How parents can affect local school boards

The general public and school board members don't necessarily see eye to eye when it comes to educational priorities. A Gallup poll last year showed that the top educational concerns of the public were:

* Discipline.

* Drug abuse.

* Curriculum reform.

School board members, however, have different priorities. According to a nationwide survey published in the January American School Board Journal, the top priorities of board members are related to budgetary items:

* Decreasing enrollment.

* Declining tax base.

* Cutting staff.

* Collective bargaining.

Discipline came in 11th. Drug abuse was not even listed; and as to curriculum reform, it came in sixth.

A San Francisco school board member and former teacher, Libby Denebeim, said she's not surprised.

''As soon as the average citizen becomes a school board member,'' Mrs. Denebeim said, ''he or she is hit by the issue of survival - survival of the system. But the economic concern for survival can go so far that school districts might avoid risk-taking and controversial issues.''

She cited the problem of drug-abuse education, a controversial issue, that the public may be concerned with. ''But in San Francisco itself,'' she noted, ''practically nothing is going on in the way of alcohol and drug abuse education.''

She continued, ''All over the country the problem is in the schools, but board members in general don't want to deal with it. Past programs weren't very successful, so rather than deal with them, the problem itself has been swept under the rug.''

Mrs. Denebeim, a mother of six children, then suggested how one might make such public concerns as drug abuse become the concerns of school board members as well. ''One might think that the right way would be for a distraught mother to go to her principal and tell him she knows her son is getting drugs on campus and let the principal take it from there.

''But too often, with a 'don't rock the boat' principal, this only starts the 'blame the victim' syndrome, with the principal suggesting that the mother must be doing something wrong herself at home.''

Her solution: ''Parents have got to organize. This distraught mother should find five other concerned parents, and then after forming a committee and going to the principal, this committee should start the 'wallpaper treatment' with letters going out to the principal, to parent and teacher organizations, to the superintendent, to school board members, and to the press.

''The group should organize itself into a mass, pack the board room, and generally if it gets its picture on the front page, then it might be able to get something done. It's a noisy way to do it,'' Mrs. Denebeim said, ''but it's the right way.''

Mrs. Denebeim further maintains that such grass-roots activity is an effective way of keeping school boards informed.

''When a person becomes a board member, sources of information often dry up. Ironically, many members often say they know less about what's going on than they did before they were elected.

''On a number of occasions I've had parents or teachers inform me of positions our Sacramento lobbyist was taking that I knew absolutely nothing about. Without my background as a former teacher and a full-time community activist, I would know a lot less. But I get out; I visit classrooms; I'm still an officer of my local PTA.''

Clearly, a great deal of active parent-and-teacher involvement has contributed to the excellence of some of the city's programs. For example, Lowell High School was cited last year by Money magazine as being one of the 12 best in the country.

Too, San Francisco's alternative programs reflect the entire spectrum of educational philosophy - all the way from the new back-to-the-basics Raoul Wallenberg High School to the Urban Pioneer program, in which city and wilderness survival skills are emphasized.

As for an answer to the question of how to make school boards more responsive to the educational concerns of the public at large:

''Voters have to elect those who are already qualified,'' Mrs. Denebeim says. ''In the last 25 years, out of the 37 board members San Francisco has had, only three were teachers.''

This thoughtful mother/board member argues: ''Business people sit on business boards. Why shouldn't more educators sit on school boards?''

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