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Sherman Says: Serving on a school board is now more thankless than ever

Voting will take place May 20 in public school districts across New York state on 2014-15 budgets. Decisions will also be made on who will serve on local school boards.

While the budget process is knee-deep in state mandates, running for a school board seat is asking for trouble. The job comes with long hours and zero pay.

Years ago, it was a male-dominated role. Consider this newspaper item from 1937: “Members of the Williamsville High School Board of Education, together with their wives, are being entertained this evening by the high school faculty at the Old Orchard Inn, East Aurora.”

While this was still the era when men were men and women stayed home, it’s curious that the faculty took the school board to dinner. I doubt the affair will be repeated in any Western New York districts this year.

Board members wrestle with such old school decisions as contracts for cafeteria food and office supplies, but now are face to face with codes of conduct, harassment complaints and how to balance a budget under the pressure of declining enrollment.

Many board members come from the educational community and are already immersed in a passionate desire to help each student succeed. Instead of influencing one classroom or one school, they are charged with doing what’s best for an entire community.

Several districts in Western New York have approved having a non-voting, student member serve on the board of education. As I have written before, this is a progressive move that more districts should consider.

John Bryan Starr, a lecturer in Yale University’s political science department, said he has conflicting opinions about students serving on school boards.

“During the first half of my tenure as an elected member on the [New Canaan, Connecticut] school board, there were these two poor kids, who just sat there glassy-eyed in total boredom. They didn’t have a vote and virtually never had a voice,” he said. Clearly, there must be a mechanism in place to select motivated students for such roles. I blame the board if the student members are bored.

Other students who sat on school boards before college have had much more positive experiences, he added.

“While it’s highly unusual for them to be given a vote, students were able to assemble opinions, engage in deliberations and felt they were actively representing their peers’ interests,” he said.

School board members and district administrators can benefit from a stronger connection to the youth over which they have so much influence.

Controversy arose in Pennsylvania recently when the staff of a student newspaper voted to ban use of the word “Redskin” from its pages out of respect for Native Americans. A school board committee overruled the students by passing a policy that prohibits the publication from banning the word.

“The word will not be printed in the newspapers, used online or stated in video reports in reference to Neshaminy [High School] sports teams or Washington’s NFL franchise except in stories dealing specifically with the controversy surrounding the name,” the youthful journalists wrote.

That’s not where it ended. According to the Washington Post, the editorial boards of the Bucks County Courier Times and its sister papers, the Intelligencer and the Burlington County Times, approved a similar policy.

Board members are also confronted today by misuse of social media within the ranks of district employees and potential electronic interaction with students. They contemplate the placement of soft drink machines in district buildings, weighing the value of refreshment against the dangers of childhood obesity.

The biggest educational concern in decades is the debate concerning the implementation of Common Core standards, with the ripple effect being felt far and wide.

It’s encouraging therefore, that dedicated adults still are willing to make the commitment to serve on their local school boards. I can’t imagine what those all-male board members from 1937 would think of the decisions their successors have to make today.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers.Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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