The Future is Local: The Four Kinds of People Who Run for School Board
A handy guide for separating the wheat from the chaff
As you start paying attention to your local political scene, one of the things you need to be watching is your local school board. Attention has been paid by too many people for far too long to events and ideas that are simply too distant (you can’t influence anything at the federal level, and only about half the things at the state level) and this has allowed local government agencies to rot. Because nobody’s paying attention to government at the county level and below, it’s easy for some specific kinds of people to end up populating those offices. Their presence (and typical lack of leadership skill or will) ends up empowering the bureaucracy of your local government in ways that never should have been allowed. You’re waking up to that, which is good. Now know your enemy.
The School Board is the easiest window to use to explore these archetypes (or, if you prefer, stereotypes). These kinds of people also inhabit City Councils and County Boards (and charity boards and other elected offices), but the distinctions are clearest on the School Board, so that’s where we’ll focus today. Watch out for these four kinds of people.
The Country Club Hobbyist
The Hobbyist is probably an older wealthy housewife or widow (or near-widow, like her husband is retired and just putters around the golf course now). There’s a good chance she never worked a 9-5 job in her adult life, since she’s married to a professor or engineer or dentist or something. She may have a side hustle, like “design” (bonus points if she sells “art,” which could include teaching piano or voice), but the fact is she’s not connected to blue collar living at all; her life revolves around a set of pet projects. She’s on the board because it’s her pet project, and she’s got the country-club-crowd connections (League of Women Voters, Eastern Star, Friends of the Library, PTA, etc.) to make her someone palatable to the bureaucracy.
On the board, she’s unlikely to make a lot of waves. She doesn’t really care how much anything costs or where any of the money is really going, since it’s “for the children” and she believes she’s especially qualified to speak on behalf of children (bonus points if she uses the phrase “when my kids attended here in the district”). The Hobbyist is also the one who will make the biggest deal about being Very Disappointed by criticism from parents at board meetings. She’s the gentle smiling face of the board that just wants to keep smiling and keep everyone chatting about mundane stuff, even as test scores continue to drop and schools fall apart.
The Political Stair-Stepper
This is the guy making the jump into politics as a career choice. He’s probably either a lawyer or an academic who has decided his Big Ideas make him a Natural Leader. In his mind, though, he’s the one with the vision to plan the strategy, not the one who does the work of executing the vision–he’s not built for the classroom, he’s built for administration. Execution is for people who don’t have his “talents” or “skillset.” These are all self-serving delusions, because in practice he doesn’t really know how to do anything. But he’s sure fluent in big words.
On the board, the Stair-Stepper always wants to look like he knows everything, and that he’s doing the board a favor by being on it, because he’s so smart and capable and a natural leader and important. He will ask meandering questions that cannot be immediately answered because he doesn’t really want to know the answer. Instead, he wants to be seen “asking tough questions,” an activity he can parlay into partial responsibility for all successes (I was one of the first to start gathering information on this!), and partial excuse for all failures (I was asking about this back before it became a problem and I should have been listened to!). Objectively, though, he’s not doing any work as a member of the board because his goal isn’t actually to do anything for the local schools. His goal is building his political brand, and as soon as it’s feasible for him to run for City Council or Mayor (or even State Legislature), he’s going to. Once he sees his way up and out, all his years spent not-helping your kids will be just a line on his resume.
The Legacy Hound
This is the deeply-connected local businessperson. His life is Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, Rotary lunches, Community Foundation dinners, and all the associated hobnobbing that gets him seen. But it’s all local; he has no connections outside the city and no ambition beyond the school board. This lack of ambition sets him solidly apart from the Stair-Stepper. The Legacy Hound is most likely not coming out of academia, because his brand is “real world skills” and business and finance and “understanding responsibility.” But he doesn’t actually want to apply any of that. He just wants people to stroke him for his public service. He wants his name on plaques and his picture in the paper. He wants a building named after him after he dies–maybe even a park. He wants to be in the local histories as one of the town’s Great Citizens.
On the board, that means he always has something to say. He is compelled to weigh in on everything, even when it is unnecessary and may edge toward inappropriate. He does this because above all he wants to be seen (and in his fantasies, quoted). He’ll be the first to jump in front of a parade and pretend he’s been leading it the whole time. He yearns for the “chair” position on the board: if the position is elected he will always seek it, and if it is a rotation thing he will revel in its petty power and talk incessantly after he rotates out about what he did back during his “tenure” as chair. He will establish a list of bragging talking points about things the school district accomplished with him on the board, and will deploy that list so often it could be a drinking game. But this also means he’s extremely reluctant to take hard positions or make hard decisions, and when he is forced to do so he will make sure to highlight how hard this is so you know he’s a great man for bearing this load.
The Crusader is on a fired up, do-or-die, totally committed mission. A Crusader can come from any background, though this background will be related to the nature of her crusade. She could be a mama bear, charging into a board seat to undo (or install) a piece of curriculum she views as horrendous (or crucial). She could be a retired district employee, finally speaking out now that her job won’t create a conflict of interest. She could be a financial watchdog (bonus points if she runs a “consulting” business), foaming at the mouth about the district’s money mismanagement. She could be an alt-lifestyle/minority/religious/political zealot, convinced the district is willfully ignoring her thing and demanding “representation” for her view. It could be anything. Whatever it is, the Crusader makes it part of everything. Her crusade will flavor everything she does, and she won’t be shy about saying so.
On the board, this makes the Crusader both a wildcard and a double-edged sword. Some are statist technocrats, seduced by the siren song of technocracy: everything can be known, defined, and organized to create a perfect school system (we just need more funding!). Some are bomb-throwing decentralizers, bent on carving off chunks of the school district and reducing its bureaucratic footprint (we just need more choice!). Some are something in between, perhaps taking the “pet project” idea to an extreme (we just need a separate arts school!). Which of those is good and which is bad is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever the goal, though, the Crusader is constantly trying to drive the board’s agenda toward it. If the Crusader can get the attention of any of the other board-types, they can create a voting bloc that will start to make stuff happen. So it is the Crusaders that you must watch closest.
In fairness, these four archetypes can probably be illustrated in some kind of four-way matrix. A Political Stair-Stepper might also show some Legacy Hound tendencies. A County Club Hobbyist might think she’s a Crusader. And the Crusader is especially vulnerable to sliding into one of the other roles as things get tougher than expected.
The great weakness of the Crusader is burnout. A crusader’s fire can eventually burn down to just embers, especially if her Big Project proves harder to complete than she thought. This can lead the Crusader to ease into one of the other stereotype roles, coming to treat the original crusade as a lip-service branding exercise; she turns into a long-term hobbyist, decides what she really needs to do to achieve her vision is rise to a higher office, or comes to believe that her name on a few new school buildings is enough of a win. This process is aided (and in many cases may be actively facilitated) by the unelected piece of any school district: the district administration.
The School District Deep State
I know, I know. “Deep State” is a pretty tinfoil-hatty term to be throwing around. But in a lot of school districts that’s what the bureaucracy has become, and this is a real problem you need to be alert to.
School districts over time develop a layer of management and administration. The bigger the school district, the thicker this layer gets. The thicker that layer gets, the more the distance grows between the board members and the classrooms. Eventually the board loses all contact with the school sites themselves; all the information they get is delivered to them via the administrative bureaucracy. That means the bureaucracy can filter/massage/manipulate the information delivered to the board, and by doing so influence (and even dictate) the decisions the board makes. In many districts, the bureaucracy is even in charge of new board-member “orientation.” You know what it’s called when an unelected bureaucracy, unaccountable to the public, starts making all the decisions and the elected officials just sign it at the end? Yup. That’s a deep state.
Why do they do this? Two big reasons. The first is money. School Superintendents make a quarter-million dollars a year. In larger districts their total compensation may top a full million. The superintendent sits atop a pyramid of assistant superintendents, directors, coordinators, and managers (six-figure jobs all) that all want a spot at the money trough of education funding. Their interest above all is keeping their jobs, padding their pensions, and increasing the size of their scoops from the trough. They are therefore incentivized to manipulate the elected board. It’s disgusting, but it’s reality.
The second big reason this happens is also reality, but a sad one. School bureaucracies become deep states because in many cases they have to. They still have to deliver schooling to kids, even if the governing board is useless and populated by people who don’t actually want to govern. If the board won’t offer leadership and vision, then it falls to the bureaucrats to provide it. And school boards haven’t offered much leadership or vision for a long time.
School districts have gotten so stupid because you’ve been too busy watching 24/7 news about Washington drama (or whatever Very Important thing the 24/7 news cabals want you to be consumed with today so they can sell ad time during your viewing stream). While your attention has been elsewhere, this local bloat has developed. It’s going to take time and effort to whip it back into shape.
But you can do it! The future is local. Know who is doing what in your local sphere. Understand the kinds of people you must deal with. And start making some noise. Be a crusader. Just do it for more freedom, willya?
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