It seems that every school board faces the same problem:
There’s never enough money. Board members regularly appeal to local taxpayers,
state legislatures and even Washington, D.C. for more money.
But their message will gain more sympathy if their own
house is in order, meaning they must examine local school spending —
particularly on themselves. A good place to start is participation in the
Michigan Association of School Boards.
The MASB is a trade organization for public school board
members. Its stated mission is providing "quality educational leadership
services for all Michigan boards of education."
The MASB, like many trade organizations, promises to
educate new members about the issues and concerns of the field. So far, so good.
The organization conducts or sponsors a number of professional
conferences on topics that include legal issues and "communications and
But while the MASB has the potential to help board members
"learn the ropes" of their job, participation in MASB activities may hinder,
rather than help, the leadership of local members.
School board members are stewards of taxpayer money, after
all, and some MASB conferences represent questionable expenditures at posh
facilities. MASB Executive Director Justin King told the Flint Journal, "We
don't go to the
fanciest places in the world," but the management and customers of some of
those "places" might disagree. In July, MASB’s summer conference was held at the
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, which bills itself as having "been named among
the Top 50 travel destinations by Condé Nast Travel." The resort’s Web site
describes it as offering "luxurious
accommodations" and "world class spa services and recreation." Other MASB
conferences have been held at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and at the
Amway Grand Plaza, which features the only restaurant in the state to earn
five diamond award from AAA of Michigan.
To its credit, the MASB "canceled the Mackinac Island
conference because it was
too expensive," according to Flint Journal. It does hold some meetings at
Holiday Inns, Comfort Inns and local school buildings.
Still, the costs for events at higher-priced locations add
up. The Journal found that the July conference at the Grand Traverse Resort, for
example, cost Flint-area schools
$23,000 for rooms that ran up to $200 per night. Some board members actively
sought out more reasonable accommodations, but most did not.
While spending on an MASB membership — even with additional
fees for conferences — is a small amount of a district’s finances, spending on
luxurious conferences sends a bad message. It’s one thing to talk about tight
finances and then tighten one’s belt. It’s another thing to talk about tight
finances and then head to the spa.
Some school board members have reached the same conclusion.
Led by former board member Jeff Steinport, the Grand Rapids school board opted
out of MASB membership in the 2002‑2003 school year, saving the district
$17,000 in membership dues, according to the
Michigan Education Report.
Steinport and several like-minded board members later lost their seats, however,
and the board reversed its decision.
Steinport stands by his efforts. While he tells me that
local school board members can benefit from training or executive recruitment
services, the MASB currently is not the right vehicle. In his experience, MASB
conferences served mostly as running advertisements for MASB services, and he
feels the meetings can and should be held in less expensive locations.
Steinport concludes that generous spending on conferences
is only a symptom of MASB’s problems. It seeks to enlist every school board on
its membership roster, which generates the problem of meeting the competing
needs of its members, who are both urban and rural, rich and poor. The natural
solution to this conflict is to try to satisfy every member by helping them ask
for more money for their district.
And ask for more it does. MASB’s operations include an
initiative to gain financial support from
corporations. The organization’s Web site recently alerted members to "take
action on" a proposed state education spending bill, and it encourages
members to lobby Congress for
more federal money in a national "Campaign for Federal Investment in
In light of the MASB’s free-spending ways and reliance on
the simple solution of "more money," local school boards should reconsider their
commitment to the organization. It’s a small step, but it could represent a real
leap in "quality educational leadership services."
John R. LaPlante is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted,
provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.