John Florez: New school board members can make a difference

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Voters cast ballots during early voting at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City, Monday, Oct. 8, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Welcome newly elected local school board members. You have just won a seat on one of America's archaic institutions. Folklore tells us it's the bedrock of our democracy — local control.

It's so embedded in our culture that when election time comes around few of us know anything about whom we checked off as our representative. It's not that the position is insignificant, it's that the career professionals and the vested interest groups have made it so that the average person feels it doesn't matter.

Each of you newly elected local school board members worked hard because of your commitment to improving the education of our children. You knocked on doors, raised money and had friends who spent countless hours helping you. Each of you should take pride in your victory and your patriotism. It's that passion that can move mountains. The question is: How long will you be able to keep it in making a difference in improving education for our children?

You can keep it as long as you stick to your principles and wisdom you bring to the table. Remember, it's government by and for the people. Now that you are elected you will be briefed, courted and educated by the education professionals. That's where you begin questioning your judgment and your ability to bring fresh solutions to an outdated education system. Professionals will "educate" new board members as to what constitutes good education, the complex policies and protocol they have created to protect the status quo and stifle new ideas.

Don't let them do that. You were elected to represent the interest of the people, not the bureaucracy. To do less, is to become a keeper of a failing institution that relegates our children to a second-class education. We have let the experts run our schools and look what we got. Our world has changed exponentially while our schools are changing incrementally.

The special interest groups, the so-called, "stakeholders," have captured our policymakers. The real stakeholders are the taxpayers that got you elected to oversee our public schools. You are answerable to them and entrusted with the education of our children. Board members are briefed on the importance of working well with their colleagues, rather than publicly differing on policy matters. Debate and dissent are vital for transparency, accountability and the creation of good public policy.

Demand to have a say in renewing the mission of your district that prepares students for today's global economy that requires knowledge, imagination, innovation and creativity. Look to those who are affected by the problem for solutions, rather than the "professionals" who must fight to defend the status quo; establish district goals that promote its mission; and ask the question about a policy decision, "How does this promote the mission?" If it doesn't, eliminate it.

Have a clear understanding of how you measure success — your product. How many students go on to higher education, skills training and/or how many find living wage jobs? Schools now only measure process. You should require monthly progress reports on established benchmarks with timetables for district goals. No private business would survive without doing that, yet we have allowed bureaucrats to run our schools as such. Remember, what gets monitored is what gets done.

You have the power to levy taxes, hire and fire staff; don't pass the buck. You have been entrusted with protecting and promoting the bedrock of our society — our schools and our children. It's up to you as a newly elected leader. All you need is the willingness to risk, trust your instincts and stand for what is in the public's interest.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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