Parents have already taken over most school boards

February 6, 2022 5:02 am

Eight district superintendents signed a letter to Superintendent Elsie Arntzen expressing no confidence in her leadership.

“Parents are taking over school boards” announced a recent headline in a national publication.

I have a lot of thoughts about this.

For starters, like most school board trustees, I am a parent who decided to run for the Missoula County Public School Board of Trustees seven years ago, in 2015, when my son was in 1st grade, because I wanted to make a difference and help improve our schools. I didn’t run on a political agenda. I didn’t run because I was enraged about anything. I didn’t run because I was trying to upend the system– I ran because I wanted to be part of the process and bring my perspective to the conversation.

Since then, after almost every single board meeting, I’ve made a Facebook post on describing what we discussed and what we decided. I’ve done that to try to make sure people knew more about what was happening, and knew how they could connect and engage with the decision-making processes. In these posts I don’t share “who voted this way” and “who voted that way” because once the board takes action, ethical board members support our adopted policies as a group, and continue working within our processes if we aren’t happy with the outcome.

During the past six years, I’ve talked with and emailed with countless parents, and pointed them toward the places in the district where I hoped they could resolve their issues. I’ve tried to uphold the clear communication and chain of command by encouraging people to talk to the person most directly connected to their issue– teacher, principal, administrator, then superintendent, before trying to address it at the board level. I’ve tried to be realistic about the role of a trustee … not to micromanage, but to become as well informed as possible so I can make thoughtful votes and contribute meaningfully to discussions. And I strive to respect the expertise of professionals (whether dealing with highly complex issues of finance, construction, law, curriculum, or health), while also seeking out the perspectives of people involved in the district– especially the kids.

Like lots of other parents, I’ve been frustrated when issues remain unresolved, when we fall short of our ideals, when kids or families feel let down or unserved.

At times, I’ve been frustrated by not being able to do more for my own kid, or to shape the schools more specifically to my, or my kid’s, preferences –but that is not my job as a board member. My job is to think about the whole– the whole district, all kids, and the whole community –impacted by the district’s work. It turns out that schools are not a consumer transaction, but a civic project, a collective commitment to each other and to the future.

More often than not, I have seen the tremendous work that happens every day by teachers and staff, and the countless kids who have stability, structure, and chances to shine, by being part of our district. I see educators adapting to impossible circumstances and making it work. I’ve been very glad to be a part of important –and parent-led– conversations about who our district serves well, and who we serve less well. I’ve been glad to be part of making some important changes and I’m proud of some of the ways our parent-majority-board has continued to push our district forward.

And at times, I’ve heard from literally hundreds of parents who believe our district is moving in the right directions and serving our community overall pretty darn well.

And so it’s hugely frustrating– and worrying– to be told “the board” doesn’t listen to “parents.” That “parents” need to “take back the schools.” That decisions a parent (or even a group of parents)¬† disagrees with, were therefore made without consideration¬†of parent input. I resent the idea that only certain voices represent “parents.” I reject the idea that parents and educators are “at war for control of the schools.” We’re on the same team, we’re members of the same community, and, I hope, we’re interested in the same better future for all kids, not just our own.

I hope that people considering a run for school board this spring do so out of a commitment to all of what schools are about, and commitment to all of whom schools are for.

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Grace Decker
Grace Decker

Grace Decker is a parent, a musician, and an early childhood educator and advocate from Missoula. She was elected to the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees in 2015.