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Progressive Voice: ISO Top-Notch School Board Member (No Platitudes, Please)

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’. 

“A thankless job.”

“Your life is not your own.”

“A toxic environment out there.”

These are perceptions among some in the community of what it’s like to be on the School Board these days. If even some of the comments are true, why should a good person run? And why should we care?

For starters, the decisions the School Board makes deal with two things most valuable to many people who live here–their children, and their property values. Good schools are a top factor in choosing where to raise a family and they contribute to strong property values. Good schools also strongly influence what makes Arlington an attractive place for businesses to locate and grow. With all that at stake, we need strong, principled, experienced leaders making the decisions on the School Board and thinking strategically.

Given the upcoming School Board vacancy and a Democratic caucus likely in May, the Progressive Voice editors sat down with a few knowledgeable experts to ask their thoughts on what makes a top-notch board member.

Big-Picture, Whole System Outlook. “The primary quality I want to see is somebody that sees all of Arlington,” says Stacy Snyder, who has served on the APS Advisory Council on Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) and is currently vice-chair of the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC). “They understand that every decision, whether a boundary or something else, affects all of Arlington.” Snyder understands that “we all come with our own perspectives, experiences with certain schools,” but says, “I’d want to see someone who’s open to learning, evolving.”

Long-Term Perspective. The Arlington school system has had challenges with growth and capacity of buildings over the past decade, leading to a slew of construction projects amid frustration over a lack of land. Greg Greeley, a veteran of FAC over several years, refers to this situation when explaining why he’s looking for a candidate’s long-range mindset. “The thinking has been more ‘Where can we build the fastest?’ when it should have been ‘Where can we build to best fit the needs of the system?'”

Greeley adds that “There’s a good chance we’ll need a fourth high school in the next 20 years.” Hearing a candidate detail how she or he would approach the problem would “reveal a lot.” Greeley explains that in discerning a candidate’s long-term perspective, he would be listening for depth in how “they describe the problem.”

Deep Knowledge of Facts, Strong Work Ethic. Many candidates list various organizations they’ve been involved with. But a person’s depth of experience and contribution can vary greatly. To get a clearer picture, former School Board member Tannia Talento says, “I’d zero in, like ‘I see you were on the Budget Committee. What did you think of last year’s budget?’

Snyder observes, “When candidates talk…I want to see that they know their facts. If I heard a candidate talk about an inequity that’s not really based on fact, but more in outrage, then it’s a sign.” She worries “when people choose outrage over information.” Snyder says, “If x percent of third-graders aren’t reading at grade level, I don’t want [candidates] giving a solution without showing me how it’s going to work.”

Greely agrees that School Board candidates and members must go beyond platitudes. “The question should be ‘How would or could you make this good idea happen?'”

Focused on Inclusivity and Fairness. Several people emphasized that Arlington must be a school system that works for all kinds of students. Donna Budway lamented the “have-nots getting farther behind” during the pandemic. “Arlington, with all its resources, has to be the school system that can do it for second-language kids, ones with disabilities, everyone,” says Budway, who has spent more than 20 years working on special education issues.

“[School Board members] need to have an understanding that disabled students don’t have special needs; rather, they have unmet educational needs and a human and civil right to educational access,” adds Tauna Szymanski, a civil and disability rights lawyer, and a founder and co-chair of the Arlington Inclusion Task Force.

Being Bold, Asking Hard Questions. The “how” of getting the job done can frustrate both Board members and the community, especially when their answers are at odds. Balancing long-term needs with short-term pressures; knowing when to listen and learn respectfully, when it’s time to take a stand. Maurine Shields Fanguy, a past PTA president, says, “School Board members are expected to provide guidance and oversight, and they should ask hard questions–especially early in the process– even if awkward for the APS staff and superintendent.”

Collaborative Personality. Former School Board member Talento notes, “Are you an agitator, or someone who can work within the system to make it stronger? Some people are so critical of the system they seek to oversee… they go in like a bull in a china closet…that will sure clear out the china, but leave lots of pieces.”

So Talento advocates for a collaborative frame of mind. Any School Board member is only 20% of the decision-makers, one vote among five. “It’s been said, you have five alpha personalities on a board,” she observes. “They’ve put themselves on the line [in running for office], saying, ‘Pick me,’ and they have all different styles. So you’ve got to be open to listening and working with four other leaders.”

It’s nearing the time for Arlington to “pick one” new School Board member. While to some, School Board may seem a “thankless job,” some of those who have held the office have a different view. “Serving on the School Board was one of the most extraordinary and rewarding experiences for me,” says former School Board member Talento. “As a person who believes in the positive and necessary effects of giving back to your community, serving on the School Board is a community and public service that you and your family will always remember and be proud of.”

The Democratic party holds a May caucus to endorse its candidate. The filing deadline for any other candidate is June 8.

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