Being on a school board is work, but has its moments
The easiest place to find a member of any school board is at a monthly school board meeting. That meeting is where options are discussed and weighed, where budgets are approved, and where the education of the area's children is decided.
Like the students they oversee, school board members are always learning, and their time is devoted to more than the board meeting that usually occurs once a month in the district.
"If I were to put an hour to it, and that of course would vary month to month, but on an average I would say at least 20 to 30 hours, and I'm probably underestimating that," said Dana Laine, chair of the Frazee-Vergas School Board, who is in her fifth year on the board.
"It just kind of depends on the type of work and the time of year we're in. But pretty much, most of the members have two or three committee meetings a month."
Of course, committee meetings are par for the course on school boards, but Laine said sometimes the board has to meet more than once a month to keep everyone on the same page, or seven different board members are going to the superintendent for more information on an issue.
She expects more meetings in the coming months when the board will work on building and planning for the district after passing its referendum last fall.
"It is a part-time job," said Vicky Grondahl, chair of the Lake Park-Audubon School Board, in her fourth term on the school board.
"Educating yourself, going to public meetings, getting phone calls at home, talking to people on the street, all of that is part of our job. And much of that unpaid for. When someone comes up and talks to you, stops you at the grocery store and wants to talk to you about an issue, you stand and you talk and discuss what's going on. It's a part-time job, involving a tremendous number of hours. I know people don't understand how much work we put in."
Detroit Lakes School Board clerk Terrie Boyd had to think about it a bit. She figured at least 40 hours a month covers it, not including attending district activities. With the monthly meetings, committee meetings, keeping up on goings-on in the district, the state and federal legislature, and keeping up with policy, not to mention the occasional stops in public with interested in district business.
"I always want to know what people are thinking," she said.
Each of the school board members said the boards they are on strive to put the best people in the best positions to do a good job. Financially-savvy members are put on finance committees, educators work on curriculum or check out new textbooks. New board members also look to more experienced board members for guidance.
Waubun-Ogema-White Earth Community School's board chair Jim Helliksen, in his eighth year on the board, said the hours vary for certain months of the year with some times heavier than others, such as contract negotiations and various committee meetings.
"There is a lot of paperwork that we have to read and keep up on. There's new laws and changing laws and new formulas for financing that always have to be looked into and researched and kept abreast of because it's an ever-changing, evolving thing," he said.
"We have various committees that all the board members share upon, and so it breaks it up a little bit. But as far as the actual time, it's quite lengthy in a month's time.
"Usually you can easily spend 3-4 hours just going over each month's board packet and that's on a fairly blasé board meeting because there's a lot of information you have to go through and dissect and sometimes you have questions."
When asked about what challenges their districts are facing, all the board members talked about education funding on the federal and state levels.
Helliksen said it's important to continue funding successful programs and maintaining financial stability in the future.
Laine said that since the referendum passed last fall, her district faces the challenge of implementing programs the public sees as a priority.
Boyd said the DL district is just establishing its footing after getting a new superintendent, is working on creating a strategic planning document for future progress, and is trying to find ways "to stretch that dollar further" to keep the district financially fit.
Grondahl said her board is facing the challenge of coming up with a solution for LP-A's building situation and handling the lack of state funding.
"There's dwindling resources every year and increasing costs and rising expectations and that is an equation that is a formula for failure. Those are some of the real challenges that are facing any board lately," she said.
But Grondahl said financial challenges aren't all that face school boards. A change in public attitude since she was first elected to the school board 14 years ago could be attributed to education funding moving from the state and federal level to the local level.
"I see an attitude of distrust, hostility and thinking that school boards have ulterior motives," she said.
"Most school board members are very dedicated to the job of providing the best quality education they can to students and I'm very upset by the attitude I see in the public. I think that's a real challenge that board members face now."
Now is the time to let district school boards know their hard work is appreciated. The Minnesota School Board Association designated Feb. 25 to Feb. 29 as School Board Appreciation Week.
For all the work that goes on in front of the public and behind the scenes, for grocery store stops and committee meetings, for handling the pressures of public service with grace, now is the time to offer a sincere "thank you" to those who serve their communities and future generations through the education of children.