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Veteran school board members agree: It’s a challenging, and often thankless, job

Say you want to be a school board member. You care about kids, right? You want to make a difference.

Great! Just a few things to keep in mind.

You’re going to be responsible for the for the education and safety of every family’s most precious possession – children.

You’ll approve millions in expenses while hearing from taxpayers who want to spend less and parents who want more.

You’ll spend hours at workshops, on research and in – wait for it – subcommittees.

People will bend your ear in the boardroom and the grocery store.

If some really dislike you, they’ll try to oust you.

And of course, you’re doing all this for free. Right?

Veteran board members and those who regularly advise school boards agree that while being a school board member can be a rewarding job, it is also one of the most difficult and daunting elected positions that exists for anyone who wants to do the job well. That’s something to consider as voters prepare for school board campaigns to launch ahead of the May elections.

“You come in with all these dreams of everything you’re going to improve with innovation,” said John Licata, a former school board member in Buffalo, “then you run into all this bureaucracy.”

He may have been a city board member, but many agree his assessment applies to most districts, surburban and urban.

“It’s a little bit more challenging than it ever has been because the unions have their issues, the parents have their issues, and the kids have their own issues,” said former Williamsville School Board Member Michael Littman.

Karl Kristoff, a veteran education lawyer with Hodgson and Russ, said board members face tougher challenges now because they must govern in an organization that has more regulations and mandates than any other enterprise outside of the health care industry.

“They often must govern under circumstances over which they have no control,” he said. “The boards have to deal with the results and pressure of implementing those things.”

And legal pressures are far from the only pressures board members face. Challenges come from both within the district and beyond.

Consider the issues local board members have faced within just the past couple of years:

• Fallout from a majority of students opting out of state standardized tests in West Seneca and Lake Shore.

• Administrative and teachers union tensions flaring up against the superintendent in Williamsville.

• The vote to close two elementary schools and one middle school in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district.

• Enduring Hitler references and having people stand and turn their backs to you during the Lancaster debate over the now-retired Redskins mascot.

• The ousting of a Hamburg School Board member and criminal case against the district’s former superintendent.

Veteran board members recognize that new board members often come to the job because they have a particular interest or desire to change particular things. But newbies often underestimate the time commitment involved or their limited ability to change things on their own, they said.

Robbin List, a Hamburg board member and former educator, recalled the days after the Hamburg school district endured the disgrace of former Superintendent Richard Jetter, and the ousting of former School Board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci on misconduct charges.

“You could feel the stress,” said List, who previously served on the West Seneca School Board for 10 years. “I was like, ‘OK, now everything’s burned to the ground. How are we going to rebuild?’ ”

Williamsville board member Littman recalled how the teachers union mobilized votes to unseat him and other board members last year for supporting a controversial personnel decision by Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff.

Understanding the truest set of facts isn’t always easy for board members, he said. Neither is maintaining a balance that prevents granting too much favor to any one side.

In some cases, taking a middle position and being open to compromise is not rewarded. Former Buffalo board member Licata, generally considered a board moderate, said he found himself out of office for failing to align strongly enough with either side of a fractured board.

“I think I didn’t get re-elected because I didn’t get easily pigeonholed by any camp that is really motivated to vote,” he said.

List recalled a time when he was both president of the teachers association in Orchard Park and president of the West Seneca School Board. That was a difficult balance, he said.

“At times, it was very soul-searching,” he said.

These board members speak in favor of school boards who try for objectivity, work by consensus and respect, and are driven by the common goal of raising student achievement.

That same message was hammered home on Saturday at a workshop for prospective board members hosted by the Erie County Association of School Boards.

Roughly three dozen potential board candidates listened attentively as speakers offered a mix of encouragement, information and caution. They had a laundry list of legal, legislative, regulatory, political, constitutional and investigative responsibilities each board member agrees to bear when they decide to run.

“There are some very polarizing issues out there right now facing all of us in education,” said Jon MacSwan, superintendent of the Cleveland Hill School District in Cheektowaga. “There may be people in here who may have only one simple issue that they want to address. I encourage you to try to step back, take a much broader view of the responsibility you are preparing to shoulder, or maybe consider not running.”

Jane Burzynski, director of the county school boards association that sponsored Saturday’s workshop, said there have been occasions where workshop attendees have been so overwhelmed by the expectations and time commitments that they changed their minds about running for a board seat.

But many remained committed, like Williamsville candidate Mary Biejer, a workshop attendee and teacher who says she wants to improve district communication with parents. And Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda candidate Dawn Stinner, who has five children ranging from gifted to autistic.

“I sat in the cheap seats for eight years,” Stinner said. “I’ve done everything I can from the cheap seats.”

Now, both women say they’re ready to step up.

Many veteran board members strongly advise new members to remember their place as one vote among many and urge consensus in all things, and some new board members say they’ve felt the political consequences of voicing public dissent.

Robert Freeman, head of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said he regularly speaks to school board associations about legal transparency requirements. He also fields phone calls and questions from board members who feel they’re being pressured or punished for speaking against a superintendent’s or board chair’s recommendations.

In his more than 40 years of experience dealing with these issues, he said, he hears this complaint more often from female board members.

“My belief is that intelligent school board members who are independent thinkers are frequently put down by fellow board members and school district administrators,” he said. “I believe, too, that in too many instances, they are essentially threatened by school board attorneys. As elected officials, school board members have an obligation to express their views. However, in too many instances, they are told that they cannot express their views that may be inconsistent with those of the majority or the administration.”

MacSwan said Saturday that collaboration doesn’t equal consensus. But effective boards recognize the need for respect.

“Move forward together,” he said.