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Who wants to be a board member?

Thankless job sometimes draws those with their own agendas

Sunday, November 30, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mark Twain, who apparently had a witticism for just about everything, is credited with remarking: "In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards."

That was around the turn of the 20th century, but even without Twain around to throw the darts, being a school board member today is still typically a thankless, unpaid job.

This year, 28 percent of school board members decided not to run for re-election, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. A national study conducted for the Education Commission of the States indicated that 30 percent of school board presidents said they'd never again run for a board office.

So why does anyone take on these tasks?

Many board members say that they simply want to help the community. But the power plays, agendas and peculiarities of some boards can make it difficult to accept such a noble explanation.

For years, Debbie Carr, of Robinson, watched Montour school board members hire their relatives to work in the school district and questioned their motives for wanting to serve on the board.

Next week, she'll take her own seat on the board after winning her first election campaign, supported by a small but vocal taxpayers group that harangued the current board on a variety of issues -- not keeping a large enough emergency fund for the district, student achievement that wasn't as high as it should be, living on borrowed money and not repairing and replacing schools.

And then there was the fact, uncovered by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation in September, that 50 of the district's roughly 310 administrators, teachers, counselors and secretaries are related to board members.

"If someone didn't step in to straighten this out, it was going to continue," said Carr, a stay-at-home mom with a daughter in high school and one in college.

As a board member, she knows she'll have to deal with a budget in excess of $40 million. "I don't have much of a financial background," said Carr, who once worked as an assistant buyer for Gimbels and owned a crafts business. "I don't think my strengths will be in that area."

She said her skills were that she is "very curious and I ask a lot of questions. I'm a stickler for getting things right ... and I'm very interested in good communications."

And, Carr said, she's missed only one school board meeting in the past eight years.

Deborah L. Miller, who's lived in the Quaker Valley School District for 13 years, was appointed to fill a vacant seat last month.

Unlike Carr, she had never attended a board meeting before her appointment. But she does bring a background in business to her new work. She holds an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and is on the faculty of both Duquesne University and Pitt. "That work experience will be very beneficial" to her board work, Miller believes.

"I have a strong personal commitment to education. I have a son in elementary school and I have educated myself extensively," said Miller, a vice president with the Center for Rehabilitative Services in McKeesport, who said she sought the board position "for altruistic reasons."

What qualities make for a good school board member?

Berneice Brownell, a Susquehanna University education professor who has researched the characteristics of high quality school boards, found that members of effective boards tended to be white men who've lived in their communities for more than 30 years, with a family income of more than $90,000.

In comparison, the typical member of the randomly selected boards in her study was a white female who made less money and had lived in the community fewer years.

The gender difference, Brownell said, is not significant. "I wouldn't read anything into that. It's just how the demographics worked out. ... There is no causal relationship."

But she did find 28 characteristics that were common in effective board members. Echoing many of the same findings of a similar Pennsylvania study conducted in 1988, the effective board member, she concluded, "remains calm under pressure," takes time to help orient new members, gets to meetings on time, visits the district's schools and "respects differences of opinions and beliefs."

The study also showed that effective boards spent less time on their business than the random boards.

That's not at all contradictory, said Thomas E. Glass, a University of Memphis researcher. A large number of hours spent on board business suggests too much "meddling" by boards, said Glass, who cited an Arizona school board that met 172 times in one year.

Larry Nord, a six-year member of the problem-plagued New Castle school board, is a former Ohio legislator and a former school superintendent. He believes he has been able to bring certain qualifications to the school board. But, more importantly, he knows what qualifications he doesn't bring.

He's watched other board members "with no education background" participate in decisions such as hiring teachers, and he doesn't like it.

"I do think it's terrible," said Nord from his New Castle office at the Blind Association of Pennsylvania, where he serves as director. "We're a policy-making group. We're not qualified to be making these decisions."

He won a seat on the board shortly after one board member was arrested in connection with an illegal video poker ring, and another for bankruptcy fraud. At the same time, two school administrators were awaiting trial for their participation in a multimillion-dollar gambling ring, and another administrator was in jail for speeding and driving with a suspended license.

"When I ran, I only hoped to be able to contribute and hoped to make the New Castle school board a better governing body," said Nord, who is known as one of the "2" in the board's frequent 7-2 voting split. "I think we are making progress, but we have a long way to go."

In Southmoreland School District in Westmoreland County, Jaydene Nelson never imagined that being a board member would mean she'd have to show up in court over a cheerleader's complaint about being "demoted" on the high school squad.

"That never should have been a school board issue," fumed Nelson, who was subpoenaed and spent nearly an entire day cooling her heels at the Westmoreland County Courthouse.

A self-titled "thorn in the side" of the otherwise all-male school board, Nelson is beginning her second term. It's a high-burnout job, she said, and members should leave after two terms.

"You need fresh people," she said.

"It's terrible; I'm so stressed out," Nelson said. "My husband says, 'Why do you do it?' But people need to know what's going on in their schools."

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