While I can, I’m hoping to send monthly dispatches to Saucon Source about school board happenings as a way to give our public some insight—from my admittedly limited perspective—into what’s up on school board.
I’m writing for myself as one of nine board members, and I’ll strive to keep this as politically neutral as possible. Inevitably, my biases will color my observations. I get that. Still, I’ll try to keep things above board, no pun intended.
So let me get right to it: Five big things have really stood out for me in the one month since I was sworn in with Vivian Demko, Donald Carpenter, Jay Santos and Lauren Erickson-Parsons.
- Knowledgeable peers. There are some talented, well-informed, decent people on your school board. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but there are some intelligent and conscientious people, and guess what? There were among the set of board veterans who lost the last election, too. Unlike most elected officials, school board members aren’t financially compensated in Pennsylvania. I don’t want to assert, naively, that we serve voluntarily merely out of the goodness of our hearts. Human nature says…maybe. One does receive personal satisfaction, and yes, a complicated feeling of power. Not Emperor-Palpatine-Feel-The-Power-Luke! sort of power, but more a sense of being able to have a small but real say in something important in your community.
- Info-Explosion. It would be hard to overstate how much information gets dumped on your head almost instantly when you come onto the school board. It truly is like trying to drink water from an open fire hydrant. There are mountains of data, policies, laws to learn, fraught processes to digest, dozens of new faces and names to remember, departments and protocols, ad infinitum. We “noobs” all must by law undertake five hours of special state-approved school director training. We’re dealing, after all, with hundreds of young, impressionable minds, millions in budget dollars and facilities, and a powerful and important workforce. You’d better know what you’re doing. It’s a humbling experience, but it’s exciting, too.
- Middle of the Road. This is now a more moderate school board than it has been in recent years. Saucon Valley has had school boards like this in the past, so it’s not the rarest of birds, but a centrist school board has not been here for a while. There’s a fuller spectrum of perspectives, from the left to the right, and the center of gravity is more characteristic of Pennsylvania as a whole than it has been for years. As someone involved in Lehigh Valley politics for about six or seven years, I can safely say that centrism as an approach gets a lot of guff, and people on the far left and the far right often express contempt towards it, but I’ve also found that ultimately it’s what most people seem to prefer when the rubber meets the road, which is pretty much what local government is all about. Many of our real differences, despite what our various political campaigns claim, come down more to clashing approaches to doing basically the same things.
- Is Nerdiness Back? I think so. Something of a new Saucon era of academic aspiration has begun. There are some impressive nerds on this board—and I mean that as a huge compliment, for being a nerd is “fire” these days. As grandiose as it may sound, I do think there has been an almost instant change in Saucon’s board culture. That’s different than claiming that sort of revolution for the district as a whole, or even for certain school buildings. But it’s a sea change. I also don’t think I realized how deeply this ideal had lain dormant in the hearts and minds of some of the holdover veteran school board members and some key staff who have been there for years. To put it bluntly, I think I was a bit stupid and not a little arrogant to assume that lots of other people associated with running the schools don’t care passionately about scholastic achievement. The thing that’s different, and of this I have no doubt, is that scholastic aspiration, for its own sake, and a desire to aim higher than our traditional competitors, will be getting more attention.
- Suspicious Minds. Not all is amazing. There is a defensiveness and intense sensitivity to criticism in the district, at too many levels, and it does concern me. Everyone seems to lack trust. Hopefully, this will change, with time. For now, it’s awkward. As soon as one suggests aiming higher, another takes it as a personal criticism or a dreaded sign of elitism. I think this limits our district. It creates “Race to the Bottom” scenarios, almost the opposite of healthy competition. (It’s something I associate with the excesses of certain strands of socialism, or with anti-intellectualism.) I don’t think it’s unique to Saucon Valley, but I think there are ways to channel mistrust more positively if we work together. We are all going to have to listen and to grow, particularly us new board members, yet no group of “stakeholders” (a useful if clunky jargon word) can be excluded from this need. We’ve got to find a way to get over ourselves and work together to improve math, reading and writing, and science achievement in the district.
We will certainly as board members tussle in the next few years over how to reach goals, but I think we’re determined overall to make Saucon schools not just the best in the Lehigh Valley, but among the very best in Pennsylvania and nationally. It’s a challenge I welcome, but I’m sure Month Two will bring surprises, too.
Bill Broun was elected to Saucon Valley School Board in November. This is his first public office. He is a professor at East Stroudsburg University, a journalist and a novelist. Visit SVPanthers.org for more information about the Saucon Valley School Board.