During the last few weeks I have gotten a number of questions regarding my priorities for changes I’d like to see if I am re-elected to the Board of Education. The first thing that comes to mind for me is increasing our access to teachers and staff. At the Board level we get very few opportunities to engage with teachers and staff as a full board. Much of the information we get from teachers is anecdotal. I have family, friends and acquaintances that work in our school district, and that is where I get so much of my information about the day to day operations of our schools. It can be difficult when you hear one thing during a presentation to the full Board, and it seems to directly contradict something that a teacher told you earlier in the day. I thought of this while attending convocation at the beginning of this school year. We heard many speakers that focused on all the great things going on in the district, and how this year would be a great year. But I was struck by the comments from one of the WEA co-presidents. He gave a very short address, but he listed focus areas where he and the union felt there needed to be actual improvement this year. This was extremely powerful for me to hear as a Board member. It gave me a window into the concerns that teachers are sharing amongst themselves, and where they feel they need support. To hear things listed off like teacher morale, or a need for support in discipline, especially at the elementary level, gave me a glimpse into what our teachers are really facing as educators day to day.
I would like to develop a way for the Board to get this type of feedback on a regular basis. Obviously, the Board can’t hear every teacher concern – some issues are legitimate personnel issues that should not or cannot be shared publicly. But general comments and concerns by teachers should be shared with Board members. How can we be expected to develop the best policies for our district if we don’t get input from the educators that those policies will directly affect? The next question becomes, what is the best way to go about getting this information? Earlier in this term I was a big proponent of finding a way to get teacher input. I suggested that we hold a teacher forum at one of our committee meetings, and invite teachers to come and talk to the four board members that sat on the district improvement committee. This idea was rejected because, I was told, no teacher would be willing to come forward to talk about their ideas or concerns. The end result was that Board president Santos and one other Board member held a closed door meeting with teachers and union representation. Unfortunately, the Board was told that we were not allowed to hear anything that happened at this meeting, because all of the teacher comments amounted to personnel issues that the Board had no right to be involved in. This was extremely frustrating to those of us who felt that we had let teachers down by implying we were going to hear them and address their concerns, and then doing nothing about what they shared. So, what about a different approach? My thought is that we should have a teacher representative at our Board of Education meetings, much like we have a student representative. Our student rep has provided us with meaningful feedback on a number of issues – why not give the same opportunity to our teachers? I believe that many teachers and staff members do want an outlet to express their concerns. We heard from many district employees during our budget meetings who were unhappy with the Superintendent’s proposal to eliminate kindergarten paraprofessionals and reduce the number of special education paraprofessionals. They were happy to provide the Board insight into why they felt these positions were important and to talk about how this decision would affect their jobs and their students. It would make much more sense for the Board to consistently get this level of information, instead of only getting negative feedback once an unpopular decision is already made. Of course, we would need to work alongside the union to ensure that only topics that are appropriate for the Board to hear are raised, but I believe this would be a great first step in empowering our teachers and making them feel as though they are a vital part of the policy development process, and that we take their concerns seriously.