It’s time for board of education members to put difference aside and get job done
At the most basic level, the Nashua School District belongs to the taxpayers of the city of Nashua. Its purpose is to provide meaningful, quality educational opportunities for the students of Nashua. With an enrollment of more than 11,000 students and an operating budget of nearly $150,000,000, it is one of the largest school districts in New England.
To oversee the operation of their district, make sure money is spent effectively and ensure there are positive educational outcomes for the students, the voters of Nashua elect a nine-member board to represent them. In return for their service, each of these members is paid $4,000 per year for the four years of their term. If committee assignments were evenly distributed, each member would have two committee meetings and two board meetings each month. Additionally, over the course of the year, there are a few special meetings, five or six budget committee meetings, and some members participate in interviews or negotiations.
From the beginning, the current board has complained about the time required to conduct their business and, lacking the discipline required to conduct shorter meetings, imposed time limits on themselves, which they fairly regularly vote to extend. Still dissatisfied with the time commitment, they have now voted to only have one board meeting each month.
For the most part, it appears this decision is more about not wanting to deal with “the other side of the room” than it is about time. They don’t seem to like each other and can’t, or won’t, rise above it. There is no doubt that there are a couple very difficult personalities on both sides of the room, but this isn’t about forming long-lasting friendships. There can be differences of opinion. The votes need not always be unanimous. Just because one person has a proposal that you know isn’t going to pass, why not let them have their say, take the vote, and move on?
Sometimes they, as a board, are so contradictory it is baffling. Part of the recent motion to reduce the number of meetings stated that no business would go to the board before first going through the appropriate committee, unless it was time sensitive. The proposed effective date of the change was June 2019. When “the other side” proposed sending the motion to committee, the supporters of the motion voted NO. The ensuing debate on the motion lasted a total of 27 minutes, requiring them to vote to extend the meeting 30 minutes past their self-imposed time limit.
This is all very unfortunate, because the role of the board is important. All of the union contracts in the district are between the various unions and the board. They set the annual school budget and develop policies. Just as important, they each bring a different perspective and voice to the table when the many subjects involved in running the district are being discussed. While we have many wonderful educators and administrators in the district, they, like all of us, can make mistakes. Those mistakes can range from relatively small issues to the superintendent who overspent the budget by $3 million, 10 years ago. Having this additional layer of board members with different backgrounds and experiences can have real value for the district. The question is how best to make the board effective.
The Center For Public Education reviewed studies conducted in various school districts looking at, among other things, the role of boards and how they relate to student achievement. They then produced a report on what they called the “eight characteristics of effective school boards.”
The characteristics begin with having “high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and defining clear goals toward that vision.” A local example of just that is the previous board’s goal of having all students reading on grade level by the end of third grade. You may recall that board frequently disagreed on any number of things, but they talked about wanting all students to be on grade level so often that the previous administration developed a plan to expand full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools in fall 2017.
In another area, the report describes effective boards as being “data savvy; they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.” I happen to have an interest in the assessment data, but as best I can determine, in the last 15 months the curriculum committee has discussed data at two meetings, with no presentation for the full board.
The report also pointed out some of the descriptions of ineffective boards mentioned in the various studies. Some examples were: “focused on external pressures as the main reason for lack of student success, such as poverty, lack of parental support, societal factors, or lack of motivation, micro-managing day-to-day operations, slow to define a vision, and looking at data from a blaming perspective.”
Serving on the board of education can be challenging. If an individual already is committed to a number of other boards or organizations, in addition to family or work commitments, this could be the straw the camel dreads. If an individual brings their own agenda, political or otherwise, they can cause issues within the board. At the same time, if you like a challenge, can get along with others with different views, want to learn and care about children and their education, it can be very rewarding.
There is no shortage of topics that deserve the attention of our board of education. It is past time for these elected officials, on both sides of the table, to put their differences aside and work to improve the outcomes for all of the students in the district.
George Farrington is a former Nashua School District Board of Education member, serving 12 years total, eight of which were as its president.