At a PTACHC meeting this Fall before the election, present and former board of Ed members spoke to the group about what makes a good board member. Larry Cohen was easily the most comfortable addressing the group. His personal style was relaxed and humorous. One of his comments stuck in my head. It bothered me, but I wasn't quite sure why.
There are basically just a few reasons people run for the Board of Education, he explained. Either they have an agenda (or "cause"), they have ambition to seek higher political office, or they actually want to do the job in the way it is supposed to be done. It was said in such a pleasant way that one could assume any Board members in the room were of the third category. And well, as to the others, we just weren't going to name names.
Overall, the impression I got from that evening was that Board of Ed members had very little power, exercised their power not through collaborating with stakeholders but by following rules and doing what they were told, and that they had little to no responsibility to their constituents. In fact I got the impression that they didn't think they had constituents at all.
I realize now that what troubled me most about what Larry Cohen said was that he completely ignored an entire category of Board of Ed candidates (and members). They are the ones whose sole desire it is to get power and wield power with very little responsibility to the general public. They are not seeking higher office. They want to be the big fish in the small pond. They will be invited to important functions, have their picture taken with important people, and have their decisions written up in the newspaper.
I think these people are the most dangerous of all.
For one thing, people who think like this never, ever, want to let go of the power that they have and will go to great lengths to hold on to it. This is the top of the heap for them; they are not going anywhere else. Machinations at Board of Ed meetings, behind the scenes, and in the run up to elections show them at their worst. While they may think what they are doing is public service, their actions betray them. This is all about power, self-preservation, and self-promotion. They may not have started out this way, but this is what they have become.
Right now our system protects them. They can ignore letters from the PTA Council of Howard County. They can call parents who disagree with them "selfish". They can intimidate teachers and staff to prevent them from speaking out. They can bully other Board members who challenge their personal fiefdoms. They can belittle parents of special needs children. They can brush aside requests for information from County Council members.
How many other of our local elected officials can behave in such a cavalier manner and still get re-elected?
Guest speaker Stephen Bounds stated that the appropriate way for community members to pass judgement on The Board of Education was to look at how they are voting to spend public money. Are they being good stewards of tax dollars? Period. If you think yes, you vote for them, if you think no, you don't. (In light of this point of view, I think it is interesting that the Superintendent and Board have made access and input into the budget process more and more difficult in recent years.)
Right now we have a school system budget, passed by the Board of Education, which cuts paraeducators and media secretaries and expands the Model School initiative without data to support its expansion. And we have some people in power who don't feel obligated to work collaboratively with the communty. Now what?
This budget must be approved by the County Council and the County Executive. They don't like to meddle in school system matters. I understand that. But what about taking a stand when it comes to supporting the democratic process in Howard County? Does the County Council and County Executive endorse the manner in which budget decisions are being made and constituents are being treated? Do they believe this constitutes the best practices in public service?
I think it is completely appropriate for the citizens of Howard County to ask their elected representatives to address these questions. Does the manner in which the current Board of Education operates serve the public good?
If not--why not?