By Michael Mell
If the old saying that “children are our most precious resource” is true, then by extension our schools must be a precious resource as well. However, if attendance at school board meetings is any indication, they are not so precious that anyone has to fight for a seat — until budget season get underway. Absent an inflammatory special issue, like the recent housing development considered by the Town of Fishkill, a reporter will be hard pressed to find anybody to report on at a school board meeting except the board itself.
One might argue that members of a school board, elected by the community, can represent the interests of parents and students without the need for further outside input: that’s why we elected them, right? Having attended far more than most, I suggest this attitude reflects a lack of understanding of why we have school boards and how they work. While of course “the buck stops” with the board — it should start somewhere else. And that somewhere is with the people.
Perhaps the most important thing a school board does, even more essential than budgets, is to establish a vision that reflects the views of the taxpayers, both those with kids in the school and those without, as well as the teachers, staff and administration. These are most often expressed as “board goals” and they can range from broad strokes, such as “preparing our children for the 21st century”, to specifics such as providing each child with a laptop computer. These goals are revisited at various intervals, and the superintendent and school staff are charged with implementation. At least in theory, board goals become the touchstone for all actions and board decisions.
The authority and responsibility of school boards is defined by the state. Regulations for exercising these responsibilities are defined by NY State Education Law as interpreted and overseen by the New York State Department of Education. However, within these guidelines each school board in NYS has sole responsibility for management and supervision of the schools in its district. There are 7 broad areas of responsibility.
Student Achievement: The board adopts academic standards for students and establishes expectations for education in the district, which must conform to increasingly specific, and often unfunded or insufficiently funded, state and federal requirements.
Policy Making: This covers a broad range of rules and regulations, enacted by the board, which establish procedures for day-to-day activities within schools in the district and form the basis of district operations.
Evaluation: This is an ongoing function that applies to policies, people and programs. All facets of school operation are subject to evaluation on a regular basis to identify both weak and strong points and to establish a basis for future action.
Board-Administrator Relations: The role of the board is different from that of the administrators. In short: the board sets policy and administrators carry it out. The board is not likely to involve itself in day-to-day issues but will monitor and follow up based upon reports from the superintendent, principals and administration staff.
Budget Responsibility: each local board has sole responsibility for developing a district budget for the voters approval. An advisory budget committee is often recruited that includes parents, other members of the community and board members. Last year the Garrison district employed a workshop process in lieu of a committee to develop its 2010/2011 budget. Whatever method is used, the superintendent takes the discussions into account as he or she prepares a budget for board review and adoption. Once adopted, the budget is submitted to the community for approval. Upon voter approval, the board supervises the execution of the budget, reviews accounts and business procedures and provides annual audits of school accounts.
Public Relations: The board serves as a link between the school system and the public, often through the news media, to develop public support and understanding of the schools in general and board actions in particular.
Political Relations: School boards must remain abreast of the actions and potential actions of local, county and state municipal agencies as they impact the school district. The current state budget crisis drives home this point.
Whatever the outcome of New York State’s now annual crisis — and whatever austerity measures are almost certain to be demanded by the next administration — our 2011-2012 school budgets will present extraordinary difficulties. This coming year is going to make the lives of all our school board members challenging, and probably memorable.