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School Boards as Stewards

School board members are stewards of the principles of public education

February, 2017 George A. Goens

In most of our lifetimes, public schools were seen as the bedrock of our nation and a source of pride for our communities. They were places to realize the American dream, where the playing field could be leveled and children could pursue their aspirations and have a life better than their parents.

The idea, which is uniquely American in many respects, was that it didn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. Neither did your race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. What mattered was hard work and perseverance to learn and hone abilities and contribute to the future.

Free public schools nourished the concept that what you know matters more than who you know. Common people coupled with an education, talent, and drive could counter social status and elitist contacts based on wealth or position. Only in America is there a Fanfare for the Common Man, instead of fanfares for some inherited royalty or elitist privilege. Public education celebrated the possibilities in the “common” diverse citizenry.

Stewardship

Local school board members are stewards of the principles of public education. Stewardship rests on responsibility, a sense of the future, and a commitment to the common good. As citizens holding elective office, board members have a responsibility to take long term care of the public schools and protect the community's investment and the interests of children. They should leave the schools in better condition than they were prior to their holding office. Making difficult and unpopular decisions today so the schools are better tomorrow is the role of a steward.

Stewards add value to the community, rather than diminish it. Board members interested in their own self-interest of getting re-elected can compromise stewardship for expediency or their own popularity. Only in looking back do we realize which public officials, from presidents to school board members, have been good stewards.

Inquiry is the foundation for stewardship. The board must ask questions and inquire into the principles behind proposals, the research base to support them, the reasons for and the costs of initiatives, and the expected results and accountability procedures to ensure proper implementation and outcomes. Sometimes educational and political decisions overlap and local boards must be able to rise above local, state, or national politics to do what is best for children in their local community.

Stewardship requires courage to face special interests, the economically connected, the politically powerful, and the criticism of pundits and the press. Some board members and superintendents are cowardly lions in the face of economic, social and political pressures. Doing what is expedient takes less courage than doing what is right. Decisions and pressure are a part of public life, but those decisions should look to the future and support core values and the common good.

Running schools is not easy or always efficient. Democratic governance never is. But it is better than elites or corporations deciding the future of our children and the education they receive. Marketing is not synonymous with results and reformers are not always interested in the common good. Locally elected school boards epitomize what the founders believed. Democracy, while not perfect, is preferable to self-interest and the control of corporations or special interests.

Public schools are an indispensable foundation of our democratic society. Keeping public schools democratic, rather than agents of corporations or partisan politics, is absolutely essential.

Important debates

What boards debate about and how they do it is an indicator of whether they are in touch with the essence of the school's purpose and soul. The focus of the debate defines their efficacy as a group. Discussing the issues in the form of dialogue generates understanding and better comprehension of the basic assumptions behind different options and the thinking and values behind them. Dialogue is an essential component of stewardship.

Dialogue allows people to see divergent points of view and respectfully consider options. Listening actively and clarifying for understanding are important. Dialogue is more than a discussion. It involves reflecting together, understanding the content and intent of messages and ideas, inquiring into the assumptions behind concepts and proposals, suspending judgment and ultimately creating shared meaning.

Determining a collective vision for the public schools requires open and respectful dialogue. Obviously one standard is that “the best interests of the children” be the determining factor. Obviously, resources are not unlimited, local or political issues affect decisions, and when a decision is made, everyone will not be happy.

Board members must ask thoughtful questions and do due diligence as part of their responsibilities to the citizenry. They must find common ground and positive connections in the school community by establishing clear values and principles under which the school district operates.

Whether a school community is true to itself is a matter of integrity. To be a good steward of the public education, board members have to ensure the honor of the school district by making its actions, words, and programs congruent with its core values and principles. All this presupposes the board and the community have a dialogue about the schools and the ideas under which they function. Dialogue on principles is positive and can instigate growth.

The common good through strong schools should be the board of education’s primary focus. Citizenship emphasizes responsibilities and obligations. Service, responsibility, duty, and honor almost sound like anachronistic ideas from the past. But they are the mainstays of the common good and the sense of community that are necessary for society to work. The values, ideals, and principles under which schools operate are the core that gives people a sense of identity and purpose.

Communities are value-based; politics are power-based; and the private sector is profit-based. The public has become cynical about government, which is a dangerous trend, particularly as the younger generation hears repeatedly that government does not work and that it cannot be trusted. It does not work if special interests are served and the interests of the people are ignored.

The old adage -- wisdom is knowing what you don't know -- applies to board members. Wise ones know what they need to learn. School districts are complex places fiscally, educationally, organizationally and culturally. Board members need to understand the large and subtle issues of school districts before taking action. New members must take time to sort out what they know and don't know. Grasping technical and policy questions takes time and work. There is a significant difference between opinion and knowledge, and information and understanding. Knowledge and understanding are prerequisites for responsible decision-making.

Good public servants understand what is controllable and what is not. Otherwise, policies and planning can be compromised. Stewardship and accountability are the foundations of public officials and not necessarily at the forefront with privatization.

The heart of stewardship is valuing what a school is and what it can mean to children. Board members must protect the soul of the school from the dark entrapments that can destroy schools and turn them into mere institutions, complete with standard operating procedures and no heart.

To do that, communities must elect people with deep passion for children and the courage to stand on the point and advocate for them. There is no greater public service than to improve the condition of children. To do so, school board members must be committed to the ideals and values of public education.

George A. Goens

George A. Goens (gagoens@gmail.com) is a former school superintendent and has written six books on leadership and education. His new book is The Fog of Reform: Getting Back to a Place Called School. He lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.

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