What is the job of the school board, anyway?

Work holds little appeal for many people, even as new studies question boards' role in an era of reform.

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It's the job that gave Jimmy Carter his start in politics.

It has alternately been described as "the most important volunteer job in this country" and "the toughest job in elected American government."

It's the job of a school board member, and with the current intense focus on education in today's political arena, the work isn't getting any easier.

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"Every politician you can name is making education the No. 1 issue," says Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Board Association, based in Alexandria, Va. That kind of scrutiny, she says, puts "a lot of pressure on school board members."

In addition, groups concerned with educational reform are raising fresh questions about the role of school boards.

Traditionally, they oversee the budget, establish policy, and hire superintendents. But a recent study of executive directors of state school boards suggests some have become too bogged down in the day-to-day management of schools, and recommends new state laws more clearly limiting boards to policy decisions.

Meanwhile, the New York City Board of Education announced last week - in recognition of the growing complexity of the tasks boards face - that it will break with tradition by bringing in outside experts from business, government, and community organizations to sit on some of its permanent committees.

The vast majority of the approximately 95,000 members on the almost 15,000 school boards in the United States are elected - rather than appointed - to their positions. Almost none are paid. Most spend a minimum of three to four hours a week on their board duties, while for some it becomes the equivalent of a full-time job.

For many, the work has become increasingly thankless. "You're sitting in the hot seat," says Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association in Trenton. "And often times there's not a lot of glory in it."

A relentless sense of pressure may be one reason why it's getting difficult to get candidates to run for their local school board in some parts of the country.

In Iowa, for instance, 59 percent of candidates ran unopposed in 1998, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards in Des Moines, up from 51 percent in 1996. And yet in other districts - especially urban areas - the races are more hotly contested than ever.

A report by the NSBA earlier this year stated that while a school-board candidate in an urban area might have spent $5,000 to campaign for a seat a few years ago, costs today could be closer to $15,000 to $20,000.

Some observers suggest, however, that the current fascination with education could be driving both movements. The same force that makes these jobs higher-profile than ever attracts certain kinds of candidates but repels others.

Motives for serving on a school board are as diverse as the boards themselves. Many people get involved because they have children in school. Others are looking for a way to exert influence in their communities. Some are single-issue candidates, hoping to see schools adopt a particular curriculum, or come in line with a specific political ideology. There are also those who are merely attracted by the patronage possibilities the job offers.

But for people who serve simply to make a positive difference in their communities, the tight scrutiny and relentless criticism focused on many public schools today are discouraging forces.

More and more schools are under pressure to show student improvement on standardized test scores, and school boards are often the first to feel the heat if scores don't instantly inch upward.

"We live in a culture of instancy," Dr. Bryant says. "Cash machines can spew cash when you need it, e-mail can connect you to your long-lost cousin in Europe in five minutes."

So if raising student achievement was under discussion last month, she says, the public wants to know, "Why isn't it happening this month?"

Especially in small towns, where school-board members are highly accessible to their constituents - often meeting them regularly in the grocery store and at soccer games - impatience with and criticism of the school system can be hard to take.

Kristen Amundson served for eight years on her local school board in Fairfax County, Va., and says that although in many ways she loved the experience, "The quality of my life is infinitely better now that I'm not [on the board.]"

Ms. Amundson says parents could become "vicious" when it came to issues like drawing boundary lines that determined which children went to which school. It was not uncommon, she says, for her to get up to 100 voice-mail messages a day about board business.

"People would call and scream," she says.

But increasing parental scrutiny isn't the only force weighing down school boards, says Richard Elmore, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "There's an unacknowledged crisis going on around school boards today," Professor Elmore says.

Once, he explains, school boards tended to attract the elite of the community, a very homogeneous group of businessmen who saw serving on the board as a means of doing civic duty.

Today, however, these same boards are much more apt to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the neighborhoods they serve, he says.

"Whether that's good or bad depends on how much you believe in public democracy," he says. In many ways, he insists, school boards today are healthier and more democratic because they reflect a greater diversity of interests. But it is also true, he adds, that "that highly pluralistic point of view has certainly made their work incredibly more difficult."

Elmore points out that at the same time, cries for accountability have brought school boards under attack as they have never been before, with mayors in some large cities with troubled school systems - like Chicago and Detroit - co-opting school board responsibilities.

In Australia, which had a system similar to the US, school boards were eliminated about 15 years ago in favor of direct state control of schools, he says, adding, "I expect some states to start experimenting with that [in the US] now."

Yet school boards are deeply rooted in US tradition. Their origins can be traced to colonial times, when the Massachusetts Law of 1642 empowered town officers to compel parents to teach their children to read.

The US school-board system "is the ultimate in democracy" and "the envy of many countries," Bryant says. Almost every week, she says, delegates arrive from abroad to study the US system.

Carolyn Jones says she served on the Ames Community School District board in Iowa for 15 years and found it a very rewarding experience. She notes, however, that a changing pace of life makes it harder for many volunteers to put in the 20-plus hours each week that she did on the job.

"People are running pretty fast today just to keep up with their own lives," she says. However, she adds, perhaps what's really needed is a clearer sense of the importance of the job.

"We do what we really care about," she says. "We do it when we see it makes a difference."

*E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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