I’m a believer in meaningful democratic control of the public school system. I think it’s at the heart of generating good decisions about school policies and practices. At some level I think everyone knows that a big bureaucratic institution, left to run itself without democratic oversight, will not always act in the public interest—even if, like ours, it’s staffed by many good people. The primary role of the elected board is to ensure that the institution belongs to and answers to the public.
There is a real danger, though, of what they call in other contexts “regulatory capture.” Board members—who are unpaid part-time volunteers, after all—come to depend on the administrators who they’re charged with overseeing, and come to rely on them for most of the information they receive. Before long, it can start to seem like the board is working for the administration, rather than the other way around. It can be uncomfortable for a board to exercise real oversight over the people it works with all the time, just like supervising any employee can sometimes require hard conversations. But if board members back away from that responsibility, the public interest suffers.
What I want for this district is a board that’s willing to exercise that responsibility, even when it’s uncomfortable. I believe our current board has failed in that task. The clearest demonstration of that was the board’s decision last October to extend the superintendent’s contract out to three years and to give him the largest raise in the district and to commit to another large raise the following year—at a time when the district had experienced serious problems with legal non-compliance and also with its culture and climate. (See this post.) There should not be such a disconnect between the board’s oversight of the administration and the reality of the district’s performance.
So my main criteria for choosing candidates is whether I think they will change this pattern—whether they will withstand the subtle and overt pressures to take a hands-off approach to oversight. In my judgment, the candidates who are most likely to take administrative oversight seriously are Karen Woltman, Laura Westemeyer, JP Claussen, and, for the two-year seat, Charlie Eastham.
I’m not saying that the candidates have to be pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries. Karen Woltman, for example, is as judicious, considerate, and reasonable as anyone you’ll meet. But she knows how to think critically about a proposal and how to withstand the pressure to join a bandwagon, as she showed when she was sole dissenter on the state assessment task force’s recommendation to adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced Assessments. (See this post.) Her ability to explain her point of view persuasively and stay focused on issues, rather than personalities, is her strength.
I know from Charlie Eastman’s longstanding involvement with equity issues in the district that he’s capable of pushing back against district decisions when he thinks they’re wrong. In my experience, he’s a straight shooter and is serious about engaging with people who raise questions about district practices and policies. Similarly, I’ve seen JP Claussen ask hard, challenging questions, both to his political opponents and his supporters, in situations where the easy thing would have been to remain silent. I believe that both of them are well suited to engaging in meaningful administrative oversight.
Of all the candidates, Laura Westemeyer has been the most openly critical of the district, and she’s the only candidate who has said she will vote against the bond. She’s been particularly critical of the district’s handling of special education—and why shouldn’t she be? If our district had been more open to what special education parents (and others) were telling it for years, there might never have been a Westemeyer candidacy. In any event, she’s more than demonstrated that she’s unlikely to be a rubber stamp.
In my view, those are the “change” candidates. The remaining candidates seem to be offering the same approach to board service that we’ve seen from the board majority over the last two years or more. Shawn Eyestone and Ruthina Malone have both been good soldiers for the district’s PTOs and committees for years, and that’s valuable work. But if the administration could choose its own candidates, they are the kind it would choose. Some of their statements—for example, Eyestone’s statement here and Malone’s statement here—make me wonder whether they have already begun to identify with the administration in a way that would make it less likely that they will engage in effective oversight. Janet Godwin, the chief operating officer of ACT, has conducted a stay-the-course campaign and (as I wrote here) seems very similar to our current board chair; if anyone seems like a “more of the same” candidate, it’s Godwin.
Any one of these candidates could end up surprising us if they’re elected. All you can do is try to make an educated guess about how they’d act as board members, and of course your guess, and your priorities, may be different from mine. I appreciate the fact that anyone is willing to run for these seats, since it’s a big, uncompensated time commitment and also means publicly taking a lot of heat (for example, in blog posts like this one!). Whoever wins, I hope the board will re-assess its recent approach and start to more actively exercise meaningful oversight of the district’s administration. In my view, the success of all the board’s initiatives depends on that threshold change.
Other posts about the school board candidates:
Some things you should know about Karen Woltman
Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD
Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation
For links to candidate websites and other election information, click here.