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.

(9) comments

NickB

Liz Barrett clearly prides herself on being a "Gadfly" or telling her "truth to power." She decries " No board member shall demand accountability." However, there is usually a flaw in this position.... intolerance to other's sincerely held differences. It is OK to hold different positions even when someone disagrees with you. In a recent case I imagine that she would have been vocally livid if the FCPS employee associations had unilaterally walked away from a signed agreement between them and FCPS. The Board and FCPS signed the agreement and to claim the right to ignore it is irresponsible. Ms Barrett is both an elected representative of her constituency speaking for them as well as herself - AND -she is part of a team that has strategic (not tactical day to day) oversight of FCPS. This letter indicates to me that she has not taken appropriate responsibility for the latter role in which working with the Board and FCPS administration and the Employee Associations is as important as trumpeting her personal style.

NewMarketParent

Here's the thing. This is an elected position. It would seem to me that the only way to lose it is to be voted out or somehow censured.

Until that happens, you are absolutely free to speak your mind both before and after about decisions. It doesn't help to be the voice of reason after the horse has left the barn.

If your colleagues get mad... oh well. It is important that the decisions that are made are the best for the kids and the system. All other feelings are unimportant and if you keep the kids well-being at the center, seems like you can rest easy at night.

Plumbum

Agreed.

The whole idea of a board is that each board member think for theirselves and make their own decisions. It seems that board members forget they are to each make decisions that they feel is in the best interest of everyone.

Greg F

The board is a cabal of group-think knuckleheads.

Greg F

Tip...here's a tip....say you're a lifer resident and love sports, and you're a team player with a positive attitude. DON'T mention your PhD in any sciences because Joe Public doesn't care and wants the happy person who is the team player vs someone who thinks too much. Don't get anyone that has any experience dealing with unions or writing contracts...oh, no....we don't want anyone to be smarter than anyone, right? They just would clash....make sure to say you love Jebus....we all want to have a god of some sort in school, right? Say you're a family person...even though we know you're on your 3rd marriage...yeah...3 families.;.you win! Talk up your kids to boot...we all know how they contribute to..um...hmmm...something.

Dwasserba

“People who ask inconvenient questions, demand decisions based on data, or speak their minds as they try to represent the constituents...” Ohhh do I like you. You are not a good fit for all the right reasons.

PurplePickles aka L&M

Sounds like a toxic work environment to me.

public-redux

Sounds like the Abilene Paradox.

Plumbum

To whom are you speaking?

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