"If Aziza (Benson) can do it with three sets of twins and a dairy farm to run, I think most people would be able to do it," Swanson says. "It's an opportunity to get out and give something back to the community, and maybe use a different part of your brain."
Swanson says that people have expressed three concerns about running for school board. First, of course, is the time commitment. Secondly there is a concern that people will call all the time to complain about school policies. Finally some are worried that teachers might take out frustrations with the board on board members' children. While there certainly is a time commitment, Swanson says that none of these have been a particular problem for him or fellow board members.
The seven school board members are elected for three year terms. Each year two or three are up for reelection. The school board meets every two weeks, usually on Monday evenings. Swanson says Monday was chosen to make the time more convenient for people who have to travel for their jobs as he does, and also to keep the other evenings free for board members and meeting participants who have children in sports and other activities on the other nights. While school board meetings typically dragged on past midnight only a few years ago, they start a half hour earlier now, at 7pm, and typically last until about 9:30.
Board members may also be on committees which meet on their own schedules. On average board members sit on two committees. Swanson is on three, and some members may be on none. Not all committees meet all the time, and they don't typically meet often. For example, the Facilities Committee takes more time when a capital project is planned, and none in between projects.
"We've been working hard to improve the efficiency of our meetings," Swanson notes. "They're not dragging on and on and on. We have an agenda and we put times on it now. (Superintendent Stephen Grimm) is working with people so their presentations are concise and value-added."
Swanson says that if there is a strong leadership team that things at the schools run much smoother. That was a problem when Lansing couldn't keep a superintendent and administrative staff from year to year, but board members say that stabilized significantly since Grimm and his staff were hired.
"That is key," says Board President Anne Drake.
There are a few additional commitments for board officers as well, such as a school board president's meeting, and preparation for meetings. The President and Vice President are elected from among board members each year. There is also the matter of showing a board presence at school events such as graduation, and events in all three schools like the Thanksgiving dinner at the elementary school.
"I think it's important to go to those things," Drake says. "I like going. The President and Vice president is more than other board members because we have extra meetings with Dr. Grimm and planning the agenda."
Drake says that she does not get a lot of phone calls from constituents. She says there may be more if there is a particularly contentious issue being discussed in the District. She and Swanson both say it has not become an intrusion into their home lives.
"If they see you out in public they bend your ear," says Board President Anne Drake. "I don't mind that if I can give them the right answers and help them along the way."
"I haven't found phone calls to be a terrible aspect of the job," Swanson says. "I was a little concerned about that when I got on the board. I thought people would be calling me and complaining, but they really haven't been. For the most part you remind people to follow the chain of command. It's only common courtesy that if they have an issue with a teacher they talk to the teacher. If they don't get satisfaction they talk to the Principal, and then the Superintendent. Only as a last resort should they come to the board. Certainly the majority of issues can be handled that way."
Serving While Children Are In School
The third concern potential board members express is the possibility of retribution on their children in school when the board makes unpopular decisions. Both Drake and Swanson have children in the schools, and both say categorically that they have not experienced that at all.
"If anything we have a great group of teachers," Swanson says. "I think they appreciate that we're trying to work with them to make the schools better."
Running For The Board
To qualify to run you have to have lived in the school district a minimum of one year, be 18 or older, be able to read and write, and be a U.S. citizen. School district employees are not eligible. No particular skills or experience is required. Swanson and Drake say the board represents all stakeholders in the community including taxpayers, teachers, the superintendent, and students.
"I think it's better to have a diverse group of people with different perspectives," Swanson says. We're a board of directors, effectively. It's good to have people with accounting backgrounds, engineering backgrounds, health backgrounds, educational backgrounds. It's important to have people with children in each of the schools who have different perspectives and are engaged. It's also important to have people who don't have children, because they have different concerns."
Candidates' petitions are due at the District Office in April. There is no requirement to spend money on campaigns, though some board members spend money on yard signs or mailings. Some have spent their own money and groups of residents may raise money for others. The main campaign event each year is the PTSO's Meet The Candidates night, a debate which is often hosted by League of Women Voters moderators.
Why You Should Run
The reason you should run is that it is better for the community to have choices. When board members are spending $22 million or so of the community's money, it makes sense that the community have some idea of who, exactly, they are electing to spend it. Having multiple candidates for each seat gives the community a chance to vote on what is important to them. Less good is having one candidate for each seat. Swanson and Drake agree that the best candidates don't have any particular agenda besides making the district the best it can be for the community. If a candidate does have a pet peeve, it's still better for that to be aired before the vote.
Last year Aziza Benson won her seat as a write-in when there were not enough candidates for the available positions. Write-in candidates are less good for the community because their positions are not known until after they have been elected. It gives a few people a choice, but strips that choice from the community at large.
"In this case Aziza has been a great asset," Swanson says. But we got lucky."
The board has the option of appointing members if there aren't enough candidates. But that is even less good than write-ins, because the community has no choice in the matter. Drake notes that even board officers have one vote among seven. She says that people should want to run and be involved, and that she gets a lot out of the experience.
"For me it's the satisfaction of helping at least one child," she says. "If I can help one child do better in their studies then it's all worth it."
So far Drake has been on the Lansing School Board for 11 years. Swanson is finishing his second term, and says his grandfather was on a school board for 25 years. Many board members say the first term is a learning time, and they use what they have learned in subsequent terms. To some extent being on the school board hones skills that can be used at work or elsewhere. Board members say that has helped them with public speaking and being 'out there' because board meetings are both open to the public and televised.
"You learn about our education system and how it works," Swanson says. "What you can and can't do. You learn about state education law, and there are training classes. There are always educational opportunity on how to be a better board member, hiring superintendents... there are a great number of learning opportunities at the New York State School Board Association Annual Conference."
Swanson says the hardest thing he's been part of since joining the board is hiring superintendents. For Drake it has been insuring meetings are not mean spirited. But she says the great part is being involved in the kids' lives, going into the schools, being seen, and getting to see them. For Swanson, sitting behind the podium as a school board member at Commencement is very rewarding.
"I think graduation's neat," Swanson says. "We all go to it, because that's the accomplishment. That's what we're here for."