Grassroots Government: School Boards

Just what is the role of a school board member, and how much power do they yield on the educational scene?

At one of the most heavily-attended school board meetings at which she had ever been present, Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education president Deb Mexicotte joined her six fellow school board trustees in unanimously voting to ban guns on the district’s school grounds last April. The issue was among the most controversial she has observed in her 12 1/2 years on the board.

“As a board, we have an obligation to student safety,” Mexicotte says of the decision. “We consider schools to be a disruption-free zone, and we consider guns a disruption.”

Not everyone in the community agreed, and soon after, a lawsuit was filed against the district. In September, the school board’s policy was upheld, though it is now under appeal.

The gun issue drew more public interest than most that make their way to the agenda of the district’s bi-monthly board of education meetings, which Mexicotte notes cover all range of policy discussions related to running the district’s 31 schools and the academic achievement of its 17,000-plus students. This generally runs a gamut from more benign topics, like technology upgrades, to polarizing issues such as the addition, elimination or relocation of a school.

The AAPS board is one of about 545 local school boards across Michigan (that doesn’t include private boards for the state’s roughly 300 charter schools and its intermediate school districts). The AAPS board’s seven members are all elected to their positions, as is the case for the majority of local school boards.

Running for her board is a calling Mexicotte answered after serving as chairperson of the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education, a position she assumed in response to her own son’s autism diagnosis. From there, she thought it would be helpful to have someone with both a special education and a parent perspective at the board table. She successfully ran for the board in 2003 and has since run three subsequent times.

“It has been a positive experience,” says Mexicotte, whose day job is as associate director of ArtsEngine, an interdisciplinary initiative among the University of Michigan’s engineering, art and design, architecture and urban planning, and music, theater and dance schools. “It is a difficult time for traditional public education even though it is one of the greatest efforts undertaken for economic development, social mobility, diversity and integration. Public schools enrich lives and change futures, but they’ve been under a great deal of assault politically and financially.”

Though her three children, all Ann Arbor school alum, are now grown, Mexicotte is still deeply invested in the district and personally satisfied by its strong record of achievement.

“There have been many proud moments, including building the new high school, renovating all of our school buildings and building a preschool and family center. I am very proud of this district and not just because of high academic achievement; our students give back to the community in many ways.”

Primary function

Don Wotruba is executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, or MASB, a position he took after more than 15 years as a lobbyist for the organization. He says school boards have two main roles.

“Those roles are to set board policy and strategic goals and to hire the superintendent to implement the strategic plan within the district,” says Wotruba, who is himself a former school board member for the Eaton Regional Education Services Agency outside of Lansing. “It’s not the board’s role to be in classrooms to monitor individual teachers. The board’s role is to focus on the one employee it hired, help him or her to do a good job and to leave the day-to-day to that individual.”

Scott Taylor, vice president of the Lake Orion Community Schools board and a parent of two daughters in the district, agrees.

“Everything we do supports one of three things: hiring, firing and evaluating the superintendent; approving the budget; and making policy,” says Taylor, whose full-time job is as director of business development at Lake Orion Plumbing, Heating & Cooling.

Those policies don’t have to be major issues, he notes. They can include routine things like outlining steps for approving a new textbook. “People have the right to look through proposed textbooks. We set the policy on how long that period of review should last.”

According to the MASB, this type of policy and those related to more potentially controversial topics all are to be voted on by local boards only after seeking the advice and counsel of the district’s administrators, teachers and other employee groups, as well as input from the community and specialists with knowledge about the topic at hand. A school board can vote only during legally called meetings at which members of the public are always welcome. Votes typically are taken toward meeting’s end, and majority rules.

Then, once the board has spoken, it has spoken, notes Mexicotte. “I’ve ended up on the wrong side of some 4-3 votes,” she says. “There are not a lot of those, but in the end a 4-3 vote is the same as 7-0 vote. Ultimately, you rally around the decision.”

Mexicotte notes that there is parliamentary procedure for bringing something back to a re-vote if deemed appropriate.

“But you have to do it at the next meeting,” she says. “Technically, the board can bring it up at any time, but that is poor board management to settle something and then to keep bringing it back up.”

Still, the board can always change its mind.

Community input

In his almost two years on the Lake Orion board, Taylor has seen little acrimony.

“People are passionate about where their kids go to school,” he explains. “So in the case of hot-button topics, people often show up at school board meetings to express their support or their lack of support. Ultimately, they’re trying to help you make a decision. As an elected official, I want to hear what people have to say.”

Some public feedback comes to Taylor and his fellow board members via a Lake Orion Community Schools board email address or simply by word of mouth at the many school district events at which board members make regular appearances. Commonly, community members use the school board meetings’ public commentary period to voice their thoughts on a particular policy or topic.

“Community member concerns are a positive in my mind,” Taylor says. “People are reaching out to let you know how they’re feeling. They’re not letting something fester.”

Public commentary is a point typically either early or late in board meeting agendas where members of the public who have signed up in advance are given a few minutes to share their opinion. The AAPS board allots 45 minutes total for commentary, allowing individuals four minutes to speak. If more than 11 individuals sign up, the 45 minutes is split evenly among all. Mexicotte notes it’s important for those participating in commentary to understand that the board will not be talking back.

“We do not respond at the board table to public commentary, but we may ask for clarification after it,” she says. “For example, if someone says something unfactual like ‘the moon is made of green tea,’ I can ask for a point of clarification. It is not directed at the constituent. It’s setting the record straight, but it must be a point of fact. Public commentary is not a dialogue.”

Taylor says this can be frustrating for participants who may think their comments didn’t make a difference because they weren’t discussed at that meeting.

“However, typically the topic will come up at the next meeting or immediately after the meeting,” he explains, noting that board members are always listening and taking note of all commentary.

In his 18 years with the MASB, Wotruba has observed a handful of topics that tend to attract large crowds at school board meetings – athletic matters, staff reductions, and tax and building issues among them. Related to athletics, he notes that in recent financially challenging times, some districts have had to eliminate sports programs, much to the chagrin of community members.

“Staff reduction is another big one,” he says. “This obviously impacts more people than just the individual. Tax and building issues include such things as bond issues and renovation or construction. These topics go beyond the parent group to the broader community and, as a result, tend to draw greater interest and attendance.”

Mexicotte has experience with the latter. When she first joined the board, it was during a period of debate on the need for a third high school in the district to address overcrowding.

“I actually ran for the board saying, ‘I’ll put the construction of a new high school on the ballot,'” says Mexicotte, who did just that upon election. “The community voted resoundingly ‘yes.’ Still, 30 percent didn’t.”

The board picked a spot the district had owned since the late 1960s to construct what is now Skyline High School.

“Many in the community felt the area had become somewhat of a nature sanctuary – and how dare we desecrate this natural venue,” she recalls. “But the property had been purchased by taxpayers for this purpose. There was lots of controversy, and people turned out in huge amounts.”

Honed by public input, construction of the high school maintained an ecological focus.

“We did studies on such things as salamander populations and maintained some of the wetlands,” Mexicotte says. “Skyline has since won multiple landscape and LEED awards. It is in the top 5 percent nationally. Still, there is some lingering anger about whether we needed the school.”

Running for office

Scott Taylor intends to run in the next Lake Orion Community Schools board election.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and went through Lake Orion schools myself,” he says. “I am a homeowner here. I have two daughters in school in the district. I like to be involved. We have a very strong, very collaborative board that has supported me and helped me to learn.”

Mexicotte is waiting until closer to the election to decide. At the end of her current term, she will have served 13 1/2 years. That’s a commitment Wotruba at MASB likes to see.

“I love my job in large part because of the people with whom I interact,” he says. “They are in it for the students and to see their schools be successful. Some individuals around the state have served on their school board for 20 or 30 years. Most of them are dedicated public servants committed to being champions for their schools.”

To run for a local school board, citizens must be registered to vote in the district and collect a designated number of community member signatures or, alternatively, pay a $100 filing fee. Local school board members serve four- or six-year terms as mandated by the district’s bylaws and, as of November 2011, are voted into office during general elections in November of even-number years. According to the MASB, school board member terms are staggered, so there are usually three or four seats contested each biennial election.

Wotruba notes that school board participation is a voluntary, largely uncompensated endeavor, not a full- or even part-time job. Some board members may receive a per diem of $15 to $30 per meeting, but many donate it back to the district.

“Typically, a board member is someone with no agenda just wanting to contribute to making school a better place,” he says. “They’re very civic minded and have a commitment to learning, just like the kids in the schools they serve. There are not a bunch of pats on the backs or ‘thank yous’ coming your way as a school board member. You do it because you want to serve the public.”

Wotruba notes that in the last election cycle, more than 50 districts in the state had actual school board seats that no one filed for.

“Moving to a November election cycle may have deterred people,” he suggests. “People don’t want to run in a political climate when it costs more to get their name seen. Similarly, when times are good, people feel they don’t need to run.”

To drum up interest, the MASB encourages community representatives to attend PTO, rotary and chamber of commerce meetings to encourage citizens to consider running.

“It’s a very important job,” he says. “School board members make sure the board represents the public and guides the district in a direction that makes sense.”

Check out the other installments of the Grassroots Government series:

Part Two: City Government

Part Three: County Government


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