Failed levies take toll on school board membersby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
More than 50 Minnesota school districts will ask voters for more money in the November election. Some districts pass these levy and bonding issues the first time, others try many times with little success.
The failed votes affect students directly, but also have an impact on school board members. Some education groups say school board resignations are rising, mainly because of the strain of dealing with money issues.
St. Paul, Minn. — Dave Holmgren works during the day as a manager at a food processing company. He's also served for 18 years on the St. James School Board. He said, as a board member, he had a simple goal: to make sure students got the best education possible.
"I just love trying to develop opportunities for kids," Holmgrem said. "But you're limited as to what you can do."
For Holmgren, those limits came mainly at the hands of voters. Three times in the past five years residents have turned down additional money for building projects. Holmgren said the district first tried for a $20 million new building, but scaled back when it was rejected. The most recent vote came last month, when voters turned down a $7 million remodeling project.
"We're trying to do what's in the best interest of the kids and I think the community apparently feels that the school board is negligent in their duties and doesn't know what they're doing," Holmgrem said. "It was very disappointing to me."
Following the September vote, with three months left on his school board term, Holmgren decided to exit early. He resigned from the board in protest.
"It was kind of a statement, that it's not working," Holmgren said. "If the 'no' voters feel that everything we're doing is inappropriate, then they should be out there running for office to straighten it up."
Holmgren was not alone in expressing his dis-satisfaction. A second St. James board member decided not to run for re-election. These sorts of school board departures appear to be on the rise.
Greg Abbott is with the Minnesota School Boards Association. He said it's unclear how many school board resignations occur since neither his group or any other tracks that information. But he said he sees a clear pattern.
"I just know we've seen a lot more than usual in the last two years," Abbott said.
The slowing economy may produce more of the kinds of financial pressure that can lead to school board burnout. Michael Usdan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership. The IEL is a non-partisan Washington think tank which runs a program designed to help school boards become more effective.
He said economic downturns usually mean fewer tax dollars for public institutions like schools. He said too often the struggle for dollars reduces the time board members can spend on their primary interest, the quality of their district's educational offerings.
"Lots of people, wonderfully motivated, get on school boards and find themselves increasingly frustrated," Usdan said. "Because they can't deal with the major educational issues."
A trend toward state and federal regulation of local districts also pressures local schools. Usdan said Programs like "No Child Left Behind" require districts to accomplish certain goals without providing enough money for the effort. Usdan said that reduces local control of the educational curriculum and tends to diminish school board members' sense of mission.
In central Minnesota, the McLeod West School District is on the verge of going out of business. School officials said if voters fail to pass a levy request next month the district can't continue. The district's financial troubles played a major role in five school board resignations over the last two years at the school. Paula Schons stepped down earlier this year.
"I felt as if I was banging my head up against a brick wall for the entire four years," Schons said.
District voters rejected several building and tax measures during that time. Schons said the pressure was so great it changed her.
"I didn't like the person I was becoming," Schons said. "I'm usually a very positive, outgoing and proactive person. The school board kind of took that away a little bit. It was very disheartening and a lot of it was negative."
She said had she known how little the school board could accomplish, she probably never would have run.
- Morning Edition, 10/09/2008, 6:50 a.m.