Building a better school board

The job description is not exactly enticing: Crummy or non-existent pay. Long meetings. And the prospect of fights over anything from school closings, to sex education, to the resignation of a basketball coach.

That might explain in part what happened in 2014 – when about 70 open seats on local Michigan school boards had no candidates at the August filing deadline, most of them in small- to midsize districts across the state.

With that in mind, the Michigan Association of School Boards is launching a campaign to urge more candidates to run for this November's board elections. Some 1,600 seats in 540 school districts are up for grabs, with a July 26 filing deadline.

Don Wotruba, executive director of MASB, readily concedes school board duty can be a big ask. But at the same time, he said, an effective board is critical to the success of a district.

“We still leave outcomes of a school district to locally elected people,” Wotruba told Bridge. “The school board hires the superintendent” and together they “figure out what's our vision, what are the goals we want to set for our schools and our community.”

Research backs that up, with studies finding a correlation between effective school boards – boards with strong relationships with the superintendent - and student achievement.

And as it works to drum up more candidates, MASB also would like to see those elected master the ABCs of their job. Wotruba is pushing Lansing to pass mandatory training for board members – which is a requirement in 23 states, according to a 2012 report.

RELATED: The limits of serving on my local school board

“There is a lot to know,” Wotruba said. “The Open Meetings Act. What is the role of the board versus the superintendent? Finances and budgeting, labor relations – a lot of things a new board member might not be familiar with.”

But until board members serve, they also might not anticipate the grind of monthly or twice-monthly board meetings, committee meetings, student disciplinary hearings – not to mention the parade of controversies that can pop up at any time.

For all that, board members might earn $25 or $30 a meeting - or in many districts, nothing.

“You always have controversy,” said Ronald Schultheiss, 77, a member of the Charlotte Public Schools Board of Education, southwest of Lansing, since 2000. He's paid $30 a meeting.

“Do you lose a friend over it? You do,” Schultheiss said. “Were they your best friend to begin with? No.”

On Jan. 11, Charlotte High School boys varsity basketball coach Steve Ernst turned in his resignation after he was pressured by administrators over the number of technical fouls he had incurred. He coached the team the previous year to a district championship.

That night, several hundred people packed the board meeting room, riled up over what befell Ernst. A Facebook page backing the coach gained a thousand followers. School administrators got threatening phone calls.

Three days later, the board voted 5-1 not to reinstate Ernst and issued a statement of concern that “expressions of support (for the coach could) quickly turn into threats against the school district and our employees and their families. Those threats have been referred to the police and are now under investigation.”

“We were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Schultheiss, a former teacher, coach and athletic director for the district. “You have got to back your administration. They worked with him. We didn't.”

Schultheiss was among those voting to sustain Ernst's resignation. One member who voted with him, board president Shane Gonser, resigned over threats to himself and other board members. Mindful that some community members threatened recall, Schultheiss said he doesn't worry much about that prospect.

“I'd go fishing,” he quipped, adding that he doesn't to plan to run again when his term expires in two years.

“I'll be what, 79? That's enough. I have grandkids in sports in Caledonia and Okemos and I'd like to see more of that.”

In Bloomfield Hills, north of Detroit, board vice president Cynthia Von Oeyen has been on the school board since 1998, an unpaid position. In those 18 years, she's dealt with a rabid pony at a school farm, parent ire over the closing of two elementary schools and, in 2015, the bullying of an eighth-grade African American student on a school bus.

For six contentious years, she was in the midst of a tug-of-war over whether to combine the affluent district's two high schools, Andover and Lahser. It was an emotional issue that pitted the district's east side against west, and featured two rejected bond requests and a 2011 campaign to recall the entire board. That failed, too. The matter was not resolved until 2012, with the passage of a $59 million bond. The new, consolidated Bloomfield Hills High School finally opened this year.

“Everybody has ownership over their high schools. We had a greatly divided community. It was very hurtful,” she recalled.

Through this period, Von Oeyen learned she would have to carve out extra time when she ventured out in public. Everyone had an opinion – and they wanted her to hear it.

“I felt like when I went to the grocery store, I needed an extra block of time. People would stop me and want to talk to me. People do telephone you. They do email you.”

In recent weeks, Von Oeyen, 64, said she was conducting some soul-searching over whether to seek another four-year term.

But she was leaning yes.

“I got engaged originally as a parent. You start out as an advocate for your own children, but then you realize it's about everyone's children. I don't know where else I could make that kind of impact. This is my community.”

Public service may be a lure, but there are a number of reasons why people elect not to run.

According to a survey MASB conducted last year through polling firm EPIC-MRA:

  • 27 percent of respondents thought school boards were too political,
  • 22 percent were apathetic,
  • 15 percent said the time commitment was too great,
  • 14 percent said school boards were ineffective,
  • 13 percent said they were unaware of board openings
  • And 9 percent were undecided about their interest.

Deciding to step up

In 2014, Oakland County's Clawson Public Schools was among those Michigan school districts facing the prospect of an unfilled seat.

Two hours before the Oct. 24 filing deadline for write-in candidates for the November election, Andrea Hodges decided to give it a shot.

“I was in a lot of PTAs, I just decided to step inside the arena,” said Hodges, 42, a former legal assistant who has seven children in the district, from preschool to high school.

She said she invested $100 in signs and went to homes she knew had children in the district to introduce herself and explain why she was running. She got 130 votes, besting another write-in candidate for the four-year term. For that, she earns $550 a year.

Hodges acknowledges she's had a lot to learn. After all, she had never been to a school board meeting before.

“I went in there and I was blind. My gosh, have I learned a lot,” Hodges said. “I have made some mistakes, but that's how you grow.”

Since her election, Hodges has been taking MASB classes in Lansing or at the Oakland County Intermediate School District to broaden her knowledge on board issues. She's just two courses shy of completing its nine-course series to ground board member in the basics of their position. The district pays the cost of the classes, which she estimated at $600 thus far.

Hodges estimates she spends upwards of 20 hours a month on school board work. Much of that time she invests to learn about district and statewide education issues.

MASB's Wotruba applauds Hodges' initiative. But he said not all board members are so diligent – leaving some less than ready to tackle the complex issues that can arise in any district.

A decade ago, Wotruba said, most of its members opposed the idea of statewide mandatory training for school board members. He said now it's the reverse.

“In the past couple years, we have seen a 180-degree change,” he said.

Modeling what numerous other states require, Wotruba suggests something on the order of six to 12 hours of training on the fundamentals of board service. That would include education on the state’s Open Meetings Act, which requires school boards to conduct most of their work in public and can yield costly lawsuits if boards violate it. Boards would also learn more about the role of board members and superintendent, labor relations and finances and budgeting.

He estimated it would cost the state about $1.5 million to train all public and charter board members. After that, Wotruba said, the cost would drop significantly since the training would then presumably apply only to new members. Wotruba said that under the Headlee Amendment's prohibition against unfunded mandates for local governments and school districts, the state would have to pay the cost.

But at the moment, there's no legislation to accomplish that.

“When you think of professions like electrician, real estate agent, teacher, there are so many that require certifications,” Wotruba said. “But the entity that passes the budget and leads the district doesn't have a like mandate. It seems not be to be consistent.

“You can have new board members at their first meeting in January and in June, they are passing a $10 million budget.”

State Superintendent Brian Whiston said he backs mandatory training as well.

“It's certainly important that we have people who want to run for school board,” he said. “But we have to have board members trained in that role.”

Whiston said he believes the relatively modest price of mandatory training would more than pay for itself. He noted that the estimated $1.5 million cost for training is dwarfed by the $13.8 billion the state spent on K-12 education in fiscal 2015.

“I certainly think it is a good investment. I think it will save districts by having more effective boards and boards following rules and procedures.”

In some cases, Whiston said, mandatory training might help boards avoid legal trouble.

For example, in 2015, a St. Clair County Circuit Court judge ruled that the Algonac Board of Education violated the Open Meetings Act when board members discussed the superintendent's contract through email instead of at a public school meeting.

Whiston said he expects to approach legislators in the coming months with the hope of passing a measure by the fall mandating school board training.

That still leaves the issue of empty board seats.

This spring and summer, MASB expects to air public service radio announcements to encourage more board candidates, along with visits to newspapers around the state to cultivate editorial support. The organization hopes to avoid a repeat of 2014, when open seats had to be filled by appointment or last-minute write-in candidates.

After 16 months on the job, Hodges of the Clawson Public Schools board said she would like other prospective candidates take the same leap she did. She said the service becomes its own reward.

“I jumped in cold. But I like it a lot,” she said. “I see how schools can be the beacon of a city. Ours can be that.”

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Thu, 05/19/2016 - 10:16am
MANDATORY training for Board members? Who would do that? The MASB is already in the tank for the unions and the unions are what have destroyed public education in Michigan sucking it dry with unsustainable pension costs. This is America folks. Mandatory should not be a word used for "indoctrinating" elected officials.
Stephen C Brown
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 11:45am
Sue-please consider that: 1) MASB training would greatly enhance the productivity of new school board members, at a low cost. This is not indoctrination, but education about legal, financial, and strategic factors that are facts on the ground. Ignorance should never be an excuse for bad decisions! I'm sure each dollar spent would save $10 at least, and this is verifiable. 2) How can the unions be blamed for this? Pensions are contractual obligations-do you believe in voiding contracts whenever they become inconvenient? These were negotiated in good faith and offered as alternatives to raises in salaries. I'd rather blame the politicians that found it convenient to "kick the can down the road" past the point of no return, while they retired on their own fat pensions. This is even a bigger problem in the private sector, with Fortune 500 companies declaring bankruptcy to avoid their underfunded pension obligations, passing them on to all the taxpayers. If we live within a dishonest system, then we should just end all forms of deferred compensation, yes?
Fri, 05/20/2016 - 7:15am
As a former school board member I fully subscribe to attending MASB's well prepared school board classes. I'm not sure if it should be mandatory, but I do know the board members who did not attend were less effective as they were usually only interested in single-issue concerns, mainly sports-related or getting religion back into schools.
Doug T
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 8:51pm
Sue - what planet are you from?
Thu, 05/26/2016 - 11:19am
While I have some qualms myself with organized labor, I recognize that we would not have a middle class without. The things that they have advocated for in terms benefits, safety and compensation would not have been realized without them. I have worked for over 30 years and never been a member of a bargaining unit. They have had substantially more positive outcomes than negative ones. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water!
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 10:52am
What are the topics that are addressed in the training program? Are those items that voters should use when evaluating candidates? Are those items that potential candidates should use to evaluate their readiness to be a Board member? Recognizing the potential impact on the student educational experience how should voters think about how their current district board is functioning? How should think about what they can expect from a board? With some in the article mentioning how their personal time/environment is impact by residents, what should be the etiquette of residents when communicating to board members? How can reads use this article to help inprove the learning in their local schools?
Stephen C Brown
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 11:53am
Duane-in my experience as a parent, the most important decision that School Boards make is hiring and firing Superintendents, approving the budgets, and monitoring the teacher-parent relationships. Few school board candidates have the skills and experience to perform these roles effectively, and could use some basic training in accounting, organizational culture, and interviewing skills-its as simple as that, to me.
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 1:48pm
Mr. Brown, I wasn't questioning the value of the training, I was asking about what the topics are. I am looking for criteria to use when Board elections occur. I think the lack of general criteria of what knowledge and skills a board member uses prevents voters from being well informed when deciding on candidates. Do you know what the topics included in the training are? Do you know of a link that the public could use to view the training program agenda/topics? Are you sure that people in the community won't have such knowledge and skills? As an example, in our school district we have had only two Superintendents in over 10 years, and the last selection the Board used and outside firm for screening. I notice you didn't mention anything about students and their learning, nothing about the teacher-student relationship, nothing about the learning environment, the culture of learning. By omission you give an impression that there is a detachment of the board members from student learning, that surprised me and raises concerns. I believe that the purpose of our schools is facilitation of student learning, and I see the importance of budgeting, of administrative selections, and of community relations and I am concerned that any organization's board is solely focused on the administrative aspects of an organization that that organization will become more about its administration than its purpose. If the board is does not have responsibility for student learning then if not through the board members then how does the community express its interest in student learning?
Keith Warnick
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 10:29am
Duane, Here is a link to the hundreds of classes offered by MASB. Through my previous (8) years on a school board, I took over (50) of these classes. All very beneficial to me being effective in my service. Along with those MASB classes, other entities offer training that supplement what MASB offers. School board members should be required to take many of these classes. I have seen too many board members either don't want to be bothered or think they already know everything.
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 1:51pm
Keith, Thank you for the link. 'Visionary Leadership', what does that really mean, is that something with an immediate impact on a school district that is struggling with enrollment, student success, financial struggles, and residents’ discontent? I consider myself a practical guy, and from my experience their focus on such topics as ‘visionary leadership’ is the kind of ‘speak’ that puts my teeth on edge. Rather than have a course that address why a person ran for a board seat or what the purpose of a school district is, the focus seems to be on topics that are more about structure and the very high level approach . I hoped for a program is be about helping board members understand the purpose of the organization they have responsibility for overseeing, for guiding, for ensuring that it is delivering on its purpose. I had thought they would help board members understand how their actions will impact, how to gain a better understanding of the protocols/practices of the organization, what means to use to become knowledgeable in their district’s functioning and the knowledge and skills that it requires, how to verify the operations and results. Instead it seemed more focused on mechanics of a board seat than about results. Not having taken any of the courses, only reading what is written, I wonder if they might be soft on immediate practical applicability and more about a global approach or a much large organization perspective. I was hoping to find help with practical issues such as understanding learning dynamics, classroom/school environments, individual [student, teacher, administrator/Board member/public] roles/responsibilities in the learning process, more about asking/listening, about expectations and accountability, about transparency, about engaging the community, about metrics, about results, etc. I think there would be great value if the courses would addressed the personal experiences that would lend to being an effective board member or the particular activities that effective board members practice. I thought there might be topics/information that would include items voters could use when evaluating candidates, or people considering running should address. Thank you again, the link has provided me with more realistic expectations of that training program. I believe there should be more emphasis on results/performance before pushing for that program to be required. I would encourage the program frame at least a few of the courses around translating the motivation for running for a board seat into practices board members could use.
Kathy Bilger
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 11:00am
Livonia Public Schools just honored 3 board members for completing training. 1 person completed the basic level while 2 others completed advanced training. Much of it is done online, some is done on weekends. Board members know the law and funding so they are not caught by surprise. It is ignorance that gets you in trouble. Any school board in Michigan is caught squarely in the middle, between the unions, parents, state legislature and governor. They are the ball in a game of 4 square. Knowledge is their only weapon. We have a governor and legislature that is robbing the k-12 budget, making it so districts cant afford pay increases for teachers, new books, electives and even buses. How does this affect you? The value of your home is largely determined by the school district in which you live therefore your school board election is more important to your home's value than the presidential election. Make sure your school board is the best educated, best trained it can be. PS the largest share of the school funding goes to retiree health care costs not pensions.
Stephen C Brown
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 11:54am
Well said! My experience in Ann Arbor, as a parent, bears all this out.
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 6:39pm
I find it difficult to believe that "the largest share of the school funding goes to retiree health care costs not pensions." I seem to recall that over 27% of payroll went to fund pensions. If retiree health costs were more than that, that would mean half the payroll went for pensions and retiree health care.
George Tanner
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 12:16pm
I have served on a community revitalization Board for 6 years as a President. What I have learned is this: Any Board should have a CPA and an Attorney for checks and balances. Include training.
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 1:13pm
I would add to that a labor relations expert. Most private companies strive to have a diversity of experience on their board. Even with that too many boards become a rubber stamp for a strong CEO. Some school board members are not strong enough to say no to a strong superintendent.
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 2:11pm
Served on my local school board for five years. Quickly learned that the board of education is the only body that has the overall well being of a district at heart. All others, staff, unions, parents, students are simply special interest groups, each with its own interests and agenda. I don't know how many times I was told to "cut the frills" when asking for a vote of the people for more revenues. A frill I learned is anything ones child is not involved with. My mail box has not been blown up even once since I left the board. If every resident was required to serve on the board of education, local school districts would be much better understood and supported! It's a thankless job!
David Medema
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 3:23pm
We get what we pay for, and responsible governance requires that we invest in our public servant board members. They deserve this. We taxpayers deserve the assurance that our community leaders have the resources to grow their skills. If boards flourish, it will help our kids flourish. Well done MASB!
Fri, 05/20/2016 - 12:28am
Have you ever seen the MEA's publication called "How to Election Your Employer"? With elections off cycle (why is this?) so only the teachers and their friends' vote, if the MEA says "Don't vote for Sally for school board", even though she is talented , she won't get on the board. The unions have been influencing school boards for 30 years and that is why our kids are in the bottom 1/3 nationally in reading and math and our teachers are in the top 10% nationally for salary and benefits. I think all the training is great but until you get rid of the teachers union, things are never going to change. Also, the voters tend not to care about what is going on. The MEA statewide strategy for ISD (intermediary school districts), who are allowed to raise taxes for operating expenses, keeps running millages--right now it is the Special Education Millage which raised taxes again and freed up around $22 million dollars in the Ann Arbor Public School budget. Gosh--where is that windfall of money going to go? I assure you it is not going to to double the efforts put forth for special education children but right in the teacher and administrators pockets. Why not fund some of the sports you cut in the last financial crisis? Who wouldn't vote for the special education kids? Livingston County passed it. Washtenaw County passed it. I don't think this is just a coincidence that we are all of the sudden raising money for special education that we are already paying for. School boards are corrupt. Half of these people are indirectly being paid in some way by the teacher's union or their allies. Brighton Public Schools have some rabble-rousers on it so maybe there is some hope.
Kevin Grand
Fri, 05/20/2016 - 1:00pm
Still missing the better trained board members=better school board argument. Two quick points off of the top of my head: Detroit elected Wayne State Grad Otis Mathis to the DPS Board only to find out that 1.) he is illiterate, and 2.) he had a penchant for touching himself inappropriately during meetings. He is no longer associated with DPS. The other had to do with the school board member up on Lansing who was brought up on multiple charges of theft from her district just last year. Since they lacked enough common sense to realize that stealing from kids is bad, then I'm not aware of any class that could teach that person otherwise. If I had more time, and were so inclined, I'm pretty sure that I can find more examples.
Keith Warnick
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 5:20pm
Kevin, you can find corruption, fraud and embezzlement on the local, state and national levels with any elected officials.
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 5:20am
Our Governor instituted something called better practices a few years ago. He said show me ways of saving money like privatization , outsourcing,grants, etc. and I won't raise the schools contribution into the retirement system . It cost my wife the only school nurse her job after 25 years. It worked now the school only has to kick in 25 % Thank you Gov. Snyder. Give more money to business that pass around the saving to us. Ya RIGHT.
Cyndi Peltonen
Sun, 05/22/2016 - 10:03pm
I served on the Clawson Board of Education for 20 years. I took many of the classes MASB offers and feel I was a better board member for it. The value in MASB training is not only the classes that are offered, but the interaction with other board members throughout the state. It gives you a broader perspective and you gain insights on how things are done in different parts of the state. I think one reason it's hard to get people to run for open seats is the state's failure to adequately fund a "free and appropriate education". As funding from the state to individual districts continues its steady decline, boards' primary focus is to cut expenditures. That's a thankless job and not many want to volunteer. The other deterrent is loss of local control. As legislators, (most of whom do not have a professional background in education, and no training from the likes of MASB), continue to prescribe not only what schools must do - but how, the hands of local school boards are tied.
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 6:20am
Cyndi you are right on with your last comment. They prescribe what must be done and they say for the most part all must jump through the same hoops. Examples were two years of foreign language, chemistry or physics, 4 years of math,online experience etc. They are finally backing off on some but for some maybe a little to late. Two years of a foreign language is not necessary, Algebra, geometry,Algebra 2, and beyond are not necessary for ALL students to graduate, not to mention chemistry or physics. R.L.
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 7:21pm
R.L., You give the impression of being one of those that isn't sure what an education is to provide, why children even need to attend school. The world we live in is changing and the process of learning, having more knowledge and skills, knowing how to study and learn, how to think and decide, how to work smarter is more important than ever. Each subject you mention is something that is becoming more used by people in their everyday lives and in their jobs. When you mention a foreign language I would offer that to most people computer languages are foreign and yet that is something people can learn and use and even build a career on. Think of the math, you may feel knowing how to read the pictures on a checkout register is all that people need to know. Consider how a lack of math skills limits their ability to develop and follow a family budge, understand the cost of a mortgage, the real cost of minimum payments on a credit card, people us algebra to figure out how much paint to buy when painting a room, how to know if the estimate for home repairs is credible, in they want a skilled job or a technical one they will need algebra and more, it they need to learn how to think logically geometry is a great teacher. If you don't want people at the mercy of those who are selling something then people need math, or if expect them to have a good pay job in the future they need math [more than arithmetic]. When you mentioned not needing chemistry I thought you must not do any baking or cooking. The chemistry of cooking can be the different between a tasteless cookie and one you look forward to as a treat. The ability to read and understand the nutritional labels on food is based on what you can learn in chemistry, to appreciate the potential impact of the foods and drugs is chemistry, the tattoos and their removal are all about chemistry. None of this includes the potential of a well-paying career in the chemical and food and other related industries. Physics is something that applies to everything we do from sports and how we play them, to the driving of cars safely, to practical side of application of home repair, even the fun rides at amusement parks are all about physics. As for careers, its the application of physics from carpentry and other skilled careers to many technical degrees in electronics that use physics and the care of machines that make our cars and the cars themselves are applied physics. How will kids know how their world works, how they can do things better [smarter and more effectively], what know their career possibilities are if they don't learn about the sciences and math that the future knowledge and skills job will require. We have move from a hard work economy to knowledge and skills based economy where people have to be able to understand the information they need to make decision and take actions. With the knowledge gained in the math, chemistry, physics, and computer language classes they will be better prepared to enter this economy and succeed. Where do you think the people in those well paid start, it is in the K-12 studying the subjects that take work and studying and thinking.
Thu, 05/26/2016 - 4:25pm
Duane I see your point but I think you are missing mine. I said not ALL kids need all of these subjects at the level they are taught. If you struggle in Algebra you will struggle in Chemistry Even Foreign Language teachers say 2 years is not that important unless you. continue on and have a foreign exchange experience. How many years did yo spend in the schools teaching or whatever. I was there 35 years. Yeas our world is far more complicated and advanced than when we went 50 years ago. I repeat All kids don't ALL need the same things. The State is finally realizing this and adjusting some of these requirements. Oh yes I know we make certain concessions for special Ed. kids. Love to hear you response. You are right about math skills but make them relevant to the kids. Show me how all these requirements are NEEDED by ALL kids in many of the occupations in the service area. Many yeas not all. Thank God for AP classes and some dual enrollment. Love to hear from you.