Kansas school boards – changes, challenges and accountability

Kansas school boards – changes, challenges and accountability

This is my 30th year working for KASB, and every year I’ve spent the first weekend in December at our annual convention, seeing hundreds of our members just a month before trying to represent them in the legislative session opening in January as their lobbyist. 

And as always, I was impressed by these Kansans – the only elected officials in Kansas who by law cannot receive salaries; for whom the biggest perk is a free pass to student activities. They come from literally every walk of life: farmers, small business owners, homemakers and corporate executives; retirees and recent graduates; teachers and those who struggled in school. They include some of the most conservative and most liberal people I know, and many who would resist any label. 

They have just one thing in common: friends, neighbors and strangers elected them to look out for the education of their children. (Or, in a few cases, they are chosen by other elected board members – not political party officers – to fill vacancies on their board.) 

A consequence of changing school board elections from spring to fall of odd-numbered years is that our convention now gets to welcome many of the hundreds of newly elected board members every two years and say goodbye to many who are leaving their positions; most by choice, a few involuntarily. Some have served a few years; some for decades. The newcomers are usually brimming with excitement. The veterans reflect a mixture of relief and melancholy. They will have many more open nights, but they’ll miss the excitement of being part of something special, like the thrill of each year’s graduation ceremony. 

They will miss out on a lot of things that are not so pleasant. A word to new board members: thicken your skin. You will not get a lot of late-night phone calls, e-mail and social media posts from people who just want to thank you for a job well done. Your new job is to make tough decisions that will make people mad. (After all, isn’t that why some of you ran for the board?) 

When the new terms begin in January, school boards will face deep concerns about the quality of education; big differences in educational success based on income, race and disability; employers saying they can’t find employees with the skills they need; taxpayers sure their money is being wasted. Keep one thing in mind: that has been the case in every one of my 30 years at KASB; every year since Kansas became a state; every year since the American common school movement was launched over two hundred years ago. The reality is that public schools have always been, and always will be “failing” in the eyes of some because we keep rising the bar on what we expect them to do. 

Here is my premise: the greatest problems school boards face today and have always faced are not problems of the school system; they are social and economic problems schools are being asked to solve. 

Educational levels in Kansas have never been higher. More students graduate high school, attend higher education and complete programs that increase their income, employability and keep them out of poverty than ever before. Despite this, you will hear people complain that schools used to be so much better; as if somehow we could turn back the clock to more stable families and strong social institutions and an economy that could provide middle class jobs for just a high school diploma or less (and when we didn’t really worry much about educating students with disabilities or from deep poverty or the wrong skin color). 

We can’t turn back that clock. School board members will be asked to do the following: make school like it was in the good old days (but get better results the we did then); get tougher on grades and discipline and safety (unless that affects my child the wrong way); raise test scores (even though students, parents and employers say what is most important really can’t be measured by test scores); and close those gaps in student performance (but don’t spend TOO much money and attention on “those” kids and their lazy parents). 

I don’t mean to be cynical. As school leaders we absolutely must commit to improving our public schools. Our Delegate Assembly approved five priority goals: attracting and keeping high quality educators; improving success of our lower performing students; improving student health and safety; preparing more students to succeed in postsecondary education, careers and life; and leading effective, efficient school districts. 

To meet those goals, we really do have to figure out how to preserve what has worked in the past AND change what hasn’t; be both tougher AND more supportive of students; raise test scores responsibly AND address those “non-testable” attributes students need and the public wants; and raise up our lower performing students WITHOUT taking away from the most successful. 

Easy, right? It just hasn’t ever been done. 

For myself, I think the best way to figure this out and keep Kansas moving forward is to strengthen the role of our local board members, not weaken it. It is sometimes suggested school boards shouldn’t be trusted with educational decisions because they lack accountability. That is like saying elected Senators and Representatives can’t be trusted to make laws because they lack accountability. Democracy is the accountability. 

That doesn’t mean local boards are infallible. The Legislature, the State Board of Education, the federal government all have a role in setting standards and maintaining the rights of students, parents, employees and patrons. But I would suggest no other group is BETTER to lead educational improvement. 

Board members: after another weekend together, I’ll trust you to prove me right.