School Boarding 101: Winning Friends and Influencing People
Jefferies, Steve, Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators
Despite overwhelming and increasing evidence of a children's obesity epidemic, our public schools have been slow to respond with any sense of urgency. Ironically, as the epidemic worsens we continue to hear more instances of physical education program cuts--the principle school subject that has the potential to combat this epidemic. A major reason schools are changing practices is because of higher educational expectations. Why then are they so reluctant to respond to decreasing children's health?
Understanding this trend demands an understanding of the American public school education system. According to the Constitution, responsibility for education is vested locally within each state, and more specifically in the authority of an elected citizen group within each school district. This citizen group--typically comprised of five to seven members--constitutes the Board of Directors, or more commonly known as the school board. Geographical boundaries within school districts ensure that board members live in different regions. However, no distinctions are made with regard to other characteristics such as political affiliation, gender, socio-economic status, age, or employment. Once elected, board members become district representatives and their geographical status is irrelevant.
While the reasons motivating individuals to become school board members may differ, new members quickly learn about becoming part of a team. Board members may have a particular agenda in mind, but the reality is that they are only one vote in five, and must work cooperatively with their colleagues to avoid strife.
To understand (and perhaps later influence) public school decision-making, this latter point is worth emphasizing: A single school board member is powerless in changing school policies. While it's easy for a board member to become outspoken and opinionated, nothing changes until a majority of the board agrees. Renegade board members at best are likely to end up frustrated, and at worst discover that their vote on an issue may hasten its demise.
Sadly, a similar fate awaits children's health advocates, who in their determination to impact our public schools adopt the wrong approach. And too many health advocacy champions do not understand how to effectively work with local school boards to achieve their goals. Based on my eight years as a school board member, the intent of this article is to offer advice to would-be health and physical education advocates.
10 Steps for Effectively Advocating with School Boards
1. Understand School Board Responsibilities: It is vital that you understand what school boards do and do not do. School board members will have personal opinions on educational matters; some conservative and others liberal. But beyond personal views, school boards are expected to meet specific job responsibilities. You need to understand these responsibilities. You need to ask yourself how your proposal meets these responsibilities. An issue may make sense to you but not be a board responsibility.
For example, school boards are not responsible for children's health. Understand this. Nowhere is the promotion of children's health written into school boarding guidelines. Ensuring school safety is about the closest connection to be made between board responsibilities and student health. It is not that school directors are not personally interested in children's health, many probably are. But improving student "health" is not part of the job description.
School boards have the following responsibilities:
1. Vision--The board focuses the work of the district and community on student achievement through a comprehensive strategic planning process.
2. Structure--The board governs the district through prudent financial planning and oversight, and diligent and innovative policy making.
3. Accountability--The board infuses all programs and crucial policies with specific goals and a process for evaluating, reporting, and recommending improvements. …