What do you think? Mayor? Councillor? Or maybe you secretly long to be a school board member. If so, the following is for you. Speaking personally, it’s been a fantastic experience being a school board member. I’ve loved it. I’ve hated it. And most days I fall somewhere in between. It’s an honour and a privilege and I recommend it to anyone who believes and wants to invest personally in public education. Elections are in October, so there’s still plenty of time to prepare with these tips.
1. Attend meetings: Being there in person provides the full picture. And do some homework ahead of time: go online, read agendas and attachments, jot down thoughts, questions and your position on decision items.
2. Read the Education Act: It’s rambling, hard to follow, in need of overhaul and your new bible. Read the board’s guiding documents: strategic plan, business plan, budget, long range outlook, minutes, reports and policies. They’re online too. The strategic plan expires in 2017. How will you improve it? (Hint: Whatever you do, connect it to student learning. That’s as it is with all things.)
3. Plug into a School Advisory Council: There’s one at every school, advising the principal. Whether parent or community member you can attend and observe. Find out what’s on peoples’ minds. SACs are one-third of the elected voice of education in this province along with the minister of Education and school board members.
4. Ask yourself why you want the job: I wanted to fix the school board. I disagreed with something staff had done, turned that into generalized condemnation and arrived ready to do battle. The problem? Being a board member isn’t about that. Board staff are good at what they do: the day-to-day running of the system. The governing board needs to be just as good at what it does: providing direction. That involves more than nursing pet peeves and grandstanding. It means understanding the whole system in all its complexity and acting with the best interests of 136 schools, almost 50,000 students and a few hundred thousand citizens in mind. That’s how you serve public education: With students and equity front and centre.
5. On the edge of a knife: While essential that you understand and respect the system, you’re there to represent constituents. Be their voice. This means being conflicted. Within your district there will be disagreement—not only with you but with one another. How will you handle it? Are you an appeaser who, as Winston Churchill said, “feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last?” Or will you take it all in, all the information your vantage point affords, and form your own opinion? You have to figure out how to marry district representation with that of of every child and citizen. Being there for your schools and issues alone won’t cut it. That means hard decisions and being taken to task.
6. How much time do you have? It’s a part-time job with full-time aspirations. It’s meant to fit in around the edges of your life. The work is demanding and preparation essential. The board recently received a 115-page package with the agenda; there were five days to read and digest. Generally speaking, the work takes five to 15 hours a week. And the learning curve is steep. My first year it felt like drinking from a fire hydrant. Public office is a right that comes with a lot of responsibility.