Episode 98

Navigating school board politics

February 26, 2018 | Issues Facing Schools Today
Guest:Mike Ward

Former Representative Mike Ward joins Joel Gagne in this episode to talk about how school boards compare to and operate under political governing bodies. The two chat about effectively navigating school board politics. 

Mike, a former Democratic congressman from Kentucky, says navigating school board politics is inherently personal. They are made up mostly of parents, who place a premium on educating children.

“Therefore, when parents approach school board members, they’re doing it from a very personal standpoint,” Mike says. “So that’s one thing I’ve noticed in working with school districts that is different from the rough-and-tumble of regular politics.”

School boards tend to be a small number of people, usually with five, seven or nine members. Single alliances can change the tenor of the board going forward, and it’s important to know how to navigate school board politics.

“One vote moving this way or that changes the whole dynamic,” he says. “You get to some pretty tense situations.”

Joel and Mike talk about how new board members will sometimes come on with an attitude of trying to shake things up. It can be productive to avoid “rubber stamping,” but often these shake-ups come across as dysfunction. A main reason superintendents will leave their jobs is because a school board has become dysfunctional.

Mike notes the overall population is less likely to have students in the district—and therefore less likely to be engaged—and Joel says there is often a “silent majority” in school districts.

Mike recommends dealing with these types of disruption-seeking board members on a personal level, within the bounds of open-meeting laws.

“Spend time, talk to the new member, and try not to say to yourself, this new guy or new gal is just crazy and I’ve got the votes to do what we need to do so I’m going to ignore her or him,” Mike says. “What you really need to do is to sit down with them and find out what the problems really are.”

It is important to maintain focus and not get overwhelmed by too many new issues. When a new member starts raising objections, remember they’re often playing to someone in the crowd.

Joel talks about how an engaging superintendent is able to listen to the concerns of school board members who want to disrupt the status quo. He or she should lay out all facts for new members and often there is common ground to find.

Mike and Joel talk about how the national political climate is affecting local school districts, and how the $10,000 cap on state and local deductions will impact taxpayers in the context of schools. This applies mostly to wealthier school districts, as the $10,000 cap is unlikely to come into play in less well-off districts.

Wrapping up the episode, Joel asks Mike what school district leaders should be looking out for in 2018.

“Well, I think they need to keep an eye on what is the localized impact of the national conversation about President Donald Trump,” Mike says. “And I don’t mean from just a Trump-bashing basis or a Trump-supporting basis, with no looking right and no looking left.”

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