Sweeney hit the nail on the head when he talked about how few school boards in his district have actually met with him over the years. …. As school board members, we should be fighting for our kids, but over the years I have learned that this is not always the case!
- A local board member’s comment to me after listening to Senator Sweeney on Conversations on New Jersey Education
Through my years with the New Jersey School Boards Association I have heard many legislators speak. Most of the time, when the legislator is asked a question – whether that question is coming from me or from someone else – I have a pretty good idea what their response is going to be. They usually play it safe and do not deviate much from their “script.”
But there are times when a legislator does and it is rather refreshing and usually very honest. During my podcast show, A Conversation on Education with Senate President Sweeney, I have to admit that Senator Sweeney did take by surprise when he responded to a question on how he sees the role of the board member in the legislative process. It was his response that elicited the above quote from a board member who agreed with Senate President Sweeney.
What did Senate President Sweeney say? Board members must be much more active in talking to their legislators on issues of importance….. To be honest with you; there isn’t a whole lot of interaction between my office and school districts… Board members need to make a greater effort to let your legislators know what is going on in your district.” Sen. Sweeney also mentioned that while NJSBA staffers do a good job of informing the legislators on positions, it would be more helpful if local board members communicated more with their legislators.
Sen. Sweeney was not trying to be critical of board members. I believe he was just trying to provide an honest assessment of his dealings with school districts and probably what he has heard from some of his colleagues. Obviously the board member who contacted me agrees with Sen. Sweeney’s assessment because she also indicated that she has urged her board to meet with their senator but the board has been reluctant because some of the members were upset with their representative’s politics. So they chose not to meet with him. Are school board members and school administrators active advocates for their school district or are they, as the board member and Sen. Sweeney indicated, passive advocates?
While I have had the distinct pleasure to work with some very active board members and school administrators over the years, in this case perception is reality. If the legislators are saying that they do not often hear from their school districts, then their perception is correct.
While some board members may not lobby their legislator because they do not like that person, I think that is a big mistake. As the board member said “As school board members, we should be fighting for our kids,” and I add another sentiment: If you don’t do it, who will? Part of your duty is to represent your district before other government entities, and if state leaders only hear from the state association and not their local districts, they may get the idea that a particular issue does not impact local districts.
I tend to think that many board members do not engage in advocating on education issues because it is not in their nature. Many people run for the school board because it is “non-political” and they are not comfortable with partisan politics nor do they think it should be part of the education discussion. While board members may not want advocacy to be part of their responsibilities, as Sen. Sweeney pointed out, legislators see it as part of a board member’s responsibilities.
The board members’ perspective is too often overlooked when decisions in Trenton are made. I know that many board members are offended at laws such as the criminal background check law and the anti-bullying law, even when they pass the legislature by huge margins. That is not because they disagree with the law’s premise but because they wish legislators would view the proposed legislation from their perspective. While NJSBA staff does advocate for boards, as Sen. Sweeney indicated, legislators would like to hear from their constituents too.
Understand that there is no guarantee that if you communicate with your legislators you will win all the legislative battles. If the political climate is right, once they are introduced, some bills are almost a fait accompli. Legislative battles are marathons; victory and defeat can come on the same day and it takes patience. But it also takes getting and staying involved.
If the voice of the local districts gets louder, then NJSBA’s influence grows because the legislators know that the issue rises to another level. I remember interviewing Assemblywoman Mila Jasey shortly after she was elected to the Assembly after serving on her local board of education She said that she did not know the power she had to influence legislation as a local board member until she sat in the state legislator’s seat.
My question to school board members: If the legislators think you have influence, are you wielding it?