurry to return underground. But with a long, sad sigh, I shoulder a pick and shovel, switch on my headlamp, and descend once again into the cold darkness.
Actually, it’s the high school library. The school board meets there the second and third Tuesday nights of every month.
Many of the items on the agenda are familiar from my own days on the board: resignations, child-rearing leaves, teaching appointments, director reports. It’s not exactly the stuff dreams, or blue-ribbon schools, are made of.
I suppose it doesn’t help either that school business is often conducted in a kind of secret code. At one point during the meeting, the director of pupil-personnel services, a woman of quite normal appearance, tells the board, “We’ll be able to run off our PD-fives, -sevens, and -eights in the next week,” and then mentions the “CSPE” and the “citation in the four-o-five.”
Whatever language she’s speaking, it isn’t English. I’m not sure it’s even human.
Things eventually liven up when the board turns to item 7b, “Final Discussion and Approval of the Athletic Code of Conduct.”
Several months ago, word circulated through the district that varsity athletes from the fall sports teams had held a drinking party at a local motel. If true, this violated their signed pledge not to use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.
But the athletic director, despite a strenuous investigation, couldn’t get the athletes to incriminate themselves or snitch on each other. Board members were outraged that the party animals had eluded capture. They ordered the athletic director to form a committee to revise the athletic code. It’s that revision they’ll approve tonight.
Only they don’t.
“This just doesn’t do it for me,” the board president says with a frown. “I’d have to up the ante for the first offense.”
You mean like sticking the heads of student-athletes who violate the code on poles outside the high school?
As if reading my mind, the superintendent says: “I think the school should be about teaching kids. We shouldn’t throw kids away.”
The president’s frown deepens. “I don’t think in this area we should give second chances.”
Raging paranoia may be the only appropriate response to the fact that the local public schools have been entrusted to the cast of the World Wrestling Federation.
A board member who’s known for his mild manner says: “We asked them to form a committee to make a new policy. I don’t think we should send them a mixed message and go back to the old policy.” But he says this so mildly that he doesn’t sound entirely convinced of it himself.
“How come there weren’t people on the committee?” the vice president of the board asks. The other board members ignore her, probably because the question makes no more sense to them than it does to me.
Instead, the only other woman on the board says: “I was never really in favor of adopting a new policy. I think the old policy was strict, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. Athletes need to be held to a higher standard.”
The superintendent tries again to break the board’s fixation with punishment. “Sometimes kids make mistakes,” he says. “When they do, it’s an opportunity to teach them.”
“Why don’t we give ’em polygraph tests?” the vice president suggests. “Ask ’em, ‘Did you smoke a cigarette this week?’ ”
“It’s the athletic department’s failure to enforce the existing rules that’s been the issue,” the other woman board member says, “not the policy.”
The last board member now speaks up. “I’m against the old policy and the new policy,” he announces.
I glance at the superintendent. His face is a blank. He knows from past experience that the board will go round and round for the next half-hour and then decide not to decide anything yet.
Although I don’t particularly trust him—like most superintendents, he’s as much a politician as an educator—I almost feel sorry for him.
A week after attending my first school board meeting in two years, I have a strange dream.
In the dream, I arrive at the high school at about 7 p.m., just as the light is filtering from the sky. I get out of my car and walk to the main doors, but though a board meeting is scheduled for that night, the doors are locked. I bang on the glass with my fist; no one comes. I then look around more closely and discover that my car is the only car in the parking lot.
Suddenly, I’m sitting in a red-vinyl booth in the diner with the longest-serving board member, a building contractor who, in the dream, resembles pro-wrestler-cum-Minnesota-governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura. “Uh, yeah,” he says in a slow, dunce-like voice, “you missed the meeting.” The board apparently did meet at the high school at 7—7 in the morning! I realize without Jesse Ventura saying it that the meeting time was moved to avoid having me there.
Dawn is still a couple hours away when I struggle awake, astonished at how extensive my paranoia has become. Then again, raging paranoia may be the only appropriate response to the fact that the local public schools have been entrusted to the cast of the World Wrestling Federation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Board-Dom