Last summer a friend asked me if I made any kind of a difference as a school committee vice chair. I said yes. He asked what school committees do. It turns out he isn’t the only one who has no idea. That’s why I decided to write this OpEd.
We’re entering budget season: that months-long period when towns and cities decide how to allocate funds for the various services they provide. Schools require a sizeable portion of this money. The school committee serves as the intermediary between the municipal school or schools and the town councils and voting public.
The process starts with principals creating line-item budgets that spell out what they will need for faculty, staff, materials and facility maintenance. The school committee studies these numbers, often finetunes them, and brings the sum requested to those who can approve it or turn it down. The school committee advocates for the school, showing the importance of these expenditures.
Contract negotiation is another school committee responsibility. At regular intervals, a subset of school committee members meet with faculty and staff negotiating teams to create new contracts that will be fair to workers and taxpayers. Teachers and support staff state what they and their colleagues believe will create optimal working conditions. If the package requested is not feasible, the school committee must represent this reality. The entire committee must approve the contract. The committee also authorizes renewal of superintendent contracts and salary and benefits packages.
Policymaking is one of the most important responsibilities a school committee has. A school district must have a portfolio of policies that cover everything from student transportation to programs and materials to disciplinary actions when rules are broken. All school committee members should stay up on these policies to better understand the workings of their schools and be able to explain them to parents and community members.
A policy subcommittee makes sure policies remain up to date. Often a principal, superintendent or other stakeholder suggests a policy to be revisited. Sometimes there is an agreement that, each month, a certain number of policies be re-evaluated. These days, sea changes in technology and society can call for the creation of new policies. Two areas of concern that have emerged just during my tenure have been cyberbullying and the rights of transgender students.
For fairly minor policy changes, there are many resources to consider: policies of neighboring districts, more generic “boilerplate” policy examples put out by the Maine School Management Association. Sometimes, lawyers and relevant professionals — such as doctors and coaches when it comes to policies concerning school sports-incurred concussions — may be brought in.
Issues such as cyberbullying that involve largely uncharted territory can be a lot thornier. What exactly constitutes cyberbullying and sets it apart from more innocuous communications? What are the criteria for showing a student’s ability to thrive in school has been endangered? How far does a school’s jurisdiction go? The emotionally charged nature of the issue makes a decision that much more challenging.
The policymaking doesn’t end with the relevant subcommittee. The whole school committee must approve new policies and policy changes. Other committee members, administrators, or faculty and staff members may have concerns that require finetuning.
Some other school committee duties include: investigating charges brought against administrators, faculty, staff and students to see if punitive action is needed; serving as an avenue of further appeal if parent or employer grievances cannot be resolved at a lower level; setting long- and short-range goals, translating visions into action plans, and evaluating their effectiveness after they are implemented; communicating effectively with the entire school community; creating school calendars; making sure facilities are maintained adequately and locating companies to contract with when work beyond staff capabilities is required; hiring superintendents and making litigation decisions in the event of a lawsuit.
However, the most crucial school committee responsibility is setting a positive and ethical example for the school district. Collectively and individually, we are ambassadors. This involves a lot more than not breaking rules. Going about our work with diligence, striving to do our best, accepting constructive criticism, and treating all with decency and respect are some of the most important goals toward which we must always be working.
Julia Emily Hathaway is the vice chair of the Veazie School Committee, a poet and a proud mother of three.