Should public school board members be required to have children enrolled in the district they serve? Yes

It’s a matter of public trust

Men and women elected to a board of education provide a valuable and critical service to the school district and community at-large. The board is entrusted with a mandate, a roadmap if you will, for the development and implementation of educational programs benefi- cial to all students in the district. The board of education is the platform that sets the tone and environment on which all community institutions depend for fundamental leadership to the emerging generation of new leaders. It touches the business community, our senior citizens and many aspects of community life. Our youth rely on these educational leaders for guidance and direction.

Board members who choose to send their children to another district, a private school or home school demonstrate little confidence in the very public school system in which they have been elected to serve. Any candidate who seeks the position of board of education trustee, under the auspices of "doing the public will," ought to follow the principle of what’s good for the public served is also good for the self. A board member who does not use the local school district abandons this creed. While this practice is legal, the action demonstrates poor leadership and destroys the public trust. Such actions are similar to the CEO of General Motors driving a Toyota or Detroit Tigers’ Manager Jim Leyland rooting for the Chicago White Sox.

Citizens elected to the board of education should be the first in line to champion for their own district. Whatever the reason for sending their children to another district — smaller class size, low test scores or another reason—the board member should work to improve those issues rather than abandon the district, and the students, they were elected to protect and serve. By abandoning the public good in favor of their own individual interests, those persons, who practice in one of the most important and respectable professions in our communities, abuse and mislead both their students and communities. Board members with school-age children who do not attend the local district also take more than $7,000 from that district, which further jeopardizes the delicate financial situation of Michigan public schools.

These are conflicting loyalties that collide with the philosophy of current mainstream education leaders. A board member may not be justified in pursuing such an action for a personal reason or for an ideology. When a board member is compelled to change the district they represent after a loss of confidence and/or faith in the district they represent, an honorable way to accomplish this task is to resign from that board and take up residency in the district of choice. These views divide the community, the board and take the focus away from student achievement. They cut into the heart of the current principles of self-governance, local control and self-determination so characteristic of the American education system.

No public servants share this distinction more than the men and women elected to a board of education. Early in their careers, board members with eager and enthusiastic voices cheer the opportunity to serve the students in their respective school districts. They promise and agree, unequivocally, to support the education framework, advocate for resources vital to stability, secure a positive and safe learning environment and represent the collective goals of the community, taxpay ers and parents of the children they serve. In exchange, they are given the highest badge of honor persons of this distinction can ever earn

— public trust.

The requirements of a school board

trustee are simple. Any ordinary citizen can be elected to a board position in any community provided they are a resident of the district and 18 years old. However, any resident elected to a local board of education has a primary obligation, to the office itself and to the oath of office they pledge, to serve the education interests of the people in their district.

I believe that every school district can become better. As a long time resident of Clio, I have observed over the years, the strength, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities for Clio Schools. I am in my 17th year on the Clio Board of Education. All of my children were born in Clio and all graduated from Clio schools. The quality of education each received translated into college degrees and professional careers. I can’t say I was or am personally responsible for the better-than-average quality of Clio Schools, but I can say that I consistently advocate and promote ever increasing academic standards, while some trustees in remote districts resist, citing state or federal interference as an excuse to do nothing. As a result, I have earned the public trust for a persistent belief in Clio Schools, for advocacy of funds and continuous program improvements in raising student achievement. For this, I feel that I have been amply rewarded if not by the 5,000 students whose hands I have shaken over the years as they cross the graduation platform, then certainly for the public trust bestowed on me by my supporters and my critics.

Consider the alleged case of a school’s dilemma in which some educators — like a maverick board member — have so little faith in their own institution that they, in small circles, proudly hail that they are sending their children to schools surrounding their district. Nothing can be more distasteful and psychologically damaging to students who discover themselves in the helpless situation of being abandoned by the leaders of their school district. Educators and parents who practice this option may do so and call it choice under their rights as parents or their rights under the law. They would be right. There is however, a greater reality.

The abandonment of one’s own district eats away at the very foundation the board member was elected to uphold. If a board member abandons their commitment to the students in the district they promised to support with public dollars, the practice becomes sacrilegious. Several teachers and board members have attempted to make the case that it’s OK to publicly proclaim choice over the public good when his or her child is a subject of concern. (I would argue that all students are subjects of concern!) Even so, it’s a tough sell and not likely to be supported by the majority of education supporters or critics. If the practice were challenged in court it would likely be found contrary to the legislative intent on which boards of education were founded.

Those who are elected to the board of education have been entrusted with the futures of children and ultimately their success. Such trust requires unwavering confidence and support that goes beyond the self. A member of the board of education has a sacred obligation to be an advocate for its children, in action as well as in spirit. Our children deserve no less!

Henry Hatter is a trustee on the Clio Board of Education.