Fed up with your school district? Join the board.

May 3, 2005

by Mark J. Grossman

When were you last on the stage of a high school auditorium?

Were you dressed in costume for the clambake scene for the school production of “Carousel”? Or were you a junior playing trombone in the band?

Well, maybe it’s time for a return visit to the stage of a high school auditorium — as a member of the board of education.

I’ve been an elected member of my local school board for four years. People just like me — hundreds of us across Long Island —- assemble monthly in auditoriums and board rooms determined to do the best we can to help provide quality education for our youth. There we sit, living illustrations of the fruits of grass-roots democracy, elected by our neighbors to serve the interests of our young people.

Well, here’s an urgent message to the citizens of Nassau and Suffolk: We need a little help up here. We need more of you to run beginning next year for the school boards.

Surprisingly, board members Islandwide frequently find themselves running unopposed for re-election —- there’s no competition in nearly one-third of this year’s board races.

With the high level of interest in school affairs, that astounds me.

Each month, board members manage multimillion-dollar budgets and deliberate serious issues at public meetings. We hear parents and other citizens speaking up thoughtfully, making intelligent observations, offering ideas, raising critiques and encouraging more from their districts and board members.

When one or another of these people speaks out, I sometimes think that person might make a good board member.

Not that the job is easy. But that’s exactly my point. With all the challenges school boards face, we need to attract Long Island’s best and most committed citizens to our ranks. And with the May 17 budget votes approaching, school boards face particularly hefty challenges this year.

Last year the state budget was again late, and school boards had to guess their state revenue levels. So districts jacked up tax rates. This year, the state budget was on time, and school boards did not have to guess their state revenue levels. So districts jacked up tax rates.

That’s because aid increases were modest, if existent. Sadly, state political leaders still lack the mettle to deal with a persistently inequitable school-aid formula. Wealthy districts are held harmless at the expense of working-class and poor districts.

School systems statewide face lingering uncertainty about the court ruling requiring proper funding of New York City schools. Gov. George Pataki has ignored the existence of this legal obligation. He’s either in defiance or denial.

Retirement costs have skyrocketed, in large part because some state officials choose to exploit this issue for political gain. The system is sufficiently funded. We don’t need to beef it up. But some partisans want to create a scenario that embarrasses the state comptroller in time for his 2006 re-election campaign.

Unfunded mandates exacerbate budget pressures. Districts must meet new Regents standards that require more staff and resources without the concomitant aid. In many communities, the federal No Child Left Behind law acts like a reverse Robin Hood that punishes districts lacking the resources to teach. Schools also confront increased health insurance and fuel costs.

In truth, school districts have little real control over the lion’s share of spending.

Boards grapple with discontent and mistrust over spending scandals in the Roslyn, William Floyd and Three Village districts. From the public-sector shame of dishonest officials to the private-sector shame of top corporate executives, boards must contend with suspicion and disillusionment.

In this daunting environment, Long Island’s children need leadership and courage from the grownups responsible for their education. Now more than ever, young people deserve to see us rise to the challenge.

Our communities need talented and inspired people to run for school boards.

Long Island, that’s your cue. It’s time to return to the stage. And don’t worry about the costume. Business casual is fine.

Mark J. Grossman. Mark J. Grossman of East Patchogue is a member of the South Country School District Board of Education. He is a principal in a Bohemia-based public-relations firm.

Mark J. Grossman: Newsday (Combined editions). Long Island, N.Y.: May 3, 2005 • Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.