Give Back: Serve on School Board

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," March 27, 2001, p. 9A

It’s a blessing to serve on a school board. And your chance to do so is at hand.

No local institution has greater responsibility for the community we enjoy. The abilities of our high school graduates help shape the health and happiness of our families, the local cultural opportunities, the new businesses offering jobs with good wages, the quality of the university.

The school district is a major employer. Its budgets exceed $70 million for the 10,600 students in 21 buildings.

All considered, school board membership is a big responsibility.

And now is the time for you to decide who will serve.

It’s easy to run. Nomination papers with 100 signatures will do it. The forms are available from the district’s central office (509 S. Dubuque St.). You can start getting signatures in June and file the papers in July. The campaign’s in August, the election in September.

Unwilling to run? That just increases your obligation to find other folks who will. We’re all in this together. And we only have April and May to find candidates, put their campaigns together, and get them up to speed on the issues.

The Iowa City Community School District includes the towns of Coralville, Hills, Iowa City, North Liberty and University Heights. Any resident older than 18 can run.

There are seven positions, three-year terms, and annual elections. So two are elected most years, three every third year. This year it’s two.

You needn’t wait for vacancies. You can run against an incumbent seeking re-election. But this year there will be at least one, and possibly two, vacancies.

I’d never advocate term limits. Al Leff, who retired after 12 years’ dedicated service, was a highly valued source of board history. His wife, Jan, an experienced former teacher, now serves. In fact, the diversity of present board members’ experience and abilities is one of our board’s great strengths.

But my personal preference, made clear from the beginning, is to serve one term.

That also has its advantages – for both you and the board.

What any school district needs is leadership, someone with a sensible long-range plan, willing to put her neck out and take the consequences. (The College Community District north of us has a 20-year plan.) You’ve seen the wall sign: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

A superintendent’s life expectancy in most districts is not much better than that for a college coach with consecutive losing seasons. Expecting superintendents to champion unpopular changes is unrealistic. Mere survival is a considerable accomplishment.

Leadership must come from the board.

And however subtle, the desire to be re-elected can sometimes blunt the political courage board leadership requires.

Of course, board members must survey, and represent, community values. But they also need to hold steady to course in the crosswinds of political storms.

Our present board has a record of innovative accomplishment. We need to continue that progress while responding to virtually unlimited additional challenges and opportunities: reading scores, demographic changes, curriculum, class sizes.

Pick your issue.

Education’s now a top national and state political and media topic. It’s an exciting time for school boards. And your leadership, working with this board, can make a difference.

“How much time does it take?” I’m asked. The minimum isn’t much. Two official meetings a month, a couple hours each, and a few minutes’ prior review of the “agenda packet.”

The average adult watches TV more than 20 hours a week. Cut back a little. You’ll have the time.

Besides, school board activities are more entertaining than TV.

As with any job, you can give it more -- researching issues on the Internet, visiting schools, attending meetings. But no one expects you to do it all.

Think about it. We all need to give back to our community. There’s no more satisfying way to do that than with school board service.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site