I began my School Board term last month and I want to share some of the things I’ve been doing and learning. I hope that by sharing this, maybe you’ll have a better sense of what goes on “behind the scenes” than I did as a parent and community member. I also hope that you’ll share with me your reactions and ideas about what I as a School Board member can do to work smarter, strategically and responsively.
What issues did I work on? During my first month, I spent time on the issues listed below.
COVID: quarantine, isolation and masking protocols; Test-to-Stay rollout; weekly surveillance testing; the pause on extracurricular activities in early January
Steps taken to assess and support COVID academic recovery (learning loss)
The current state and future of the Virtual Learning Program
Recommended changes to the Immersion program
Policy changes related to: advanced classes, acceleration and differentiation of instruction, English Learning, and early childhood education
The Governor’s executive order related to teaching “inherently divisive concepts”
FY22 budget closeout
Progress on inclusion for students with disabilities
Planning for summer school
Mental health and social-emotional well-being of students and staff
6th grade reading instruction (growing out of the School Board’s approval of the Secondary Program of Studies)
Potential changes to the 2021-22 school year calendar
Concerns of APS bus drivers
Demographics and equity considerations in boundary policy and processes
The Career Center project and its Building-Level Planning Committee
How did I work on these issues? The part that’s easily visible to the public are the School Board meetings and work sessions: there were four of these in January. The stuff that’s not so visible has included:
1. Preparation for the meetings: School Board members get draft copies of materials and presentations the week before the public meetings. I read through all the materials and often send questions and/or requests for additional data in advance.
2. For “monitoring reports” at School Board meetings, many times a board member is assigned to work with the APS presenter in advance to fine-tune the presentation. The intention is to help the presenter anticipate what questions and information needs board members and the public might have.
3. Board members attend “2x2” meetings with APS leaders to understand and ask questions about high-priority and/or complex initiatives. It’s called a “2x2” because by law only two board members at a time are allowed to gather to talk business outside of advertised regular meetings and special meetings like work sessions.
4. Weekly meetings involving APS leadership, the School Board Chair, and one other board member to review and adjust the agendas for upcoming meetings; check in on important initiatives; and this year to monitor and discuss COVID metrics and mitigation efforts.
5. Meeting one-on-one with APS staff working at the central office and in schools.
6. Outreach to liaison schools and programs: each School Board member is assigned a set of schools and programs to connect with each school year. During my first month on the job, I contacted the principals and PTA presidents at each of my liaison schools, attended one PTA meeting and visited one of my liaison schools to talk with staff and students.
7. Each School Board member also acts as a liaison to one or more of the APS advisory committees and councils. During my first month, I met three times with members of the Arlington Special Education Advisory Council (ASEAC) and once with leaders of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families.
8. Meeting, emailing and calling individual parents and parent groups.
9. Meeting with community groups.
10. Meetings and phone calls with County Board members.
11. One-on-one conversations with other School Board members (more on that below).
12. Independent study: What does the research say? What are other districts doing?
What am I learning? Much more than I can convey here. But here are some highlights:
1. There is a tension, as is true in most organizations, between the need to be responsive to the various issues and concerns that come up and also preserve some focus on a core set of priorities. It is sometimes difficult to apportion time between meeting immediate needs and exploring longer-term, systemic changes that could broadly benefit staff, students and families. I think about this a lot and talk about it with my colleagues and APS leadership.
2. This job takes a lot of time. I knew this going in, and the work is rewarding so I am not saying this to complain. I raise it here because I worry that by its very nature it’s a part-time job that isn’t feasible for many people whose full-time jobs don’t afford a lot of flexibility. I am privileged to be able to work some odd hours on certain days in my “regular job” in order to be a board member. That’s not possible for many people in our community.
3. School Board members can’t just grab a beer and talk it out. I am new to the team and getting to know my colleagues. We each do this job a little differently, and ultimately I think that’s a good thing (I, for instance, am not particularly attuned to compliance with all the regulations that govern our gatherings–but I’m glad that there’s someone else who is.) I struggle a little bit with the legal barriers that prevent all five of us from simply sitting down together and brainstorming opportunities or hashing out a problem as a group. Instead, I need to call my colleagues individually to talk through an issue (four times, see the “time” note above) and we lose the benefit of the full-group exchange. If I email my colleagues and one of them wants to reply to the group, they have to wait at least four hours or else our email exchanges count as a virtual meeting.
The laws governing our interactions exist to ensure transparency and public accountability, and that’s a good thing. I’m finding that this group of people deeply respects and abides by those rules. It does, however, come at some cost.
4. There’s so much value in listening. I suspected before I joined the School Board, and it’s proving true, that active listening and genuine acknowledgement go a long way. As a result of being willing to listen and genuinely curious, I’m having some surprising conversations. I’m seeing things differently. I’m making better decisions. And hopefully the person I’m talking with feels the same, and we’re trusting each other just a little bit more.
I hope this report-out gives you some sense of my work as a School Board member (and by extension, the work that other board members generally do). It’s my aim to do this job well and increase public confidence in the work of school boards generally; I hope information like this contributes to that effort.
Mary Kadera is a school board member in Arlington, VA. Opinions expressed here are entirely her own and do not represent the position of any other individual or organization.