Wednesday, May 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

We have the power to make school boards more relevant

Get involved

Interested in discussing this further? I'll be part of a six-person panel at a community forum called, "The Future of the Seattle School Board: Why Should You Care?" at 7 p.m. this evening at Seattle's Town Hall. The event, organized by Washington Appleseed and a Leadership Tomorrow Class of 2007 Project Team, is part of a series of events designed to spark public interest in the upcoming Seattle School Board elections.

"In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards."

— Mark Twain

Mark Twain's withering contempt for a body elected to oversee the person hired to run schools remains as fresh today as in 1897 when the writer penned the words.

Several years back, while on academic sabbatical at Stanford University, I came across similar attitudes in a provocative but reasoned argument for abolishing school boards.

The case was argued by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on campus. The opening salvo was a description of school boards as dysfunctional families filled with unlovable types such as would-be politicians, teacher-union sympathizers and single-issue advocates. They are people who would run screaming from the label conservative, yet they block reform efforts such as charter schools and high-stakes testing in favor of conserving the status quo.

School boards are veering toward irrelevancy as the federal No Child Left Behind law leapfrogs accountability from the schools directly to state education departments. Ouch. The truth packs a wallop.

There remains, however, a critical role for local school boards. I doubt that I'm alone in preferring education leadership and accountability located in my zip code. Rather than abolish this arrangement, let's rout out the dysfunction in exchange for stronger, more-skilled units.

The need is urgent. Public education struggles because it is pulled in every direction by disparate constituencies. One group clamors for reform and everything swings. Another cries for a return to basics and the system sails in the opposite direction. No surprise when it warps and strains from the pull of such forces.

A school board's top priority ought to be creating consistency by controlling the pendulum's shift.

No time like the present to be thinking about this. In Seattle, four board seats are up and at least one contender has emerged in each race.

Voters shouldn't need a background in education or perfect board meeting attendance to choose the right candidate. An understanding of quality leadership and an ability to recognize it will suffice.

If our votes reflect our desires, Seattle's next school board will be a functioning body with no interest in using the superintendent or controversial issues like school closures as tetherballs. Differing visions won't become quagmires of discontent. "Time is money" will be the new mantra and whether the money is their own or taxpayers', there will be a distaste for wasting it.

I have sat through too many school board meetings hoping for a story and getting instead a lesson into the many ways time and intellectual capital can be wasted.

Everyone has war stories; mine include long meetings featuring board members whose questions revealed zero preparation. Or the meetings where district employees took turns on the hot seat, some lying like rugs rather than telling a board member that their half-baked idea would cost too much and accomplish too little. And the telling moments when it was crystal clear that a schools chief and the school board were not on the same page, or even holding the same book.

Whether board members are appointed, elected or hatched in an incubator, we ought to choose the next batch with a demanding focus as though we were sending them to Congress. Important policy issues await a proficient, capable board. Among the issues the next board will not only have to take up but actually follow through on are how much school choice is too much for Seattle, whether principals are too autonomous, and new strategies for attracting families currently enrolled in private and parochial schools. The nagging achievement gap will require more than hand-wringing from the next board.

Twain wouldn't like this, but we've got to retain the structure of school boards and vote informed, intelligently and like crazy this fall to improve their quality.

Lynne K. Varner's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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