Education Matters: A Thankless Job (That Somebody's Gotta Do)

Published on: December 30, 2013

Vote.Blink and you might miss the ballots that just arrived in Seattle homes, in advance of our Aug. 6 primary elections. You might be on vacation during election time or be busy with other things.

“Older women tend to be the people who bother to vote in primaries,” a seasoned politico told me.

I vote in primaries. Does that make me old?

If you care about education, you should care about a few of the races underway. The first is the mayoral race. Read my Crosscut story on the subject, if you’re wondering what the mayor has to do with schools.

Obviously, the school board races are important to folks who care about education, which should be everyone who lives and works in our city. Two seats are up for grabs (School Board Director Betty Patu, who represents Southeast Seattle, is running unopposed): The school board director representing District IV (Phinney Ridge, Ballard, Queen Anne and Magnolia) and the representative for District V (Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, Central District and downtown).

Here’s a roundup of the candidates and of the issues, which include ongoing capacity problems and the implementation of the Common Core standards.

Because I’ve been so interested in education policy, people have asked me if I would consider running for school board.

“Are you kidding?” I’ve responded. “It’s a thankless job. Even if I were interested, I can’t afford it. There’s no salary.” People I have approached with the same question have had the same response.

School board directors are expected to hire and evaluate a superintendent, develop and balance a budget, establish policies for district governance, adopt instructional materials, maintain fiduciary and legal responsibility for the District and represent the community.

For this, they receive a small stipend and limited administrative support.

I’ve always assumed that the lack of salary discourages people from considering a stint on the school board and that it limits the candidate pool to folks who are independently wealthy, have flexible work schedules or are unemployed, and have a spouse at home to shoulder family responsibilities while their partner is attending evening meetings and Saturday community coffees. I also wondered if Seattle was unique in this respect.

Research on school boards around the country, conducted by Seattle Pacific University professor Dr. Thomas Alsbury, suggests otherwise. At a news conference I attended on school board governance, Alsbury and David Picker, board director of the National School Board Association, say that the greatest predictor of school board success and student achievement is the passion and commitment of its board members.

Most school board representatives around the country receive limited compensation by design. The goal is to for them to be true community members who are not serving for the money.

Further, in a 2013 national study on school board composition, Alsbury found that 33% of school board representatives are current and previous educators, 28% are labor and blue color workers, 24% are business men and women and 15% are professionals.

The current race is illustrative of these statistics. Of the six candidates running, two are unemployed (and have held social service jobs), two are consultants, one is a fulltime professional and one is a sometime freelance journalist and volunteer activist.

The average school board representative spends 20 hours per week on the job, says Alsbury, which seems like a lot of uncompensated time to me, but not much more than the weekly hours I spent as a passionate PTA officer and volunteer at my kids’ elementary school (without a full-time job).

All of the current candidates say passion and commitment have compelled them to run for office.

The National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education has developed eight characteristics of effective school boards.

These are being championed here in Seattle by the Alliance for Education, which convened a task force to study school board governance and best practices.

The conversation couldn’t come at a better time. Last month, during its annual self-evaluation, the Seattle School Board gave itself low marks for performance, citing trust as one of its key deficiencies.

Seattle School Board director Harium Martin-Morris, a member of the Alliance task force, says there is a steep learning curve for new board members. The current board wants to pave the way for success of its new members. Participation in team professional development is a characteristic of successful school boards, and one the Seattle board has engaged in.

We’ve heard it before, but there’s increased talk about the importance of civility and collaboration to regain the public’s trust in our school board. Each of the candidates I interviewed expressed a commitment to this.

So when my primary ballot arrives in the mail, I plan to vote for my district’s school board representative.

Even if it makes me seem old.

246Alison Krupnick is a former world-traveling diplomat, turned minivan-driving mom and writer. She chronicles this transformation in her book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, then Small. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review; Brain, Child; Seattle magazine and a variety of news and trade publications and literary journals and anthologies. You can find more of her education reporting on and enjoy sweet and savory moments and recipes on her blog Slice of Mid-Life. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know!

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