By Peyton Wolcott
It's spring -- and school board election season is already in full tilt. Yard signs have sprouted up along with the dandelions, push cards are being handed out, and good folks who want better schools are knocking on doors in their neighborhoods, campaigning for their candidates who are also good folks of character who have said they want better schools.
With luck and hard work, the good folks' good folks will all be elected.
Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Because this is not a perfect world we purchase automobile insurance and carry spare tires in our trunks and hire attorneys when signing contracts. Being a good trustee in this not-perfect world requires more than simply being a good person and many all-too-common setbacks can occur.
The most benign -- on the surface, at least -- can be the onset of the dread politicians' disease, "Everyone-wants-to-be-loved-itis." No matter how tough his pre-election rhetoric, suddenly the good guy you campaigned for wimps out, content to go along with his peers on the school board, rubber stamping whatever the superintendent recommends, asking few or no questions publicly.
You can't blame them in a way; sitting up on a dais puts the world in a whole new perspective. People's lives hinge on their votes and it's easy to become afraid and cautious. It doesn't help any that the bulk of the trainings the new school board members receive is by retired superintendents who tell the newbies they really can't do anything other than set policy and approve/rubber stamp the budget come summer and should otherwise leave all of the administration of the district up to their employee, the superintendent.
What trustees do not anticipate is that their superintendents and many district vendors will be examining them in minute detail, looking for weak points where they can gain traction. As retired superintendent Joe Thedford of Region XIII Education Service Center told a local school board many years ago during a training, "You need four votes." (As in other states, most Texas school boards have seven elected members.) I have often wondered whether Joe's comment was directed as much at the trustees as it was their new superintendent. While superintendents usually aim for unanimous support for their ideas, the bottom line is that they must have a board majority in order to function. Can the superintendent win over the trustee simply with a little one-on-one chitchat or ego stroking? Special "just-us" monthly lunches? Appointment to a key project? This is the cheapest approach available to the supe.
But there are other possibilities.
Say the trustee's wife works for the school district. Perhaps she's given a plum promotion or pay raise. Perhaps she is asked to represent the district at plum conferences. Perhaps the supe suddenly realizes the trustee's wife needs a district vehicle in order to do her job; the one she gets keys to isn't a lemon. Perhaps she peddles a curriculum-related program on the side and out of the blue the district's administration finds value in her peach of a product and purchases it from her.
Perhaps the trustee is a woman who is struggling with finances for whom a stay at a nice hotel would be a spirit-lifter; for this woman, a luxury steak dinner would be a meaningful treat. Or the trustee's a dad with family responsibilities for whom a district-funded trip to a nearby town offers an opportunity for a low-cost family vacation; they can all stay in his room, and his mileage is paid as are his meals. All that's left for him to pay for out of pocket are meals for the wife and kids.
Perhaps the trustee is sales manager for a commercial refrigeration vendor and it's a fast-growth district which is building many new schools with new kitchens all needing commercial refrigeration units.
The problem with all of these examples is that once a school board member has sipped the Kool-Aid, he or she has allowed him/herself to become morally compromised and will no longer be in a position to hold their superintendent accountable. For example, a trustee receiving substantial income from their school district will not ask their superintendent tough questions, and a trustee who has indulged him or herself in taxpayer-funded travel will not question the superintendent's own travel expenses even when they amount to thousands of dollars each year.
Pledges: Proven success
Four years ago my own local school district was in tough shape; currently ranked 50th wealthiest of Texas' 1,031 school districts, we'd just built a Taj Mahal high school and there were some questionable expenses, our bonds according to Standard & Poors were just above junk status, and our superintendent had been arrested and eventually became Texas' first Public Information Act conviction. Out of seven school board members, there were suddenly five spots open -- three regular, and two resignations. We organized for the first time in our part of the county, the part that sent 53% of the income and only 5% of the kids to district schools, and asked all five of our candidates to sign a public pledge that they would not do business with our school district during their tenure because a hot-button issue had been that most of our previous trustees had done business with the district during their tenure on the board; one friend called it "writing themselves checks every month." Our voters loved the idea of the pledges and despite rough opposition all five of our candidates were elected. Based on our post-election experiences with those candidates, I have since expanded the first pledge to the current six.
By being the first candidate in your campaign to sign pledges such as the following -- signing before your opposition does -- you gain the upper hand. You suddenly become the Clean Gene candidate. Your opposition may eventually sign pledges also, as ours did in Llano, but you get credit in your community for signing first. Be sure to circulate photos of yourself signing the pledges along with copies of the pledges themselves.
For candidate supporters and voters
Why would you spend your time and energy helping to get a candidate elected who refused to sign the pledges below? At this point I will not support or endorse anyone for school board who has not at a minimum signed all six pledges.
Remember, "Read my lips, no new taxes"? Remember the new taxes we got despite the verbal promise? To paraphrase producer Samuel Goldwyn, a verbal promise is not worth the paper it's written on.
With these written public pledges our candidates volunteer to hold themselves accountable in the most important court of all, the court of public opinion.
Here's the preface for all six pledges: "Because I am seeking a position on the school board in order to serve, to give rather than to take, and because I want every penny possible of our tax dollars to be spent in the classroom where they belong with our children and their teachers, . . . .
I pledge that I and my immediate family, including parents, children, grandchildren and cousins, will not do business in any way, shape, fashion or form, directly or indirectly, with the school district and/or its vendors during my tenure.
POSSIBLE ISSUES WITH PLEDGE #1: "My wife's a schoolteacher." OR: "I've always sold the district its sports uniforms." OR: "We were already doing business with the vendor before my son went to work for them."
RESPONSES TO PLEDGE #1 OBJECTIONS: Oops. The pledges are not for these candidates. The fellow whose wife is a teacher? Wait til she retires then run for the school board. For your sports uniform enterprise, either do business with the district or serve on the board, but not both at the same time. Let your son get a job elsewhere until your term on the board ends. Let him learn to stand on his own two feet.
I pledge that I and my immediate family, including parents, children,
grandchildren and cousins, will not accept any gifts or payments of any kind including but not limited to goods, services, cash, meals, travel and reimbursement from the school district and/or its vendors during my tenure. This includes all board trainings and all board meals and retreats; in lieu of a catered taxpayer-funded dinner even during meetings I will bring a sandwich from home or perhaps a jar of peanut butter and some crackers to share. Better yet, maybe a big greasy smelly hamburger with lots of onions.
POSSIBLE ISSUES WITH PLEDGE #2:
"I can't afford to spend my own money on a National School Boards Association trip to Orlando or for any other out-of-town trips for that matter." "I need to attend trainings in order to fulfill my statutory training requirements." "A friend went to an out-of-town conference for her training and said she got some really good ideas." "I serve on our school board for free and deserve a nice trip now and then." "How can the Christmas turkey or Easter ham from our food service people hurt anything? Everybody does it." "What's wrong with an occasional meal with the guy who sells us copier paper? We're friends."
RESPONSES TO PLEDGE #2 OBJECTIONS:
(1) Unless you're prepared to pay for your expenses out of your own pocket without seeking reimbursement from the taxpayers you are serving, you don't need to travel to Orlando or anywhere else to learn what you need to learn. Much of your required training is available online. Also, many interim edu-levels are set up to provide free trainings; for example our own Region XIII sends people for free -- no mileage charges even, last time I asked -- to come to member districts to conduct mandatory board trainings. Many supes encourage board members to get a taste of the high life on these trips so that the board members lose any higher moral ground they might occupy; once a trustee has stayed in a $150 room, they then cannot say anything about the supe's $150 per night hotel stays, etc. Many trainings -- and I've sat through several in a variety of settings -- are conducted by retired supes whose primary goal appears to be to tell trustees they can't do anything. One trustee who looked at the pledges felt he'd gotten a lot of valuable information from a state school board association-hosted training; what he didn't realize was that the information came via the school board association's agenda-laden filter. You do not deserve a free trip for the privilege of serving your community by sitting on the local school board; no one does. Limit your exposure to trade associations whose agendas you do not know enough about yet to fully understand all the ramifications of.
(2) The first rule of sales is to make friends with your clients. Sales people are all friendly. Don't be so naive as to not understand why you suddenly have so many wonderful new friends who love and adore you and find your conversation sparkling.
(4) Again, these pledges are to show your community you're like those great hot dogs who hold themselves accountable to a higher standard.
NOTE: Thus far Pledge #2 has been the deal breaker for most candidates; I continued to be amazed and disappointed by the numbers of otherwise honorable, really terrific, good people who will sell out for a "free" trip. None of these junkets are really free, and the eventual cost to school children and taxpayers and parents in terms of compromised ethics, shady business dealings, etc. is staggering.
I will request that the district post its check register online at each and every board meeting during my tenure until such time as this occurs.
POSSIBLE ISSUES WITH PLEDGE #3:
"Is this legal?" "Suppose the superintendent says it's too expensive or too much trouble?" "I hear we'd have to hire too many people and there would be additional expense (time, labor, copying) for the district. It would be extra time for the staff." "People in the community wouldn't understand the checks." "Our front office will be too busy responding to public records requests." "The community should trust our superintendent and/or business manager who's already doing such a great job." "We'd have to buy new software."
RESPONSES TO PLEDGE #3 OBJECTIONS: It's completely legal and there are seldom any expenses involved unless you're one of the twenty or so largest districts in the nation in which case there are more checks than can be easily PDF'ed in a single document. But if you're in a huge district there are also huge numbers of staffers who can easily take this on. Comments from districts large and small both who have already successfully posted their check registers here: www.peytonwolcott.com/NationalSchoolDistrictHonorRoll_FlyerForDistrict.html
I will request that the superintendent's employment contract be posted on the district's website along with a salary and stipend schedule for all employees.
POSSIBLE3 ISSUES WITH PLEDGE #4:
"Why do we need to see bus drivers' salaries? And aren't teachers' salaries based on years of service and set by law?"
RESPONSES TO PLEDGE #4 OBJECTIONS:
(1) Requirements and enforcement along these lines vary by state; for example, here in Texas, although supes' contracts are supposed to be made available, in many districts the availability does not extend to the website and you must travel to the district's front office to view the contract. Hats off to those who do make this contract readily viewable on their district's websites.
(2) Alpha sorts will reveal the amount of nepotism.
(3) Stipends -- who gets paid extra for doing what -- are generally surprising useful information.
I will request that the district get rid of any and all credit cards including those maintained by the administration and board, and all such cards by any name including 'P-Cards,' 'Pro-Cards,' 'Procurement Cards,' 'Super Cards,' and the like.
POSSIBLE ISSUES WITH PLEDGE #5:
"My superintendent says he needs a credit card for trips." Also, "Suppose our band is out in the school bus and needs gas?"
RESPONSES TO PLEDGE #5 OBJECTIONS:
Your superintendent can stop traveling and stay home, go to work every day in the district. Like I told one travel-happy superintendent, "Make your district excellent, top-rated. Then when you do that, other districts all over the country will pay for you to go visit them and tell them the secrets of your success." If and when travel absolutely positively cannot be avoided by the administration, supes can do as business executives do and pay for their own expenses then present receipts with detailed explanations and ask for reimbursement. There can be one or two gasoline credit cards which are handed out only on an as-needed per-trip basis.
I will request that the board audiotape all executive sessions.
POSSIBLE ISSUES WITH PLEDGE #6
"Why tape what we can't listen to?"
RESPONSES TO PLEDGE #6 OBJECTIONS:
It's not about who listens or doesn't, it's the fact that taping executive sessions is a means of holding trustees accountable for what they say behind closed doors. This may come as a big shock to you: Too often, trustees conduct illegal conversations and business behind those closed doors and stray from the agenda for the executive session portion of the meeting; as one example, in my own district when our five trustees were elected they decided to start taping executive sessions, which suddenly -- surprise, surprise -- started lasting only 45-60 minutes versus the previous 3-4-5 hours.
Do you have any suggestions for more pledges? Please email them to me, indicating whether you'd like your name mentioned or not: firstname.lastname@example.org
Together we can and must clean up our public schools. The future of our great republic and its remaining strong and free depends on our having a populace able to think for itself. We must learn to educate our kids better for less money, and these voluntary pledges for school board candidates are a good start in that direction.
Copyright 2008 Peyton Wolcott. All rights reserved.
Published April 17, 2008
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