A veteran education reporter recently revealed to me the one area he can’t get insiders to talk about: school boards. Administrators, teachers and others will open up about equity, standardized testing, teachers unions, discipline, attendance, budgets and whatever else you want to talk about, but they are scared to talk openly about the machinations of their school boards.
That’s because so many boards—essentially running unchecked and with the benefit of insiders not speaking up—are dysfunctional and seemingly governed by outside agendas.
Here in Southern California my district, the Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD), proves my point nearly every week. We have several board members who have decided that they are the arbiters of community decency.
The Board Gets In The Way
Lately, they’ve decided to interfere with how our high school English teachers present reading materials. They’ve used outdated and obscure language from the California Department of Education to justify a bizarre requirement that high school English teachers affix warnings to books deemed to have adult content.
Among the titles with warnings: “The Kite Runner,” “The Things They Carried,” “A Thousand Pieces of Gold,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Color Purple.”
The California Department of Education and a coalition of free-expression advocacy organizations—including the National Coalition Against Censorship, American Booksellers for Free Expression and the National Council of Teachers of English—have all denounced this CVUSD policy. And yet the policy remains.
I served a very brief stint on a charter school board. That experience alone spooked me. There are simply too many ways in which individual board members or—more likely—a cabal of a few board members can push their own twisted, biased agendas.
Though there are open meeting laws in nearly every state (in California we have the Brown Act), designed to increase transparency, bad and possibly illegal behavior is still too easy and too common. Unless a community activist or a local reporter brings attention to potential violations, there is simply nobody to monitor board members.
One of our CVUSD board members threatened community members, told parents he feared for the afterlife should he support a history and social science curriculum where LGBT people were acknowledged and sent inappropriate emails to a job applicant. He’s still a board member. And, of course, that job candidate declined the offer.
Who would want to be at the mercy of wacko board members?
Several months ago I attended a Saturday workshop at UCLA with high school English teachers from all over Southern California. About an hour into the conference, during an open discussion only tangentially related to censorship, a teacher randomly brought up the issue of flagged books in the Conejo Valley Unified School District. This is happening at a time when our school district is experiencing declining enrollment.
My point: Boards behaving badly have consequences in the classroom and consequences in the wider world. Not only demoralizing to teachers and administrators, they can sully the reputation of an entire community, cause parents to rethink their school choices and lead esteemed professionals and families to steer clear of the district. And, of course, that’s not even touching what they can do to a child’s educational experience.
I would encourage sane people to run for their school board, but how realistic is that? Except if you’re a Los Angeles Unified School District board member, you are typically paid nothing or very little to be a board member. And yet it’s a job where you get inundated with emails, meetings, requests for special sessions and more. And if you’re sane and fair and you’re confronted with a cabal, what do you do?
In CVUSD, the members who are outside the three-person cabal often make their voices known on social media, they encourage meeting attendance and coverage by the local newspaper. But that’s what it’s come to.
Reporters from our local community newspaper, a free weekly, have served as the only check on the power of our school board. These reporters dutifully endure five-hour school board meetings and make open records requests so that, for example, the public is made aware of Brown Act violations, prompting the district attorney to take action. Volunteer community activists also post about the problems on social media.
People as diverse as Horace Mann and Mark Twain have railed against school boards. And some researchers have called for the elimination of school boards.
All I’m suggesting is that we wake up and speak up. At the very least, support and encourage local media. Find your local education activists and follow them on social media.
Oh, and encourage your board members to read “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They may learn something powerful about the potential consequences of mixing personal agendas and public policy.