As of Monday afternoon, there were 3,400 unanswered e-mails clogging Minneapolis School Board Chair Tom Madden’s inbox. A marketer by trade, he knows the relationship-building power of a personal response, but the sad truth is the lion’s share will probably languish there.
Each of the communiqués is of vital importance to the parent, teacher or community member who sent it, and it pains Madden that they may assume he’s ignoring them.
“I try to get back to clients within two hours, but there’s no way I’m getting to those e-mails,” said Madden. “Everybody expects a response. And when they don’t get it, they go complain to their legislator.”
In addition to his leading the school board, Madden has three kids and a brand-new job he gave up his own small business to take. He’s the third school board member to announce in recent days that he won’t seek re-election this fall. He’s proud of his tenure, but burned out.
“My life balance is out of whack,” he moaned.
Madden estimates it takes 30 hours a week to do a decent job, and perhaps 60 to do it right. Most of the meetings are at night or on weekends. Because board service is viewed as a part-time volunteer commitment, members are paid $14,000 a year.
“The school board takes as much time as you give it,” he said. “The previous board used to meet two times a month at most. We meet at least four times a month, plus seven to nine Saturdays a year. That’s a lot for a volunteer board.”
And those unanswered e-mails? The truth is he’d be struggling to get to them even if the board was his full-time job.
“You look at the City Council and they just voted themselves raises and they have tons of staff,” said Madden.
Chris Stewart and Pam Costain both recently said they will not run for re-election. Like Madden, they are proud of their accomplishments in office. But during their time on the board, both had to leave jobs they loved.
Always open season
They and Madden all say they also struggled with feeling like they were constantly on the hot seat. It’s always open season where public officials are concerned, they acknowledge, but public school leaders are particularly under the gun in the current political climate.
All three were strong proponents of a sweeping reform effort begun when they took office in 2007. Because they took over from a board that had delayed making numerous painful changes, their tenure was frontloaded with school closings, $200 million in cumulative budget shortfalls, contract negotiations and other controversial decisions.
While the moves helped stop a decade-long exodus that cost Minneapolis Public Schools about 25 percent of its student body, they affected virtually every student in the district and triggered an avalanche of complaints from individual families. Many of their decisions sent shock-waves through wealthy parts of the city that in years past escaped the most painful cuts.
Unlike parents on the city’s impoverished north side, the mostly white residents of southwest Minneapolis have been quick to take their complaints to the state. State Sen. Scott Dibble, a DFLer, recently introduced a bill that would make it easier to remove board members.
Adding insult to injury, Madden said Monday, was Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal earlier this month to place Minneapolis and St. Paul schools under the control of the cities’ mayors.
The outgoing board members may have endured a particularly challenging freshman term, but their feelings are shared by school board members throughout the country, said Bush Foundation President Peter Hutchinson, a former MPS superintendent.
According to a survey [PDF] conducted by the Great City Council of Schools, a consortium of large urban districts, many school board candidates spend upwards of $25,000 on their campaigns. About one-fourth of those who win serve for four to eight years, another fourth for two to four years, and a quarter for fewer than two years. Only 17 percent met weekly, like MPS’s board, but a majority reported working on board business more than six hours per week.
People who run for office often know they’re seeking a tough job, Hutchinson explained. But few are prepared for phone calls in the middle of the night, let alone constant hostility from the public.
“The general atmospherics of public service are just not good,” he said. “It is really tough psychologically to keep your bearings and keep your focus on what’s important.”
‘Lost my patience’
In particular Stewart has been the subject of controversy. In the wake of a highly publicized argument about race last spring with the principal of a popular southwest Minneapolis school, a number of parents have called for his ouster.
“I really do believe the public thinks it’s your job to take it on the chin all the time,” said Stewart. “I pretty much lost my patience with that.”
In his experience, trying to avoid provoking criticism can skew the way board members approach tough decisions. Parents’ first concern is always what impact a change will have on their child, and when they don’t like the answer emotions can run high.
“What they’re saying is important to them, critical in fact,” said Stewart. “But at the same time, you’re a leader of a big organization and you can’t always engage in that personal advocacy.”
A controversial public persona can pose problems at one’s day job, he added. Stewart left the job he had when he took office, a long-time position as a state workforce development specialist on loan to the city of Minneapolis, when he found himself running into the same officials in both positions. In his next job, recruiting diverse staff for law firms, he sometimes found it impossible to vote his conscience as a board member and not anger clients who had school-aged kids.
“It’s hard to turn off the school board member at a Christmas party,” he said.
Madden and Costain echoed his sentiments. Too often, “You find yourself fighting against those who, like you, believe in public education, rather than against those who don’t,” said Madden.
Do away with boards?
If the job is so miserable, why not accept the governor’s proposal to do away with the boards, or allow the mayor to appoint members, as a few urban districts do?
The Bush Foundation’s Hutchinson remains unconvinced that mayoral control of central city schools is a silver bullet.
“I don’t think there is any one particularly great model,” he said. “Finding that talent or balance isn’t easy.”
Better, in his opinion, to take a hard look at the work board members are doing. “Some of it is self-imposed, because a lot of the work is work the board chooses to take on,” he said. “We have had a habit in MPS of expecting an awful lot of our board and not enough of our administration.”
Ideally, education policymakers believe school boards should do two things: Hire and supervise a superintendent who will make decisions about policy and strategy; and keep the district’s focus tightly trained on student achievement. If the board is governing and not managing, members may actually be able to do the job part time, he said.
There were 72 board meetings the first year he was superintendent, but just 22 percent of the board’s time was spent focusing on student achievement. The rest of the time was spent on administrative matters that would be better handled by the superintendent and his or her staff.
A board can’t govern a district that’s in chaos, he added. “If the people in leadership aren’t going to lead, then the board has to,” Hutchinson said. “There’s just a human tendency to substitute our work for others’ when they’re not doing their work.”
In her statement announcing her resignation, Costain was careful to say that the MPS board’s recent vote to appoint Bernadeia Johnson as superintendent will assure continuity. The district’s chief academic officer, Johnson engineered many of the changes the current board called for.
Madden, too, said he hoped their successors will continue with the ambitious reform agenda set by the current board.
“When I look back at what I wanted to run for, we’ve achieved a lot of it,” he said. “I really wanted our board to be seen as transformational. I think we will be seen as transitional, and the next one transformational.”
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.