Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 11


Tea Party Board Members:

A Challenge and an




Board-Savvy McAdams

Citizens identifying themselves with the tea party movement are being elected to school boards throughout the nation, especially in more conservative communities. I have worked with boards of education in three states where this has happened, and in every case it has posed a challenge for the veteran board members and the superintendent.

Of course, each situation is unique, but the pattern is the same. The new board members believe school taxes are too high and the school district is wasting money. Usually these board members also clamor about the abysmal state of academic achievement in the local schools. These stances put the tea party affiliates at odds with veteran board members and the superintendent, who see the schools being underfunded and educators working diligently to raise student learning.

Faced with these board dynamics, a superintendent’s first obligation is to avoid aligning with one faction or the other. All board members must be treated the same.

Second, the superintendent should try not to be defensive and dismiss the new board member’s concerns as unfounded. Board-savvy superintendents take all board members’ input seriously. Where new board members have a valid point, they acknowledge it, and where a response is called for, they provide the appropriate response.

Seriously Misinformed
The challenge these new board members present is also is an opportunity. Most likely, they were elected because voters share their views. These voters will be part of future board elections, so winning over the tea party board members is the first step in educating those who support them.

This is where the challenge becomes an opportunity. Some tea party voters and the candidates they elect may be just plain hostile to public schools. But the ones I have met are not unlike most board members — well-educated, well-intentioned, honest and reasonable.

However, they also are seriously misinformed. Board-savvy superintendents start educating them even before they are sworn in as board members. In addition to providing them with a comprehensive orientation to the school district, board operating procedures and state regulations, they invest personal time in developing a cordial professional relationship. And, of course, they encourage veteran board members to do the same.

It may take a year, but I have seen tea party board members, while not changing their views regarding big government, become transformed into champions of their school districts and highly effective members of their governance teams.

A warm welcome and the facts can change minds. And what have the new board members learned? That public education is a public good, not just something for parents. That an effective and efficient public school system is a constitutional requirement in their state, even as the state constitution says little if anything about health care and social services. That school districts must have balanced budgets, and indebtedness for capital expenditures must be approved by voters. That school districts are highly regulated by state statutes, limiting their freedom to innovate.

Facts Prevail
Finally, these new champions of their school districts have learned that bringing all children to grade-level performance is difficult work, that no silver bullets are available, and that teachers and administrators are working hard and welcome constructive criticism.

With nondefensive, open and honest conversations, most new tea party board members learn the facts, and the facts speak for themselves. In the same spirit, this information also must be effectively communicated to voters.

While disagreements over strategy may continue, there is no reason tea party board members and voters cannot take exception to what they see happening in Washington and simultaneously be champions of efficient, effective public education. 

Don McAdams is founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail: mcadams@crss.org

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