An Insider’s Guide To The School Board

Jeremiah Knupp -- October 26th, 2010

Last week we discussed the inner workings of Harrisonburg’s City Council. Today we look at the city’s school board, the job they do and what makes a good board member.

According to Donald Ford, who served as superintendant of Harrisonburg City Schools for nearly thirteen years, the school board is “the policy making body for the school division.”

“They determine the decisions under which employees work and they are representatives of the community,” Ford said.

Michael Walsh, who served on the city school board from 2004-2008, calls board members “stewards” of the city’s school system.

“In my opinion, the role of the school board is to oversee the district, to deal with issues and discuss and update policies, but the school board should not run the district. It should not run schools,” Walsh said. “That’s what we hire professionals and principles for. The day-to-day operations are run by employees and the board oversees that.”

The school board’s responsibilities include making sure schools meet their accreditation standards, helping design and plan new schools and shaping the school district’s budget.

“The board plays a vital role in securing the funding for the school division and determining how funds will be allocated,” Ford noted. “They must be familiar with expenditures and needs and have to do a good job relaying those needs to city council.”

For Walsh the goal was to not micromanage.

“Parents call and say ‘I want you to fix this’ and I would say ‘No, I’m not going to fix it, but let’s make sure that you’ve gone through the proper procedure to get it resolved,’” he noted.

“Sometimes people don’t understand that individual school board members have no authority,” Ford said. “The only authority they have is when they are meeting as a body. The public sometimes thinks that they can contact an individual member and that member can make a decision when, in essence, they cannot.”

In his thirteen years at the helm of Harrisonburg City Schools what has Ford found that makes a good school board member?

“You want someone who has demonstrated interest in the success of students and a person who has the time to devote to the job,” Ford said. “They must demonstrate that they are well versed in the issues facing education and they must understand that they are a policymaker and not an administrator.”

“You want a person who has a genuine interest in the school system. They should have the ability to listen and hold a conversation, to ‘give and take,’” Walsh said of the qualities of a good board member. “They shouldn’t have “pet” issues. Their main interest should be the students and the school district as a whole.”

Ford noted several major issues that will face the new school board, including the continuing struggle to meet the increasing standards of the Federal No Child Left Behind Act. 

“If the current requirements stay in place, by 2013-2014 every school in Harrisonburg, the Valley and throughout the state will be considered failing schools,” Ford stated. “The school board will have to deal with the reality of how we will address this issue.”

Walsh cited attracting and retaining good teachers, in the face of impending retirements and salary caps and keeping the schools “student centered and student focused” in the face of federal and state legislation that focuses on group statistics and passing rates as some of the challenges the board will face.

Both agreed that one of the school division’s greatest challenges will be how to deal with dwindling funding. 

“Difficult financial issues face local and state governments and therefore face the school system,” Ford said. “Expectations for the schools grow while funding doesn’t. The task for the school system is how to maintain the quality of programs that are so important to students.”

“The new school board will have to decide where to make the cuts,” Walsh stated frankly.

With a week remaining before election day, Ford offered his advice on how to pick the best candidate for the job.

“Listen to what candidates say they stand for and will do,” he recommended. “On that basis make a choice and in a very straight forward way, hold them accountable for what they say they will do or accomplish.”

Hburgnews will review the three referendum items that city and county voters will find on their ballots later this week.

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