Board is Different, Better

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," April 11, 2000, p. 11A

I was sitting in the Hy-Vee deli when my favorite auto parts guy, Roger, came over. “What’s the school board up to?”

“What do you mean?”

“With this governance policy stuff, parameters, appeals. I just don’t get it.”

“It’s all on the Web. There’re no secrets.” I said.

“I don’t have time for that,” said Roger. “Do you have any idea how many basketball games a fellow has to watch during March Madness?”

“OK,” I laughed. “Go get another cup of coffee.”

Roger returned and leaned back in his chair.

“First,” I explained, “understand that this school board and superintendent are doing some pretty innovative stuff. We think we’ve got it right. But only time will tell.”

“Second, I’m not the board. There are six other folks with ideas. But where do you want me to start?”

“How’s what you’re doing different from other boards?” he asked.

“In most districts the superintendent does everything. The superintendent writes the board’s agenda. Even its policies. He recommends how the board should think and vote.

"Most board members go along. That’s a ‘rubber stamp board.’ Some board members like to meddle in administrative details. That’s called ‘micro-managing.’”

“Our board thinks we ought to do some research, thinking and writing for ourselves. Show some leadership. What are we trying to accomplish with this $70 million-dollar district anyway? And long-range planning. We think that’s what we were elected to do. Lots of input? More than before. But decisions that are genuinely ours.”

“Why?” asked Roger. “Sounds pretty stupid to me. You had this cushy job doing nothing and now you actually have to work. How much do you get paid anyway?”

I hesitated, anticipating Roger’s response, and then said sheepishly, “Nothing.”

Roger put his cup down. “Nick, you’re even nuttier than I thought. But, OK, so tell me. Take this boundaries business. You making that decision, or just delegating it to Lane Plugge?”

“No delegation, Roger. We both make it,” I said. “But trust me, it’s different. Remember when you and Ellie decided to trade in your 20-year-old Ford car for your new truck? Who decided what you’d buy?”

“We both did,” he said. “She picked the purple pickup and I decided on the wide tires.”

I stifled my laugh. “Well, that’s what we’re doing. The board decides we need a truck and Dr. Plugge chooses the tires. Except we gave him an executive limitation that prohibits purple.”

He scowled. “OK. So maybe Ellie and I need some of your executive limitations. But what’s this business about policy appeals? Why can’t we all just come to the board with our concerns like we used to?”

“You can, Roger. Where’d you ever get that notion? For starters, with Lane here we don’t have as many complaints.

"We even have a board governance policy that requires everybody get the respect from the district they’d get at Wal-Mart. If anyone has a problem it’s like before. Talk it over with the teacher, and if necessary the principal. If there’s still a problem it goes to the superintendent. There’s plenty of opportunity to be heard.”

“But what if I don’t like Lane’s decision? Why can’t I come to the board?”

“You can,” I explained. “There are lots of opportunities. ‘Open discussion’ time during regular board meetings. Regular community meetings in the schools. And we all have e-mail, phones and mailboxes. Just don’t expect us to reverse decisions that don’t involve policy.”

“So why did Bill tell me he thought you weren’t going to hear from the public anymore?” Roger asked.

“Darned if I know. Ask Bill. The board has always welcomed public input. Still does. The more the better. It’s one of our best ways of finding out what’s going on.”

I continued, “But seven volunteers with other jobs and a substantial backlog of genuine board business – long range planning, policies, buildings and budgets – can’t be spending precious hours resolving every administrative dispute that comes along. Besides, if we didn’t limit ourselves to policy appeals we’d create a district with eight superintendents.”

Roger got up to leave. He paused. “Hey, Nick. You know those cartons of water pumps I’ve got back at the warehouse? Can’t seem to sell ‘em and it’s too late to send ‘em back. You like Lane, right?

"How about you tell Lane he should buy them for the school buses. What do you think?”

“Roger, what I think is that you haven’t heard a word I said.”

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site,