Theresa Harrington / EdSource
The Oakland school board leaves the dais while district police stand guard on Oct. 10, 2019 after anti-school closure protesters disrupt the meeting.

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Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve attended and watched a lot of school board meetings. I know that this is not normal behavior. Once, during a getaway to a fancy resort in Ojai, my wife returned from the spa to find me lying on the bed raptly watching the Ojai Unified School Board meeting.

“You have a sickness,” she said, and I didn’t argue with her.

People think school board meetings are dull affairs knee-deep in educational jargon. Much of the time, that is true. But every now and then, they transform into the theater of the absurd. I once watched each member of a five-person board repeatedly vote for themselves for board president before realizing they were being mocked on social media. More commonly, during budget cutting and contract negotiating times, they are the bureaucratic equivalent of a shark attack — hours of boring presentations punctuated by a sudden upheaval of public rage that rips district leaders apart.

The vast majority of school board members are decent, dedicated public servants doing a difficult job for little or no compensation. But like all politicians, there are some who abuse their power. I’ve witnessed board members serially humiliate the leaders and staff of their school systems, treating them with a level of contempt that is the definition of harassment and toxic work environments. I have seen them allow powerful constituents, particularly labor leaders, do the same without having the decency to intervene on their behalf.

I have seen them spend hours responding to a couple of local gadflies with the free time to peruse board agendas and then change decisions with multimillion-dollar implications based on a few ill-informed public comments. I have watched them be condescending and cruel to each other.

That is why I’m fascinated by the recent interest in the disruptive behavior of parents at school board meetings. As I’ve noted, these meetings were never polite Victorian debating societies. Despite all the rhetoric about parent engagement, they weren’t publicly engaging events, but insider games controlled by powerful interest groups. They certainly weren’t about educating children. A typical board agenda is chock-full of legal issues, construction contracts, etc. — anything but teaching and learning. Nothing was going to change that dynamic … until a global pandemic closed all the schools.

Suddenly, I wasn’t the only one tuning in to school board meetings. Parents, worried about the impact of distance learning on their kids, started watching virtual board meetings and asking reasonable questions about their children’s education. Certainly, there were far too many parents opposed to pandemic restrictions, focused on political sideshows like critical race theory or just plain racist, homophobic, etc., who have disrupted meetings and attacked board members and district staff. But most were like those parents in ultra-progressive San Francisco Unified who organized the school board recall. They saw the negative impact of protracted school closures on their children, raised concerns, and learned that their voices and children didn’t matter and that absurd issues like renaming schools mattered more.

This level of parent awareness is long overdue, not just in San Francisco, but statewide. As several commentators have noted, the San Francisco recall was not about culture wars but irresponsible governance. The lesson that policymakers should derive from this recall and parent activism is the importance of responsible governance and management focused on student needs. That won’t happen without a stronger state role.

Encourage civility

Board meetings should be civil, regardless of whether the issue is masking, budget cuts or teacher salaries. Senate Bill 1100, authored by state Sen. Dave Cortese and Assemblymember Evan Low is a step in the right direction. It would encourage better behavior from speakers at board meetings by amending the Brown Act to clarify “willfully interrupting” to mean “intentionally engaging in behavior that substantially impairs or renders infeasible the orderly conduct of the meeting.” The governor and legislative leaders should take this a step further to improve the overall civility of school board meetings. This would include establishing codes of conduct for all attendees, including board members, with explicit sanctions for those who repeatedly violate them.

Monitor and promote organizational stability

State leaders should also convene a statewide commission including California School Board Association, the  Association of California School Administrators, the PTA and other experts on how to improve district culture and leadership stability, building on the CSBA trainings that delineate clear governance and management responsibilities. In some districts like San Francisco, boards have serially violated these lines of responsibility, resulting in turmoil at board meetings and the constant turnover of superintendents and staff. It’s time we changed that dynamic and ensured that the institutions responsible for our children were run by people acting like responsible adults.

To this end, the state should also monitor district stability in areas such as superintendent tenure, teacher/principal turnover and other metrics. Organizational stability is strongly connected to improved student outcomes. When there is clear evidence of persistent instability and poor student outcomes, local and state agencies should be empowered to use the same interventions available in a fiscal crisis such as county oversight.

Remove the flashpoints

Finally, the state can support districts’ stability and their ability to focus on student achievement by shifting decision-making in politically fraught areas like school closures. Given our state’s enrollment declines, these closures will only accelerate in coming years, creating even more public chaos like the appalling situation in Oakland Unified. State leaders should create regional school closing commissions, like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission used by the military to close military bases, which could adjudicate school closure recommendations based on a clear set of criteria and make final decisions after hearing from both sides.

There is a common saying that the pandemic changed everything. When it comes to parent engagement, I think that’s true. There are a lot more parents’ eyes than mine watching school boards these days. As a state, we should make sure that what they see assures them that their children are in good hands.

•••

Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement in public schools.

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  1. William Jones 9 months ago9 months ago

    All elected officials, including school board members should at least have the same accountability as the employees of the school district – i.e., labor law, harassment, intimidation or anything that would get an employee fired should also apply to each school board member.

  2. Georgianne Knight 9 months ago9 months ago

    I appreciate your comments. I believe most school board members have students as as their focus and priority plus work in partnership with their community, parents, district, and staff. Transparency and integrity to fulfill their responsibilities are paramount.

  3. Sheila 9 months ago9 months ago

    Thank you! This article is way overdue. Here in Oakland, this discussion is widespread. It’s important to also point out that not only does it raise eyebrows among parents and community about the skills of the board members, it also actively discourages other responsible citizens who might be interested in contributing to their community, from a decision to run for office.

  4. Tony 9 months ago9 months ago

    I have witnessed the teachers union cronies in meetings act similar to the Hooligans at English Soccer games. They yell, curse, and attack board members, but do not stop there, also families and even students who attend and support their charter schools.

  5. Fred Jones 9 months ago9 months ago

    Bravo! I worried when I saw the title of your column that you'd "bag on" parents, who are often very rightly concerned about local policies negatively impacting their children. Instead, you pivoted (see what I did there? ha!) to holding everyone accountable for their lack of civility (school officials and parents, alike) and the need for elected representatives to return their focus to their primary mission, i.e., the education of youth in their … Read More

    Bravo! I worried when I saw the title of your column that you’d “bag on” parents, who are often very rightly concerned about local policies negatively impacting their children. Instead, you pivoted (see what I did there? ha!) to holding everyone accountable for their lack of civility (school officials and parents, alike) and the need for elected representatives to return their focus to their primary mission, i.e., the education of youth in their charge for 180 days/year.

    Very well thought-out, experienced insights. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Don Shalvey 9 months ago9 months ago

    Congratulations, Arun. Your recommendation to be tough on the issues and not the individuals is needed and necessary. Civility and discourse are the key. As a school district superintendent who spent 10 years with a fully aligned board and community I know the good that happens for families and youth when “round table” text-based conversations can happen in public with parents and community members talking about research and options with individual board members in public. Bravo to you.

  7. Jim 9 months ago9 months ago

    Great article, thank you. While there are numerous stories about CRT and such the real message parents received is how little they or their children mattered to school boards.

    Replies

    • A Trustee 9 months ago9 months ago

      No. The real message board members of conscience received was how little all parties cared about each other. Parents expected (demanded at times) that teachers be sacrificed for their sake first and their children's sake second (yes Jim, I noted and followed the order of your comment, "how little they (parents) mattered" before mentioning children? Perhaps that needs a little self-reflection of what exactly your messaging was conveying to your board members, the … Read More

      No. The real message board members of conscience received was how little all parties cared about each other. Parents expected (demanded at times) that teachers be sacrificed for their sake first and their children’s sake second (yes Jim, I noted and followed the order of your comment, “how little they (parents) mattered” before mentioning children?

      Perhaps that needs a little self-reflection of what exactly your messaging was conveying to your board members, the parental adults or the children. Teachers expected (demanded at times) that boards put their health and safety above the developmental, mental health, and academic needs of students. Unions dug in heels and accused boards of disrespect and worse if every dollar of relief funding allowable didn’t come to them, how dare we use or set any of it aside for student recovery.

      The state and counties quite literally left boards in the position to weigh the values and needs of these groups against each other with life and death consequences for much of 2020 through Spring 2021, often with funding or support available far later or after the political posturing to double talk both these groups.

      Public health agencies abdicated decision making, issuing moving-target guidance full of “may” and “can” rather than setting consistent data-driven thresholds based on clear metrics. In the absence of such, school districts were charged with implementing, staffing, and enforcing what should have been public health agency responsibilities, leading to chaos and near collapse during the Omicron surge in particular. All with no sides willing to give grace to each other, and certainly not the board members they demanded to take the blame for all of it.

      Every board member I know has questioned if they will continue to serve, many are walking away as their terms end. Those who are walking away are doing so in districts where the parents in particular have resorted to threats, harassment, and misinformation campaigns. In their place will rise the single-issue parents, the most vitriolic, most oppositional, least willing to compromise, extend grace or presume positive intentions.

      I appreciate Mr. Ramanathan’s call for civil discourse and civility from all parties. I’m deeply concerned that the recovery from its loss will be far longer than even the recovery from this pandemic itself.

      • Jim 9 months ago9 months ago

        Mr. Ramanathan wrote about the relationship between parents and school boards; therefore my comment also centered that relationship. I did not mention grandparents, taxpayers, or other stakeholders at all. Perhaps you think that was an intentional slight towards those groups? Why do board members seek the office? Now that is a valid question. In my experience the three largest segments would be 1: Desire to be of service, 2: a resentment about some aspect of … Read More

        Mr. Ramanathan wrote about the relationship between parents and school boards; therefore my comment also centered that relationship. I did not mention grandparents, taxpayers, or other stakeholders at all. Perhaps you think that was an intentional slight towards those groups?

        Why do board members seek the office? Now that is a valid question. In my experience the three largest segments would be 1: Desire to be of service, 2: a resentment about some aspect of current policy or practice, 3: As the lowest rung of a elected political career. It would be interesting to see what percentage of politicians were formerly school board members. School board to city council is a well trodden path in many places and as teachers unions are one of, if not the largest campaign contributor, currying their favor early in your career is the smart move.