The Role of Local Politics in Schools, or Who is Making the Decisions and How?

Tonight, the Chesterfield County Council of PTAs held a School Board Candidates Forum. I attended and served as a volunteer at the forum. There are five magisterial districts in Chesterfield County. Only two of the School Board seats are contested races. Two of the uncontested races have incumbent school board members. Tonight at the forum, the majority of the time was given to the new candidates. All of the candidates shared their opinions and proposals for how to improve Chesterfield County schools. All cited their experience as parents as part of their drive to serve on the school board. Interestingly, three of the candidates have worked as teachers, two as building principals. One unopposed candidate has served as Virginia Secretary of Education.

What I found fascinating, and also bothersome, is there was only one mention of reaching out to teachers to find out what they need or what they think is best for schools. There was lots of powerful talk about serving challenged schools and populations, and a need to find funding streams for a variety of programs and proposals. However, only one candidate mentioned reaching out the teachers, or even the building leaders, in the school division to better understand the problems and possible solutions for public schools in Chesterfield.

In my opinion not one of the candidates demonstrated any leadership. I got no sense that they saw their role as a school board member as a way to bring in more voices and ideas into the decisions made in public schools. The issues “facing teachers” were talked about in abstract terms without showing a true understanding of what makes teaching difficult. There were mentions of salary and benefits as well as “reducing emphasis on SOLs” as a means of evaluation (to which I wanted to point out that 40% of teacher evaluations related to student academic achievement are not based on SOL scores but on growth on a student growth assessment of teacher choice).

In my opinion, a local political leader should be dedicated to bringing the needs of the stakeholders and constituents to the table. For a school board member, in order to properly serve the district, they must seek out voices from those who really understand the issues, which are more complicated that overcrowding, school start time, and SOL testing, which are the big issues that got the most attention tonight.

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