It was one of those nights Davis school board President Sheryl Allen would like to forget. Three weeks before the last election she sat before an audience at Woods Cross High School filled with tax initiative supporters cheering for talk show host Mills Crenshaw and chiding her.
At one point a man approached the microphone in the audience and began to lash out at Allen because of a "conflict of interest" he claimed she had. As she began to respond, the auditorium filled with boos. She continued, unwavering, with her trademark candor and toughness."I guess I am tough," she said. "I am because I have firm convictions and I'll stand by them. If I discover they are wrong I will give them up in a hurry. I'd rather stand by my convictions than yield to emotional appeals. Criticism isn't hard if you feel good about the decision."
After living through personal verbal attacks, phone calls by irate parents, choosing two superintendents, making unpopular policy decisions and balancing all that with her family and job, Allen said she is a survivor.
"My greatest accomplishment was my own personal growth," Allen said of her past 12 years on the school board.
That growth has come during major changes in the dynamics of Davis area education. Allen, Theo Italisano and Lucille Reading were elected 12 years ago, breaking tradition with decades of all-male boards. They also stopped alleged mismanagement in the building and maintenance department, including key officials' receiving kickbacks from building contractors. And they ended superintendent domination of school board decisions.
"`We said the practices had to be ended and be on a far more professional level. The board told the administration, `Clean this mess up and do what you have to do,' " Allen said.
Characteristic of the reforms was the fact that during the new board's first meeting, Reading was elected board president. After the election, then-Superintendent Bernell Wrigley said the board should start working on the meeting's agenda when Reading gently, but firmly, took the gavel from him and told him that was her job.
Things have never been quite the same, said Allen, who quickly adopted Reading as her mentor and friend.
"She taught me how to handle a meeting and be a mediator. She could read nuances and plant seeds without you even knowing it. It is a real art," said Allen, who became board president when Reading died seven years ago.
During those first years the board worked hard to rebuild public confidence in the education system, including abandoning its practices of holding secret board meetings. Allen said she has tried also to build board consensus on major decisions and get more public input.
"It's not that we always agree, but on the big decisions you have got to be together," she said.
Allen, who is leaving her post to work on a master's degree in education administration at the University of Utah, said she first became interested in school policy when she fought to get the Junior Great Books Program implemented at the elementary school in her Bountiful neighborhood.
It was that jump from getting good literature into the classroom to dealing with huge budgets and a devisive high school boundary change that has given Allen reason to wish she'd done things differently on certain occasions.
"The boundary issue was controversial because we should have done a better job and our homework. Everybody was new," she said.
The hardest decision she said she had to ever make while on the board was cutting the district's special education budget in the face of shrinking state funding.
"It was the toughest, because I wasn't personally comfortable with it. I didn't think it was good for children," the Bountiful native said.
She has been criticized for "corrupting" the children of Davis County because she supported measures to allow them to wear shorts to school and answer a controversial questionnaire about teen pregnancy.
"The questionnaire fuss was much ado about nothing. I could not understand how a few direct and specific questions in a questionnaire can corrupt a child when the news is equally as explicit," Allen said. "I am also a very practical person, and it just seems to me that if students are in those classrooms when it is so very hot they are going to learn more if they are comfortable."
Allen, who said too few of Utah's bright women are running for elected office, doesn't see this as the end of her political life. While she doesn't know when or where she'll find another opportunity for public service, she said she will return.
"It gets in your blood," she said, smiling.
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