I’ve heard of a school district in which a handful of concerned citizens gather monthly to watch school board meetings on local cable access. Allegedly, these folks play a game in which they take a drink every time the board of education votes 5-0.
Ignore the disturbing fact that these adults are playing a drinking game—not exactly the type of role modeling you’d want from adults in your community. Instead, focus on the cynical arrogance of these folks, likely the same folks who would criticize a board as being disjointed if they were to have a split vote.
I have been attending school board meetings in three different school districts for the past nine years or so. I can probably count on one hand the number of votes that were not 5-0. Does that mean that boards of education are simply rubber stamps for the superintendent? Hardly.
Most items boards of education vote on are things that are nothing more than legal requirements or routines. For example, boards of education must vote to accept donations. They vote on accepting minutes from previous meetings. They vote to renew contracts for insurance and natural gas and electricity. They vote to go into executive session. They vote to adjourn. It is not surprising that these votes are almost always unanimous.
Boards of education also vote on many personnel matters: accepting resignations, hiring staff, renewing contracts, etc. Recommending personnel matters to the board is the primary responsibility of the superintendent. It is what he spends the majority of his time doing. And the board, even if an individual member might not totally agree with any one individual personnel decision, understands that they hired the superintendent to make those decisions. After all, it is the superintendent doing all of the background work to make those decisions—not the board—and the board generally trusts the superintendent, as the trained professional school leader, to make good decisions.
That does not leave much more for a board of education to vote on. Sometimes it might be a contract with a particular vendor; maybe it’s a decision to ask the community for a levy; maybe it’s a decision to sell or buy property. In these cases, a 5-0 vote does not symbolize a rubber-stamp board. Indeed, 5-0 votes in these matters are evidence of a strong board/administrative team relationship.
Dave Burgess is a brilliant teacher in San Diego (you should follow Dave on Twitter @burgessdave). Dave talks about how six of the worst words a teacher can say to a colleague who has engaging lessons are these: “That’s easy for you. You’re creative.”
Why is that insulting? For two reasons. First, it completely minimizes all of the hard work the teacher has done to create an engaging classroom. That work doesn’t just happen. It happens because somebody took time to know his students; to plan activities, questions, procedures, and assessments that are appropriate for those students; and then deliver an outstanding lesson.
Second, it takes the teacher who says that off the hook. If that teacher believes that you can only be excellent by having some sort of innate ability, that tells them that there is no sense working hard because they will never be able to be as good as an engaging teacher anyway.
So make the correlation to a 5-0 board vote. The person who says a board that votes 5-0 is just a rubber stamp for a superintendent completely minimizes all of the hard work and compromise the board and administrative team did in work sessions and discussions sometimes months leading up to a vote. These discussions are difficult and involve a lot of growth and a lot of compromise. The 5-0 vote symbolizes what is great about the system; but the arrogant cynic, comfortable at home playing his drinking game, just doesn’t get it.
I am a die-hard Browns fan. Every Monday morning I have a hundred ideas about how the Browns could have done better the day before. But the truth is, no matter how much smarter I think I am than the Browns coaching staff, I’m not. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. But until you are actually in the game, it is probably best to reserve judgment.