The role of the District 861 School Board, by most accounts, is to set the policy by which the district operates. Those policies are then put into practice by district staff and administrators. But looking at the nuts and bolts of district management, the lines between setting policy, finding solutions to complex school issues, and where board member duties end become less clear. It’s a question that the board has grappled with in recent months, and one that many boards before have attempted to answer: when should the board be active in decision making, and when should decisions best be left to administrators and district staff?
“An election doesn’t really change the people in charge of the district,” said board chair Greg Fellman during a spring board meeting discussion on whether to hold a strategic planning session at that time, or wait until after elections in November. During that talk, he said that while the board holds the district voting power, it’s actually more of an advisory group for district administrators and staff members. We’re not the education experts, he said, and we depend heavily on the expertise of administration to make decisions, to tag priorities and to identify goals.
Most recently, the question has surfaced of board participation in identifying $500,000 in budget cuts for the next school year. A recommendation for reductions is expected to be made by a committee composed of administrators and one board member, but Fellman and others have questioned whether any board member should be at the budget-cutting table. During a recent finance committee meeting, Fellman said including a board member on the budget-cutting committee could mean the group’s work would be influenced by a particular “agenda.” He suggested the budget cut recommendation should come solely from staff, while admitting the cuts would likely affect programs and become a controversial issue in the community.
At a school board meeting earlier this month, Fellman broached the subject of board participation on “administrative committees,” including the group proposed to formulate budget cut recommendations.
“The question is how much involvement should an individual board member have in that process before it comes to the board?” asked Fellman. “I’m not saying this is happening, but do we intimidate? Intimidate is not the right word, but do we bully [district staff]?” Will board member participation in committees charged with bringing forth a recommendation to the full board taint discussions, he wondered.
Board member Mohamed Elhindi said he didn’t think that any line was being crossed when board members were used on certain committees because of individual expertise, such as board member and former foreign language teacher Ben Baratto being asked by the school board to sit on a committee to study enhanced foreign language options in the district. But, said Elhindi, if individual board members do begin to push those “agendas,” there is a problem. “If staff feel, by doing this, we are micromanaging, then I think we should stop doing it,” he said.
Perhaps the question of whether any board member should be asked to participate in an administrative committee should be left to superintendent Scott Hannon, suggested Elhindi, a sentiment echoed by several board members. “If Scott thinks it would add value to have a board member [on a committee or attend a meeting], I think he knows our backgrounds,” said board member Gary Shurson. “I think we can let him pick it.”
Board member Michelle Langowski said that teachers and administrators are experts in their fields, and that board members, most often, are not. When on a committee, Langowski said it’s nearly impossible to expect district administrators and staff to not view a board member as a representative of the board. “I’m on the curriculum committee,” she said. “Am I an expert in curriculum? No. But [there are] things that we can get out of those meetings that we can convey back to the rest of the board.” She added that a board member doesn’t have to sit in on every meeting, every time staff are asked to do something, but that she firmly believed that if administrators wanted the board’s opinion on an issue, it should ask all seven members.
While agreeing that there is a variety of expertise on different topics among individual board members, board member Steve Schild said that it was difficult to ask staff and administrators not to view an individual board member’s opinion as a reflection of the board when deliberating a committee charge. The key, he said, is if there is board involvement in a committee, it should be limited, and at Hannon’s discretion. “I would really hate to make a blanket policy saying we couldn’t ever draw on the expertise of the board,” he said, but added sometimes that involvement can produce “self-fulfilling prophecies” and inhibit committee discussion.
“If I’m on a committee, I’m not going to sit there like a dummy,” said board member Ben Baratto. “I think if we’re put on a committee, I think we’re there to express our opinion—not necessarily the opinion of the board.”
The work to trim next year’s budget by $500,000 will begin in the coming months, and the answer to whether any board member will be part of that committee process to recommend those budget cuts will come soon. While director of fiscal affairs Dan Pyan, as well as Hannon, both said they felt the committee could use a board member to act as a voice for the public, Hannon agreed it was important that any individual board member's agenda or platform be left at the door.
During the recent finance committee discussion on the budget reduction process, Fellman admitted that these cuts won’t be easy, and will likely include difficult decisions in choosing between programs proven good for kids. “They’re all great for kids, but how do you fund them all, how do you make a decision about which one goes?” he asked.