The need for school board leadership

Timothy G. Kremer

Guest blogger Timothy G. Kremer is the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

Mark Twain once famously remarked "I'm all for progress, it's change that I can't stand."  Of course, Twain fully understood progress does not happen without changes to the status quo.

What constitutes progress for a school board? Hiring a great new superintendent and forging a harmonious partnership? Often, school board progress is defined in the form of a strategic plan that the entire staff and community rally around. Both are reasons to be proud because they can lead to great accomplishments.

School board members must welcome all rational forms of change that serve the goal of raising student achievement.

Ultimately, though, progress has to be measured in terms of student achievement gains. Unlike Mark Twain, school board members must welcome all rational forms of change that serve the goal of raising student achievement.

School boards have generally been supportive of the New York State Regents Reform Agenda, although it is fair to say that that many boards have a healthy dose of skepticism about grand, top-down initiatives such as Race to the Top, Common Core Standards and the new Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR.

Isn't it interesting that after all these years, New York and seven other states recently were granted a waiver from the punitive, one-size-fits-all requirements of No Child Left Behind that have proven to be, in the words of New York Education Commissioner John King, "unproductive and unrealistic?"

The emphasis now is on "college and career readiness," individual student progress and teacher evaluations.

The New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) is in close contact with the New NY Education Reform Commission assembled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which could provide us with a great opening to achieve some of our most elusive goals or create another heavy-handed hammer that obliterates school boards' authority and local community control of their school systems.

Think forced consolidations, countywide governance structures and removal of school boards and superintendents in underperforming school districts.

But if the governor's commission can help you raise student achievement, better protect the school learning environment, help strengthen your workforce, recommend a sufficient and fair state aid formula, and engage an often distracted community, more power to them.

However, the reform-minded, New York City-centric, CEO-heavy, charter school-friendly commission members might heed the words of another, less noteworthy philosopher—one of my former colleagues, in fact—who once told me "no job is too difficult if you are not the one doing the work."

NYSSBA will be a constant reminder to the commission that in the real world school districts are rapidly depleting reserve funds, relying on attrition and retirements to control costs, trying to be creative at seeking hard-fought concessions at the bargaining table, and conducting layoffs of both instructional and non-instructional staff, including administrators. School districts are also making long-term structural changes, perhaps overdue, by closing schools, reorganizing functions around new technologies and sharing staff and programs with other districts. 

The results of the New York's statewide 2012 budget votes made it clear that school boards realized that their communities were acutely aware of the new “2 percent” tax levy cap and opted to stay within the allowable limit.  If so, the budget was almost guaranteed to pass. But at what price?

There are many districts across New York State that are in current fiscal distress. They have little or no reserves, a shrinking tax base, and what some of you might consider an unacceptable academic program. Perhaps you have heard of them. What will become of their students?

Those of you who have been involved in public education for any length of time know that the notion of reform seems to be more of a permanent endeavor than a transitional state in education.  But, honestly, given rapidly changing demands on our students, we can't afford to stand still or rest on our laurels. We constantly have to ask ourselves: what should students be learning today that will make them prepared for tomorrow?

All students need the ability to apply classroom learning to meet real-world challenges in all subjects, including language, math, science, and social studies.  Students who can think critically about information, solve novel problems, communicate and collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change will be at a great advantage throughout their lifetimes.  But, to produce independent and creative thinkers, students also need to know about literature, art, and history. Critical thinking and problem-solving rely on content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation.  For success both on the job and in their personal lives, students must know how to apply what they learn toward real world challenges, rather than simply “reproduce” the information on tests.

The true test for any board's leadership capabilities comes during times of fiscal uncertainty due to uncontrollable conditions.

As an elected representative and student advocate, a school board member must be engaged, aware, and up-to-speed regarding issues that drive student learning. Today, school boards have become policymakers responsible for meeting state and national reforms with local resources. It is a hard job that is getting harder. Everyone in your school district, including your board, is expected to embrace a dynamic global perspective and find local ways to prepare students for success in a changing world.

The true test for any board's leadership capabilities comes during times of fiscal uncertainty due to uncontrollable conditions. This is when boards must "own the mission," in other words; protect the traditional core programs, especially curriculum development and quality instruction. Simultaneously, boards and professional educators must adapt to a new normal that commands new teaching and management methodologies and efficiencies. This phenomena—exciting and excruciating, depending on specific circumstances and one's point of view—is on display in school districts across New York.

Student-centered, forward-thinking, intelligent school board leadership has never been more in demand.

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View is hosting a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at pmeyer@edexcellence.net if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.

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