High time to mitigate behavior at school board meetings

Theresa Harrington/EdSource

The Oakland School Board leaves the dais as district police stand guard October 10, 2019 after anti-school closure protesters disrupted the meeting.

Over the past twenty-five years, I have attended and watched many school board meetings. I know this is not normal behavior. Once, while on a getaway to a posh resort in Ojai, my wife came back from the spa to find me lying on the bed ecstatically gazing at the Ojai Unified School Board Meet.

“You’re sick,” she said, and I didn’t argue with her.

People think school board meetings are knee-deep boring business in educational jargon. Most of the time, that’s true. But from time to time, they turn into a theater of the absurd. I once watched each member of a five-person council repeatedly vote for themselves for council chair before realizing they were being mocked on social media. More commonly, during budget cuts and periods of contract negotiation, they are the bureaucratic equivalent of a shark attack – hours of boring presentations punctuated by a sudden surge of public rage that tears district leaders apart.

The vast majority of school board members are decent, dedicated public servants who do hard work for little or no pay. But like all politicians, there are those who abuse their power. I have seen board members serially humiliate the leaders and staff of their school systems, treating them with a level of contempt that is the definition of bullying and toxic work environments. I have seen them allow powerful voters, especially labor leaders, to do the same without having the decency to intervene on their behalf.

I’ve seen them spend hours responding to a few local horseflies with free time to go through board agendas and then change decisions with multi-million dollar implications based on a few ill-informed public comments. . I saw them being condescending and cruel to each other.

This is why I am fascinated by the recent interest in the disruptive behavior by parents at school board meetings. As I noted, these meetings were never polite Victorian debating societies. For all the rhetoric about parental involvement, these were not public events, but insider games controlled by powerful interest groups. It was certainly not about educating children. A typical board meeting agenda is full of legal matters, construction contracts, and more. – everything except teaching and learning. Nothing was going to change that dynamic…until a global pandemic closed all schools.

Suddenly I wasn’t the only one watching school board meetings. Parents, worried about the impact of distance education on their children, have started watching virtual board meetings and asking reasonable questions about their children’s education. Granted, there were far too many parents opposed to the pandemic restrictions, focused on political performances like critical race theory or just plain racist, homophobic, etc. that disrupted meetings and attacked district board members and staff. But most were like these parents in the ultra-progressive San Francisco Unified who organized the school board recall. They have seen the negative impact of prolonged school closures on their children, raised concerns and learned that their voices and their children do not matter and that nonsensical issues like renaming schools mattered more.

This level of parent awareness is long overdue, not just in San Francisco, but across the state. As several commentators have noted, the San Francisco recall it wasn’t about culture wars but irresponsible governance. The lesson that policy makers should draw from this reminder and from the activism of parents is the importance of responsible governance and management centered on the needs of students. This will not happen without a stronger role for the state.

Encourage civility

Board meetings should be civil, whether it’s about masking, budget cuts or teacher salaries. Senate Bill 1100, written by state Sen. Dave Cortese and Member of the Assembly Evan Low is a step in the right direction. It would encourage better speaker behavior at board meetings by changing Brown’s law to clarify “willfully interrupting” to mean “intentionally engaging in behavior that materially impairs or renders impossible the smooth conduct of the meeting.” The governor and legislative leaders should go further to improve the general civility of school board meetings. This would include establishing codes of conduct for all participants, including board members, with explicit penalties for those who repeatedly violate them.

Monitor and promote organizational stability

Heads of state should also convene a statewide commission comprising California School Boards Associationthe California Association of School Administratorsthe APT and other experts on how to improve district culture and leadership stability, building on CSBA trainings that clearly define governance and management responsibilities. In some neighborhoods like San Francisco, councils have serially violated these lines of accountability, leading to unrest at board meetings and the constant turnover of superintendents and staff. It is time to change this dynamic and ensure that the institutions responsible for our children are led by people who act like responsible adults.

To this end, the state should also monitor district stability in areas such as superintendent tenure, teacher/principal rotation, and other parameters. Organizational stability is strongly linked to improved student outcomes. Where there is clear evidence of continued instability and poor student achievement, local and state agencies should be empowered to use the same interventions available in fiscal crises, such as county oversight.

Remove flash points

Finally, the state can support the stability of districts and their ability to focus on student success by changing decision-making in politically tense areas like school closures. Given declining enrollment in our state, these closures will only accelerate in the years to come, creating even more public chaos like the terrible situation at Oakland Unified. Heads of state should create regional school closure commissions, like the Base realignment and closure commission used by the military to close military bases, which could rule on school closure recommendations based on a clear set of criteria and make final decisions after hearing from both sides.

There is a saying that the pandemic has changed everything. When it comes to parent engagement, I think that’s true. There are many more parents’ eyes than mine looking at school boards these days. As a state, we must ensure that what they see assures them that their children are in good hands.


Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot learningan Oakland-based nonprofit organization that strives to improve academic achievement in public schools.

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