A THOUSAND TINY STEPS

Year Twelve and I’m Not “Board” Yet!

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Barb standing with sign running for school board in 2011
Photos from my first run in 2011

There are many things I have learned in my four terms on the Concord School Board. Some of them have definitely made my life better, richer, and more knowledge-filled, and others have opened my eyes to all that is wrong in the political realm. While school boards should not be political tools, they are, sadly, all too often put into that role. 

Concord is the only city in New Hampshire that has an autonomous board. Simply stated, that means that we as a board, do not have to bring our decisions to a public vote. We are elected to represent the voters in Concord, much like city and state representatives are in the House and Senate. While this does indeed help to make board decisions and rug a school district relatively seamless, it gives a small number of people a large amount of power. 

While it is quite a responsibility, it is also a privilege.

As talkative and outgoing as I am, I spend a lot of my time in school board meetings observing. There is a lot to see. As I enter my 12th year on this board, I find myself in a place, sadly, similar to my first year on the board. I will share this as objectively as I can. 

I mentioned a much of this in Episode 124 of A Thousand Tiny Steps last week. I talk a lot about anger. I am pretty angry at the school board part of my life right now. This is where I must walk my talk, and where I must leave my personal and political agenda out of my actions as a board member. So rather than lash out, I have been pondering. In this reflective period, I have realized that not feeling listened to, heard, or respected has been a major theme for me on the board. 

I will tell you the story.

I ran for school board in the fall of 2011. I had lost my job in the district and this was a move that gave me a feeling of retribution and control. Although I ran unopposed, I received several thousand votes. A community letting me know they saw me; that they had my back. That first year on the board was incredibly eye-opening. I learned a ton. I often say being on a school board is like getting a college degree in facilities management, finance, contract negotiations, insurance, policy writing, and public relations. Previously, I had thought school boards were driven by students and what was best for them. 

I will say at the end of almost every difficult conversation a board member will typically say, “How does this benefit students?” While there is a lot more to what school boards must do than simply oversee curriculum and staff, it all has to tie in directly to what is best for children and what tax payers can afford. Finding this balance can feel impossible.

There is no room for personal agenda-pushing and-or politicking.

If I had to say what I have loved most about my years on the board, it would be maintaining a connection to the school district. I have had the opportunity to see all that goes in to making it run efficiently. I have met some amazing people. I have learned far too much to summarize here. I have also truly loved those times when the board members “click.” It doesn’t happen often. When it does happen, it is because board members are being open and honest, bringing all of those personal details to the table and then relinquishing those that must take a back seat to the progress of the task. This is not easy for some people. In my first years on the board, members typically ran for second terms. There were seldom more new people than experienced people sitting at the table.  

Quite honestly, it takes a balance.

During my first term on the board, I spent a lot of time out of the loop. The superintendent at that time actually ran the board meetings. She sat at the head of the table with the executive committee flanking her center spot. Looking back on this now, I find it appalling that this was considered normal and permissible. I ran for my seat after she facilitated my ugly and cruel set up and forced resignation. The things she said to me still keep me up at night.

In my first months as a board member, she made sure to keep me out of conversations. A great example of this is the hiring of a sitting board member to the administrative staff. When I first sat on the board, this person was a board member. The finance director job opened up and he applied for it (or was encouraged to). I knew nothing of this process until a former board member stopped me at a Memorial Day Parade and asked me how I felt about his upcoming job offer. I looked at him blankly. I had no idea. Neither did one other school board member I found out later. We were both blindsided that everyone else knew.

It was a headline the next day. There was another board member who did her best to keep me in the loop. There had been some sort of email conversation from which I was excluded. Seven of the nine board members took part in that process. And it felt pretty bad to be excluded like that. There are some who would say it wasn’t personal. But I am quite sure it was. 

I filed suit against that superintendent and a friend of mine filed a right-to- know request for emails. It was during these events that her true nature came out. She sent my separation agreement to the Concord Monitor. She called me into her office and had three emails laid out for me to read. They were far too personal in nature to have been randomly selected as she claimed they were. She threatened that these would be included with no redactions if I didn’t back down. Some serious victim shaming. 

This employee of the community was later named superintendent of the year. 

It was shared with me during a non-public session from which I was excluded, another board member who was and remains a close friend of that superintendent, suggested they give me my job back and then fire me. The board members that kept me apprised of these things were horrified. I was, too. After her departure life on the board changed for the better. It stopped being a clique.

The establishment of the Zone A, B and C seats created a much more geographically diverse board. No longer did we have a majority of the board living in walking distance to the SAU building or in just two or three wards. It began to feel that all of Concord’s neighborhoods had representation.

We also began to see a string of what I came to call “one term wonders.” As long timers began to leave the board some new and exciting people showed up. But they were often agenda driven. It was the first time I saw political initiatives drive the school board election process. While I did not always agree with certain agendas, the board was a pretty well-oiled machine. 

I feel this is because there were no strong social connections among board members.

There was also diversity in the backgrounds, careers, and ages of the board members. I firmly believe that any school board should have a member with a legal background, a medical background, a business background, and a policy background. There are four members. There should be at least two with a background in education and perhaps one with a mental health background. Finally, there should be two or so in the trades. While this may be an impossibility my point here is diversity and representation. 

Most importantly, personal and political agenda and affiliations should be left at the door. 

We had a leadership change in the years leading up to the Howie Leung fiasco so we learned to develop the independence and leadership a board should have. While there were still a few members who ascribed to the philosophy of the former superintendent, there were enough newbies to balance that out. Those 40-hour weeks as a school board in the fall of 2019 are impossible to describe. But we became unified through the difficult decisions we had to make.

We all had a voice.

I had gone through Molly’s death and brain tumor removal during this time. It was also some of my most active years on the board in terns of leadership roles and expectations. I missed a lot of meetings and was not always at my best. But my strengths and opinions were respected. I am quite sure there were times people did not like what I said, but the board president at that time was an incredible leader. 

She knew how to facilitate and delegate without judgement or ego.

We lost a lot more than just a president when she left. The whole tenor of the board shifted. While the leadership change felt OK, the parade of one term members kept the board in a continuous learning phase. I and a fellow board member were in our third terms while the rest of the board members were in their first. Newly elected members simply chose not to run again, lost their seats, or just called it quits. 

I remained a leader on the board during this short time period, bit it began to shift in 2023. The changes were subtle to the outside eye but noticeable to me. After seven years on the executive committee, and fully expecting to have my go at being president, I found myself off the executive committee. While I cannot write about the specifics of that here, I had several people warn me of this plan. It was a painful realization that there were those who sought to push me aside. 

This is the political side of things.

Many cultures appreciate their elders and more experienced members, the current tenor of the board does not feel that away. At least not to me. Current board members and leadership in particular have never once reached out to ask what I know about issues. There were several meetings about city issues around playing fields that I was not once consulted on or invited to. I have more than 30 years of experience navigating our city parks as a coach and camp director. 

A board member recently shared his concern that my extensive use of city fields might make me a conflict of interest on such committees. He expresses concerns about me often. It is hard not to find it insulting. I realize this missive is beginning to sound cranky. 

It is because the plot is rising. 

Again, I am in my 12th year on the board. I taught in the district for 21 years. All together I have 33 years in public education as a teacher and a coach. I have certification and experience in Elementary Education, Special Education, Physical Education and Health. I have a C.A.G.S. in Educational Leadership Through Arts Integration. I have run a summer camp for 23 years. Why am I giving this summary of all that I know?

Even though it is my 12th year on the Concord School Board, I have no leadership roles whatsoever. Current leadership feels that I am an “untrustworthy” board member due to my testimony at December’s middle school hearing. The current president wants the Capital Facilities Committee to “go in a different direction.” When I asked her how she felt that this was OK and acceptable she fell back on the fact that I didn’t direct the Capital Facilities committee properly. That I should have shared that I didn’t support the middle school proposal. (I was never against the project, by the way.)

A committee chairperson is on no way supposed to “direct” the thought process of that committee. The chairperson creates an open forum for members to participate. As I sat looking around the room, (there were five other board members present) I was given lectures by two others about my attendance and how my presence on certain committees creates a conflict of interest. Apparently, I do not say things in a way that current leadership supports.

So, I have been ceremoniously decommissioned. 

I, along with the two first-year board members will share the honor of being led by those deemed acceptable for such leadership. While the new members have a lot to learn and it makes sense, my role on the board feels sort of like a middle school building that is no longer being cared for as it is going to be replaced. 

Why am I sharing all of this?

I take my responsibility toward those who elected me quite seriously. I did not want anyone to think that I was shirking responsibility.  I very much wanted a chance to lead the board as president. There are those who made sure that did not happen. I had absolutely no idea I would be removed from chairing any committees or that I would have to fight for the ones I am on. 

We have a first term second year board member chairing one of the most complex committees and on the executive committee. We have another first term second year member chairing a committee. Our top leaders are starting their fourth year as board members. If they were the most experienced members we had, this would make sense. 

I know that I can contribute a lot to the board without a leadership position. I look forward to those challenges. What is difficult is having to sit in meetings surrounded by people who clearly have little to no respect for my time on the board, or for the function of the board itself. In my darkest moments I feel that an autonomous board is a mistake for our tax payers and our students.

While the current board may not all live within walking distance to the SAU, they share strong social and political connections. While the days of board members and the superintendent sharing dinner every Friday night at Hermanos may be a thing of the past, the feel of board meetings is eerily similar.

In closing out this difficult missive, I implore Concord residents to attend meetings and continue to be vocal. I encourage people other than the friends of current board members to run for a seat. For a community (and a board) that preaches diversity, we do not have a board that currently reflects this.

My fourth term is winding down. I am thinking that perhaps a fifth may be in the works. Although I can, in fact, walk to school board meetings, I can safely say I do not have any friends on the board, so I go that going for me! I will keep you posted.

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