School boards exercise local control
In a strange moment during a usually quiet school board meeting, one board member stands up and proclaims that every class including the kindergarten shall have free soda machines in the name of hydration.
“No, nothing like that would
happen,” said Bob Vogel, director of governmental relations at the Montana School Board Association. “Board members can’t act alone. They have authority as a whole, and they work together to make decisions in the best interests of the students.”
If the entire board makes a questionable decision, the public can take action.
“People can take recourse during the next election,” he said.
The school board is a locally elected governing body, and in this area, they usually consist of five volunteer members. The Montana State Constitution gives them the power to vote on policies and the ability to supervise the school.
“They are what local control is all about,” he said. “Local control allows each board to look at the priorities of the district, and each district has different needs. People don’t often see the direct influence the board has but everything they do has an influence on student achievement.”
School boards across the valley vote on many policies pertaining to school functions including construction, transportation, curriculum, the budget, employee contracts, hiring and firing the superintendent and they approve the yearly calendar. Board members have the power to vote on issues that affect students, but they utilize support from many sources to make those decisions.
“They work with the superintendent and take recommendations from teachers and everyone else,” he said.
The school curriculum is one of the big decisions the board makes, but it isn’t like they have to sit down and design it. The superintendent, principals and teachers get together to decide on the curriculum, and they present their ideas to the board, and the board votes to adopt or reject the curriculum. The same procedure occurs with many items on the board’s agenda.
“We try to hire good administrators with good educational backgrounds and knowledge of research to help us make decisions,” said Gene Posivio, St. Ignatius School Board chairman. “We make those decisions by focusing on our goal and that is to maintain a positive learning environment for the kids and to set policy for the school. The board has to remember that they are there for the kids, and remembering that makes decisions a lot easier.”
A school’s budget is often another agenda item. The superintendent is responsible for creating the budget. If the board doesn’t agree with it, the superintendent makes changes.
“The budget is brought forth by the superintendent and we make our judgment,” he said. “The biggest problem we have now with the budget is that we have less state and federal money to work with.”
Sometimes, the board makes a decision that doesn’t work well for the school, and those policies can be put back on the agenda for another vote.
“If a policy is not working, we look at ways to change it,” he said.
The board has a number of
outside resources to rely on including national and state school board associations, which provide recommendations and workshops to help board members stay informed and make decisions. The public, which includes students, is another resource for input, and people have the right to attend board meetings and add public comment.
“The public can have the superintendent put something on the agenda, but they usually try to solve the issue before it even gets to us,” he said. “We are usually the last in line for people with issues.”
Posivio is a retired schoolteacher. He said being on the “other side” has taught him a lot about the board, including the many aspects of the budget. He decided to run for election about seven years ago in what was a good example of how the system works. He was unhappy with the way the board was voting, so he decided to run during the election.
“We each have three-year terms, and every year someone comes up for election,” he said. “If you don’t like a board member, vote them out.”
Serving on the board is a commitment. Board members attend regular monthly meetings, special meetings and workshops. Volunteering on the board is the way Polson School Board Chairperson Caroline McDonald uses her skills to stay involved.
“When looking at ways to volunteer, I looked at the school board,” she said. “You can have a profound difference by working with friends and neighbors even if you disagree on things because ultimately we have the same interests in fleshing out what is best for the kids.”