In the Town of Berryville, elected school board representative Jim Brinkmeier has resigned his position effective September 15th. In response to this, the court has decided that there will be a Special Election held on November 5th to elect a replacement to finish his four-year term. This surprise announcement has me pondering the question most of us have to consider when there is an open seat; Who would run?
It’s a sobering question because I have a difficult time imagining who in their right mind would subject themselves to this (no offense intended to present members). It is a thankless position that requires a serious time commitment that frankly has only the slightest possibility of making a substantive difference in a system that is teetering near the brink of disaster. Hog-tied by bureaucracy at the state and federal levels, all local school systems spend inordinate amounts of time making decisions that are little more than the choice between a bad option and a worse option.
That doesn’t sound like a job built to draw in the best and brightest.
Am I being too jaded in my assessment? I have a reasonable perspective to come to this conclusion. I have sat through countless meetings as a journalist, and those marathon sessions are structured and predictable but laced with an overarching tone of resignation to the fact that little can be done within the current paradigm in which the system operates.
So let’s forget about who would run for a second. Who SHOULD run?
The school board has many responsibilities as an organization; hiring and evaluating a superintendent, evaluating and adopting policies, serving as a judiciary and appeals body and much more. But one of the most important roles that the school board is responsible for as an organization is to establish a vision for the community’s schools. A shared vision is not driven by short-term crises but instead provides a framework to plan for issues that require long-term thinking. It’s meant for the long haul and allows the board to lead the school system forward. It provides an approach to deal with the perennial problem in Clarke County Schools, like budgets, textbooks, falling test scores, class offerings and the list goes on.
Can a single candidate hope to accomplish this? No, but they can lead the charge toward establishing a shared vision across the entire board. We need a person with a vision that can share it with others and get them to contribute to it and believe in it. But before they can hope to do this they must tackle a critical barrier to progress, trust.
The linchpin for the success of the board and school system moving forward with a vision is trust. However, trust is not simply doled out like cheap Halloween candy; it has to be earned. This is done first and foremost through open communication. There are many ways to accomplish this (blogs, social media, etc.) but it must be based on a commitment to radical transparency. Good bad or otherwise everyone involved has to own their mistakes as well as their successes. This has been sorely lacking. As we stand now from my point of view, the board doesn’t trust the superintendent; the superintendent doesn’t trust the board; the Board of Supervisors doesn’t trust the schools and the community doesn’t trust any of them. The gossip network of rumors and half-truths runs rampant because there is no way to get the straight story. The only way forward to establish trust is an open level of communication. The community’s impression of its school system will enable or limit its ability to succeed.
When the middle school band teacher was let go because of a reduction in force (RIF), dozens of people turned out to the school board meeting to protest the decision, but it was too late. Board member Chip Schutte pointed out that it was the 13th meeting where the issue had been discussed and no one had shown up at those meetings. Why? Because no one knew what was at stake until it was too late. Diligent citizens have access to enough information to keep abreast of the board’s activities, but it feels like a fight, and it shouldn’t be as hard as it is in a community and system as small as Clarke County.
So we need someone with leadership skills and a vision for Clarke County Schools who is committed to open communication in order to establish trust. A tall order but not impossible.
I’ve heard rumors of some that may be willing to run, but frankly, I think that is a deeply flawed approach. I think it’s time to institute a draft. We as a community should identify people who should run and convince them that there is a job that needs to be done and that they are the right person to do it.
Clarke County Public Schools has great challenges ahead but with them come great opportunities. As a small school system, we have the luxury of being able to move more quickly than larger school districts. We have the potential to blaze a trail that larger systems could only dream of. There are countless obstacles, but change can come if a shared vision is in place and a team that is built to make it happen can establish a culture of trust.
I don’t know who this individual is in Berryville, but it’s time to get out there and find someone who should run. It’s time to go out and draft a new board member.