By Mark Nolan
So you’re looking for a way to give back to your community? Maybe burnish your resume for a future run for public office? Look no further than your local education board.
Next week, on Long Island’s own “Super Tuesday,” every school district will hold a budget vote and school board trustee election. It’s a big deal for schools and the communities — and aspiring politicians.
People who run for a seat on their school board are a different breed. They have extraordinary drive, experience and altruism. They’re uber-volunteers who spend any free minute with all manner of community nonprofits.
They coach Little League, do homework with their own kids while cooking dinner, then race to a PTA meeting. They comb through agendas and scour budgets line by line. They’re on social media, plugging an upcoming fundraiser or highlighting a concern.
These folks are the backbone of a community. They deal with stuff like the rest of us — bills, grocery shopping, sick kids at home, deaths in the family — while donating their free time. It can be a rewarding experience to be directly involved in making your school a better place for kids.
But there should be a warning label on the trustee petition — a seat on an education board is a meat-grinder.
I’ve covered education on Long Island for almost two decades. I’ve been to more school board meetings than therapy could force me to remember.
There have been threats, tantrums, screaming, fistfights, secret recordings, security escorts — a bonanza of TMZ-worthy behavior. A former Long Island education board trustee had his car plastered with cupcakes for siding against sugary snacks in class.
Board meetings are open to the public and draw people from every corner of a community. Democracy’s strength is that every person is represented, and every person has rights. The strength of an education board — on Long Island, at least — is direct and local control of schools. The state dictates an awful lot to schools, but districts have a lot of say in how they run them.
The openness of a BOE meeting, however, comes with risk. A few neighborhood cranks see a public meeting as their chance to flourish. They yell, hurl insults, smash furniture, post vitriol on social media. And for the most part, a trustee has to sit there and take it.
The work is admirable, and often overwhelming. There is no pay. You have to be a fiscal guru, an educational policy wonk, a legal expert, a skilled negotiator, and tireless at hours-long meetings and events.
Most trustees are well-meaning neighbors, but boards also draw aspiring political operatives. These are people who crave power and influence.
It’s no secret that an education board is a practice field for future politicians. No wonder political hacks come forward with wide grins and extended hands, the gleam of potential influence in their eyes.
Power, you say? As a volunteer on a local school board?
Yes, sir. Boards control massive amounts of money. True, most of the budget is dedicated to predetermined salaries and retirement and health care obligations. But there are millions of dollars doled out through contracts. School officials try to spend that money locally, so local companies get rewarded with contracts — and school board trustees curry goodwill.
I truly laud people who sit on education boards — even those angling for political influence. Despite the negatives, every Long Island community needs a board with dedicated trustees.
It’s not thankless work, but at times it can devolve into pettiness, vendettas and innuendo. It takes a person with true desire to help the schools while being able to stomach the nastiness.
So keep this in mind next Tuesday as you vote for your local school budgets and trustees. And, if you’re thinking of running for a seat on the school board next year, remember this sports adage: Go hard, or go home.
Mark Nolan is the editor of the Lynbrook/East Rockaway Herald and the Malverne/West Hempstead Herald. He taught high school English for 11 years. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org.