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Judith Geer: Serving on school board is a delicate balancing act

One of the joys of being a member of a school board is that sometimes we are asked to participate in school functions. Several months ago, I was asked to talk to a first-grade class about what a board member does. I pondered the subject for days, rendering my remarks into something I thought these youngsters could digest. On the appointed day, there I was, seated in a rocker, surrounded by wide-eyed first-graders eager, I thought, to hear my words of enlightenment. Instead, it was I who was the big learner that morning.

“What do you think a school board member does?” I asked the kids. A wise little girl named Skylar piped up with, “You help us grow up.” Well! If I hadn’t been sitting down already, I would have fallen down. A crisper description of the core of school board membership is impossible to find.

Over the past year, I have thought of Skylar and all the kids in our schools and often felt sorely inadequate to help them “grow up” in these days of thinning budgets juxtaposed with overwhelming needs. Sometimes our district’s problems are quiet and fixable, but more often they are noisy and painstakingly slow to repair.

During my board tenure, I have had countless times of frustration, and not just because of cuts in state aid and the weight of state-imposed unfunded mandates. I’ve listened to the pain, and sometimes seen the tears, of parents when they feel their children are not being served adequately, and the red tape tying their kids’ hopes for improvement is hard-knotted.

I’ve been at a loss as to what to say to the adults who have given their time for years to help our students with extracurricular events, when we discover we probably will not have the money to pay for the activity’s adjuvant costs.

“You help us grow up,” Skylar said, and her words are like a sampler hanging on the wall of my mind. I glance at it for guidance, even though I end up repeating to flustered constituents, “… but, we don’t have any money,” or “… you don’t understand the legal constraints we are under.” I know they are skeptical, and that they think being on the board affords us the power to just untangle the messes with a flick of our wrists, but it’s much more complicated than that.

So, how do we help the kids “grow up” when our options are so limited? First, we can support those who are on the front lines, the teachers and staff who attend our kids every day. Because of them, and almost in defiance of the odds, I have found little “wows” that our pocket-sized school district can celebrate. Things like knowing that our high school was designated an AP Honor School, or that our athletes display sportsmanship way beyond their years, or that our young Julie Andrewses and Matthew Brodericks light up the stage in the school musical. None of that happened by chance. Our kids are inspired every day by the many good people who work in our beleaguered schools.

Second, we can persevere through budget creation and show true compassion for all the stakeholders in that process, in spite of the uncertainty and upheaval in our educational system. Needless to say, this is a delicate balancing act, akin to the circus performer who has to keep several plates spinning at the same time.

Is setting an example of support and perseverance enough of a gift to our kids’ “growing up”? That remains to be seen, but, in the meantime, all the Skylars out there are depending on us and we can’t let them down.