Even though sunlight is the best disinfectant, many county residents are only truly interested in school system governance when something goes wrong. As we head into the next election season though, it might be useful for folks considering possible service on the Board of Education to understand a little more about the underlying forces that make the current board work.
First, effective policy making and school system oversight always take a backseat to what we call “board norms.” Board norms are largely unwritten, sometimes unspoken, and usually arbitrary rules that are meant to keep dissenting voices in check — they’re something in between rules of etiquette and the commandments painted on the barn in Animal Farm. “Board norms” are invoked whenever hard questions need to be asked of school system leaders: No board member shall hurt anyone’s feelings. They’re invoked when the $700 million budget is not backed by performance metrics or when plans have major holes: No board member shall demand accountability. And “board norms” are invoked whenever public scrutiny or attention gets too hot: No board member shall speak publicly.
That last rule is fuzzy. Board members are certainly encouraged to speak publicly as long as what they have to say is happy talk. That’s the second major job we have — above all else, board members are expected to be “positive ambassadors” for FCPS and its leaders. This idea — that those elected to provide oversight and safeguard taxpayer dollars are cheerleaders instead of coaches — is a recent innovation. In fact, it’s one of the main successes of the last several years. Circle the wagons, obscure potential incompetence, scramble communication and leave parents, teachers and staff with a distorted (but positive!) view of school system operations. And never, ever say sorry.
Do policies perpetuate systemic racism, intolerance and inequity? A positive ambassador steeped in board norms would highlight the good intentions behind the millions that have been spent on cultural proficiency training. Did we fail to make proactive or effective plans to continue education during the pandemic? Did we put all of the pivots and pain on students, families, teachers, administrators and staff? A normy positive ambassador would highlight the virtuous patience school system leaders showed while they waited, and waited and waited for outside guidance.
People unskilled in these arts struggle. People who ask inconvenient questions, demand decisions based on data, or speak their minds as they try to represent the constituents who elected them would find themselves out of place in the culture of the current board. If you’re considering public service, it’s important to have a clear idea of what’s expected of you. Board norming and positive ambassadorship are the current pillars of board service.
As always, I write and speak on behalf of myself.
Liz Barrett is an elected member of the Frederick County Board of Education.