They won school board seats. Now what?
The May special election concluded Tuesday night and was an eventful one locally, with 17 school board members in the Rogue Valley’s five largest school districts – Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point, Phoenix-Talent and Ashland – securing four-year terms. That seems like a big deal, but is it? In other words, what do school board members actually do?
— Typical citizen, Medford (also, Oregon and United States)
The truth is, Typical Citizen, they do one thing for sure: run for re-election. The same 42,203 people who won school board elections in 1832 are still on boards today across the U.S., and since they’re always in executive session we have no idea what they’re talking about.
OK, here’s the real answer. They do a lot. The best source for all things related to school boards in Oregon – you will be the life of the party, trust us – is the Oregon School Boards Association, which has a page dedicated to this topic on its website, osba.org. The learning curve for newly elected board members, according to the OSBA, is steep: “Plan to spend time in workshops and conferences. Training is essential to running a complex education system. … The board’s major responsibility is setting policy. The board hires a superintendent or college president who in turn hires staff to put policies into practice. The chief executive is accountable to the board for managing the district according to board policies.”
Those are important parts of the job, but there’s a lot more to it. Boards also establish and approve budgets, set goals and evaluate progress toward those goals. Many of those goals, both long-term and short-term, are reflected in each school district’s annual budget (Medford School District is in the process of hammering out its 2021-22 budget, a tricky proposition because the state’s K-12 biennium funding level has not been finalized).
We’re not done yet. School boards also are tasked with reaching out to voters when it comes time to seek approval for bond measures and local option levies for facilities and operations, guide collective bargaining, choose transportation systems (First Student handles Medford’s bus routes) and evaluate the superintendent.
That last one is crucial to holding each district’s leader accountable. If you’re interested in what that evaluation looks like in practice, watch Medford School District’s May 20 board meeting; the evaluation of Medford Superintendent Bret Champion is on the agenda and all meetings are livestreamed and available afterward on demand.
How much time does all that unpaid work — oh, yes, they’re volunteers — amount to? According to Medford School Board Vice Chair Suzanne Messer, who won reelection Tuesday, not much less than a part-time job.
“In the summer it might go down a little bit because I go on vacation, but most times it’s about 10 hours a week or more,” she said. “At one point I was doing about 20 (hours a week) because I was still learning it — I’ve done a lot of the OSBA classes online. I’ve done a lot of their classes to learn about rules of order, what can you do in executive session, what not to discuss in executive session, if you go off topic, what happens? That way we can keep our team on topic within executive session so we don’t break any laws or regulations we’re not allowed to.”
Messer said it took her about two years to get a handle on the job, and likened her role to solving a spiderweb puzzle, constantly evaluating how decisions may eventually impact students.
“You kind of walk through 10 to 12 different processes,” she said, “to make sure that we’re doing our best for students.”
Sometimes, Messer added, a policy change may appear great while it’s still in the design stage, only to fail when it’s put into practice at the student level. Part of the job is to help the district avoid those failures, or at least limit them.
“So you have to look at each decision and make sure when it comes down to the level where it hits the student, it actually works correctly.”
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