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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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