Your Views: Reform the School Board

Your Views: Reform the School Board
The Alexandria City Public School Board is looking into redistricting the city due to rising populations and long bus routes. (File photo)

To the editor:

A few weeks ago, my friend, Matt Harris, wrote to the Times, with his opinion on the new superintendent. But I disagree with the premise of his letter:

“Most importantly, (the new superintendent) Kay-Wyatt and the School Board need to stay in their respective lanes to optimize the shared goal of creating a world-class education for our children. Thankfully, the roles of each are simple: The superintendent works for the School Board, and the School Board works for the residents – period.” Let me lay out why I disagree.

First, everyone needs to work together, including parents, students and citizens, because creating good schools is our shared responsibility. Second, I don’t believe the superintendent “works for” the School Board. They are hired and can be fired by the School Board, but work for the whole city to make the schools a fantastic place for students, teachers and parents.

The reason Harris’ suggestion doesn’t work is that the School Board is not equipped, paid or responsible for being the superintendent’s supervisor. They have to hire the best person they can find, set the course, pass the budget and then react as issues arise. The superintendent is running the schools, just like our city manager – not City Council – is running the city.

Which brings me to my plan to reform our School Board, or at least the incredible imbalance that now exists. Currently, there are nine members, three elected from each of three wards. Yet the decisions they make affect the whole city, including spending approximately one third of the city budget.

But if you took a poll, most residents would have no idea who the School Board members are. This is partly because even if they did cast a vote for the School Board, they didn’t for six of the members. Sometimes there are only just enough candidates willing to run, so there is no contest, no campaigning and no forums to get to know the candidates.

Second, the chair is chosen by their colleagues, so voters have no direct say in who is chair. After they cast their vote, their attention probably drops off considerably. Third, I can imagine being on the School Board takes an incredible amount of time and attention to detail, but they are paid only $15,000 a year, with the chair making $17,000.

Is it expected that they do a full-time job, and commit the time and energy to the equivalent of a second job? Or is the expectation that only the wealthy or parents whose spouses make sufficient income can commit to be on the School Board?

The School Board needs to be strengthened, not only to tackle the issues that arise, but because schools are the first building block of democracy – and our democracy is currently under threat. If we don’t expand the connection between citizens and our school board, we could find ourselves with members who don’t reflect our values. They may want to ban books, dictate how race is taught or restrict rights for LGBTQ students.

We need more citizens to be engaged in education, whether they have kids in the public school system or not. Maybe they want to volunteer or move from other careers to help fill our national teacher shortage.

I believe we need to remove the ward system, and model our School Board after our City Council with seven members elected citywide and the chair running separately, so that they are chosen by voters. I also believe we need to pay School Board members in accordance with our expectations. Their election cycle is tied to the City Council elections, so why not their salary?

Perhaps their salary should be one half of the City Council salary, and the chair’s salary one half the mayor’s salary, or maybe it should be more. We would then have the chance to also have a primary to select the best candidates, or the top six would win seats in November.

Every voter would have a chance to select their choice for all the School Board seats as well as who the chair should be. The School Board would gain stature and – having been elected by the whole city, having an increased salary and being fewer in number – be a stronger check.

The city would benefit as the School Board, if modeled on the council, would surely become a proving ground for someone with ambitions for higher office. It is time we reform an outdated model of underpaid, part-time School Board into a more professional, decently compensated board for the 21st century, where the whole city gets a chance to choose the members and the leader.

-Boyd Walker, Alexandria