Brian Deagle served for nine years as a Director on the Issaquah School District (ISD) School Board. During his time in office he worked collaboratively with his board colleagues, two superintendents and many cabinet members to focus the ISD on key performance indicators of success to help increase education opportunities for all students. Below are his answers to our questions about why school boards matter and what parents need to know about them.
Question: Why is it important for parents to follow the work of their local school board?
Answer: It is perfectly fine for a parent to focus solely on their child and the child’s classroom experience, which can be done without involvement in board activities. I believe that if you can do more, then following board work is important because a high performing board is essential to a high performing school district.
The first step in holding your board accountable for high performance is learning and understanding what they do. The work of the board tells you the district priorities, helps you identify areas where you would like to influence, and allows you to discern those issues that do not receive attention which you believe should. Following the Board is a way to help positively impact the education experience of many children now and for the future.
Question: For parents who want to get involved and learn more about what the School Board does, what is the best way for them to do that?
Answer: All school board business is conducted in public, with few exceptions. Districts publish meeting notices with full agendas which allows you to see the board’s planned work in detail. The ISD publishes extensive background information for each topic, written minutes, and podcasts of each meeting. You can also attend meetings in person, which is important if you’re advocating for a specific board action (more on that below). Many districts have email distribution lists where much of this information is pushed out to the community.
I expect that regardless of where you live, your district publishes abundant information about board work. To help you make sense of that information, I recommend that you reach out to one more of your board directors and ask them about their priorities, what they hope to accomplish during their board term, and how that is reflected in the board’s agenda. Remember that school board directors are elected officials and have an interest in maintaining a solid link to the community, and I expect that they will embrace the opportunity to speak with you.
Question: What is the biggest misconception parents and the community generally have about the role and function of a school board in a school district?
Answer: Thinking the board makes all the decisions in a school district. Not all issues make the board’s agenda. Personnel decisions almost never rise to the board level, with the exception of the Superintendent. The board hires and manages the Superintendent. Another misconception is that an individual director can make any decision. The school board functions as a group, with majority rule, and all decisions must be made in a meeting open to the public.
Question: How can school boards best connect with their community at large beyond monthly meetings?
Answer: I admit that this challenging. There is an adage in education that a parent won’t get involved with district matters until something directly impacts her child. This was true for me, and I can trace my path to the school board to a teachers’ strike and proposed school boundary change.
As a board we held countless community meetings that had little attendance beyond the board meeting “regulars.” My experience is that the most well attended, engaging, and effective meetings focused on a specific topic of interest to people. General “meet the board” sessions didn’t work out well. Finally, holding these meetings in the evening, after the usual work hours, is imperative.
Question: What is your advice for a parent who wants to advocate for change, large or small, in their school district?
Answer: Well done! Every community needs passionate involved parents that want to improve the quality of education in their community. The first step is to understand where in the district the issue resides and where decisions to change would be made. Is your issue a board decision, district policy, subject to administrative discretion, or mandated by law? You can learn this by seeking to understand why the current state exists. Seeking to understand why the situation exists in its current form helps you craft better solutions and build credibility with the district persons that you will need to make the change. Start with those persons closest to the issue and press your ideas for change. If you experience resistance, seek to understand their perspective and then move up the chain with a simple “may I speak with your supervisor?”. It may go without saying, but throughout the process maintain a calm demeanor and polite and respective attitude. I know that that may be challenging when children are impacted, but you will always be more effective if you are professional and courteous.
When advocating for a board decision, I found it effective to personally attend board meetings and speak during either during public comment or when your item comes upon the agenda. It is also effective to communicate to the board via email and in person. Numbers matter, as does surfacing each person’s unique voices. Over the years I saw many letter writing campaigns. I did not find that the same message sent verbatim by many persons persuasive. To me, a short personal note on the issue is more impactful.
I’ll offer two examples where I believe the community effectively advocated to the ISD Board. The first was the Liberty High School community’s reaction to the Superintendent’s decision to change the class schedule. The entire Liberty community reacted to the proposal, current students, parents, alumni and staff. I listened to hours of testimony and read scores of emails with personal stories. It persuaded me to propose altering the then current policies to require board approval for class schedule changes, which ultimately put the proposal to the board for a decision.
The second example involves school bell times. Before and during my board tenure, the ISD board looked several times at what could be done to start secondary schools later. The expanse of the district and limited funds vexed potential solutions. When a group of passionate advocates for later start times started attending board meetings, my personal reaction was that the issue was settled; there was no viable solution. Through the persistence of these parents, the start time issue was put back on the table, and the district proposed later times last year. While that effort didn’t result in a change, the district committed to revising the issue again this year. Later start times would not have been a topic on the agenda but for the diligence and persistence of these parents.