August 2009 Up Front

What's your best piece of advice?

As part of ASBJ’s fourth annual “New Board Member and Administrator Guide,” we asked members of the magazine’s reader panel a question: “What single piece of advice would you give to a new member on your school board or to a new administrator working in your district?”

“Coming in new to an existing team should always be done with patience,” said Kansas’ Susan Walston. “You need to understand any ongoing issues. You need to learn the laws, policies, and procedures that impact any and all decisions you or the board make. So many things need to be considered that no matter how fast you think you can get ‘up to speed,’ you need to get information from others in similar positions.”

The other responses, not surprisingly, reflected the often hard-won wisdom that you get after serving on the board or as an administrator for a number of years. Since the responses dovetail nicely with Del Stover’s story on Page 14, we decided to dispense with the regular news analysis this month and give you a chance to read what some of your colleagues have to say.

From board members

Alaska’s Jeff Friedman was succinct with his advice (“Listen more than you speak”), as was New York’s Maxine Bridgeport (“Remember you have no idea what you just got yourself into and you really do not know anything about overseeing a school district”).

South Carolina’s Peter Barry said board members should “never assume that the seat you hold is yours by divine right.”

“Remain a concerned public citizen,” Barry said. “Do not become a grandstander who believes that an elected official has a permanent right to that seat.”

Jim Clark, a Missouri school board member, said his new colleagues “need to ask questions, listen, and realize they are only one member.” Patience, he added, also is critical.

“You need a majority of the board thinking your ideas need to be incorporated into the system,” Clark said. “Even if you have a majority ... the ship isn’t going to turn on a dime. It takes time and patience to incorporate systemic changes.”

Steve Rose, a board member in Iowa, said newly elected officials need to know the district’s “needs, areas of uniqueness, and demographic trends.” Or, as he added in more blunt terms, “Keep your ideology to the rear until you truly are an expert on your district.”

Illinois’ Janet Raef agreed. “For a while, just listen. Get as much training as you can, and then get it again,” she said. “If you ran with an agenda, leave it at the boardroom door and enter with the goal of doing whatever you can to make the best education possible for the children in your district, while you keep an eye on the contribution of the taxpayer.”

Grant Riles, a Kansas board member, said it is critical to “keep an open mind when considering issues.” The reason, he said, is because an issue “is never as black and white as it first may seem.”

Tennessee’s Susan Lodal said school board members “are the eyes and ears of the community.” That said, she noted that it is not “our responsibility to try and fix the problems ourselves, but to work with our school system’s administration as part of a team effort.”

Anna Bucy, an Ohio board member, noted that roles are changing to “include more active involvement in the shape and function of the district.”

“My piece of advice is to learn all you can from the professional associations in your state, read anything about your work you can get your hands on, attend any training you can, and be prepared and willing to be wrong, challenged, excited, and scared,” Bucy said. “You are doing noble work, not easy work.”

What superintendents said

John Slattery has been an educator long enough to know: “School business and activities are cyclical.” That’s one reason the New York superintendent believes new board members should “spend 95 percent of their first year listening and learning and 5 percent speaking and pontificating.”

Ron Saunders, a superintendent in Georgia, said new administrators need to be sure that “basic safety programs and procedures” are in place. “That being said, what is more important are the relationships that school personnel -- administrators, teachers and support staff -- have with the students of each school. Students must feel that they can go to any adult and be listened to and their fears be addressed.”

Arizona’s Jay C. St. John said responsibilities must be clearly defined.

“For both new board members and new administrators, I would recommend that they remember each role,” he said, noting that boards should set policy and superintendents should focus on operations. “When either party begins to enter the other party’s responsibilities is when conflict occurs.”

Don Martin, a longtime superintendent in North Carolina, said new board members can expect a call from “a parent, staff member, or citizen who has had various issues or incidents that have been investigated in the past and did not agree or like the outcome.”

“A new board member wants to listen and make everything right -- they may know the person -- and the facts appear to be very compelling. My advice to a new board member is to listen carefully, ask clarifying questions, and promise to look into the matter. Then contact their superintendent to find out the rest of the story. Rarely do I encounter people who do not tell the truth -- they just don’t tell the whole story.”

The final words of wisdom come from Paul Vranish, a superintendent in Texas.

“Avoid the politics as much as possible,” he said. “You are new and haven’t learned the location of all the landmines yet.”

ASBJ staff wins national  editorial, design awards

The staff of American School Board Journal has received several national awards for outstanding editorial and design in the Association of Educational Publishers (EdPress) and the Society of National Association Publications (SNAP) awards contests.

ASBJ won three first place “Distinguished Achievement Awards” from EdPress, the most of any organization or publication in the Periodicals-Adult Learning Category, where it competes with private, non-profit, and for-profit periodicals that represent all of the education publishing field. The awards are evaluated on traits such as efficacy, usability, and overall value.

The winners and dates of publication were:

Series: “Immigration and Diversity” (September 2008) -- Editorial Staff (Glenn Cook, Kathleen Vail, Del Stover, Lawrence Hardy, Naomi Dillon, Joetta Sack-Min, and intern Stacy Hollenbeck)

How-To Feature: “No Free Lunch” (June 2008) -- Naomi Dillon

News Story: “The Cost of Autism” (March 2008) -- Joetta Sack-Min

The magazine also finished in the top four in three other categories: Periodical of the Year, Carrie Carroll’s Article Design for “No Free Lunch,” and Cover Design for “No Free Lunch.”

ASBJ has been a finalist for “Periodical of the Year” for three consecutive years and has won nine first place honors from EdPress during that period. This year’s awards were the most for any organization competing in the adult learning category.

In the SNAP contest, Carroll’s cover for the November 2008 issue, “Reform School,” was recognized with a second place “Silver” award.

Also, Communications columnist Nora Carr has received an Award of Excellence from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) for her December 2008 story, “The Data Dashboard.”

You can read or see these entries again by going to the magazine’s website ( and clicking on the “Archive” section.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Recalling an entire school board
Voters in California’s Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District recalled their entire five-member school board in a May special election. The board had become the center of controversy when it voted to fire a popular math teacher who was accused of plagiarism in a course he had taken at a local college. The teacher was later cleared of the charges but did not get his job back. According to the Los Angeles Times, the drive to recall the board members was initiated by students at Tioga High School, who boycotted classes and worked with their parents to get enough signatures to bring the issue to a vote. The board oversees a rural district with five schools and just over 500 students. The move is believed to be the first time, at least in recent years, that an entire board has been recalled.

Tough stance on student expulsion
Baltimore schools permanently expelled 34 students after the 2008-09 school year, forcing parents to consider private schools or homeschooling for those under age 16. The students were affected by a new policy put in place by Baltimore Superintendent Andrés Alonso that required administrators to invoke the harshest punishment for any student caught committing arson or detonating explosives. Students rarely faced permanent expulsion for any matter before the policy was created. The district has seen a significant decline in arson-related fires and suspensions due to violent events, according to The Baltimore Sun. Students could appeal their expulsions to the school board or state board of education, and at least two parents consulted lawyers to try to fight the policy, according to the Sun. Other parents were scrambling to find alternatives to public schools, as other school districts in Maryland typically reject students who have been expelled from other districts.

Districts faced with massive legal fees
Five Wisconsin school districts that are suing a private investment company and bank for mismanagement of funds already have run up six-figure legal bills, with no resolution in sight. The five school districts -- Kimberly, Kenosha, Waukesha, West Allis-West Milwaukee, and Whitefish Bay -- lost up to 95 percent of some $200 million in investments that were to be used for retirement funds and other expenses. The districts say that they were misled into buying risky funds by financial advisors at Stifel, Nicolaus Inc. and the Royal Bank of Canada. In September 2008, the districts filed suit seeking to reclaim some of the lost funds. However, the legal fees topped more than $765,000 in May, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, mainly from fighting a move by the investment firms to have the case moved to federal court.

Texting and  students’  well-being
Spurred by the unlimited texting plans offered by major wireless companies, teens are now sending an average of 2,272 texts each month on their phones -- about 80 messages a day, according to research from the Nielson Company. Physicians and psychologists say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury, and sleep deprivation, according to a story in the New York Times.

Texting has replaced written notes and phone calls as the preferred mode of communication among adolescents and preadolescents, but it often encourages them to stay up late waiting for texts and it’s harder for teachers to monitor. It’s also harder for parents to curtail excessive texting when they themselves are also glued to their phones.

Virtual graduates
Many of the seniors of Broward County, Fla.’s Virtual High School met in person for the first time just before they took the stage for their graduation ceremony. ‘’Although we didn’t elect a homecoming queen, hold pep rallies, or eat lunch together on a daily basis, we are part of something particularly special,’’ Valedictorian Gustavo Goretkin told about 40 of his fellow classmates in his speech, according to the Miami Herald. Florida has led the nation in creating virtual schools, after a state law mandated that each district offer a full-time online education for all students in grades K-12 beginning in the 2009-10 school year. Broward’s Virtual School had 300 students in grades 6-12 last year, according to the Herald, and the state-run Florida Virtual School serves about 90,000. In addition to holding a commencement ceremony, Broward’s Virtual School gives its students opportunities to meet their teachers and participate in field trips and other activities.

Value of a GED
It’s perhaps a silver lining to the economic downturn: high school dropouts are flooding programs to help them prepare for the General Educational Development (GED) tests in lieu of a high school diploma. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the national unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 21.5 percent in April, up from 15 percent one year earlier. Teens now are facing stiff competition for even low-wage and menial jobs, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and some are seeing the value of a high school education and diploma. Even before the recession deepened, 40 states reported waiting lists for GED classes in the spring of 2008, Lennox McLendon, executive director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium, told the Monitor.

Tough diploma requirements
New Jersey students are consistently near the top of national assessments and other academic indicators and its graduation rate is enviable. Nevertheless, the state is increasing its state’s requirements to earn a diploma. Over the next seven years, the state will phase in requirements for more rigorous math and science courses, new assessments in different subjects, and “personalized learning plans” to chart students’ goals and growth. The plan is to better prepare students for higher education or employment in the 21st century. “The changing economy demands a different level of preparation for our graduates,” state education commissioner Lucille Davy told the Star-Ledger.

Special ed class visits
Illinois has passed a law that allows parents or their appointed representatives to observe their children’s special education classes or visit the classes that school officials have recommended for their child. State legislators approved the law because the main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, does not give clear guidance on the issue. Massachusetts is the only other state that has passed a similar measure. “Many people think that [classroom visits are] just a given, but it doesn’t always work that way,” Amy Zimmerman, director of Health & Disability Advocates’ Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children, told the Chicago Tribune. “For a parent who has a child who maybe was just given an autism diagnosis, the school could say we’re going to put him in such and such a classroom and the parents would say, ‘Well, we’d like to visit.’ Before this law, it was completely up to the whim of the school district. They could say, ‘Absolutely, come in and visit,’ or they could say, ‘Absolutely not. You have no right to visit.’” The measure was amended at the request of several associations representing school officials, who asked that parents make their requests in writing, and places restrictions on the type of experts who can visit the classes.