Category: Education Matters

What Qualities Matter Most for Board of Education Members?

Imminent Changeover in Membership Is a Watershed Moment

When Mayor Luke Bronin’s five (as-yet unannounced) appointees to the Hartford Board of Education are sworn in next month, they will form a new majority, joining the four elected members. What qualities among these leaders are most needed to make this hybrid board as effective as possible?

Achieve Hartford! previously identified a number of attributes that characterize strong Board members:

  • A clear understanding of the role that a high-performing Board of Education plays in supporting school improvement
  • High expectations for what our schools and students can achieve
  • Willingness to make tough decisions and support long-term change in the face of shortterm demands
  • Support for the District’s current strategy and direction
  • Unbiased support of what works, based on data
  • Ability to understand and utilize data in ways that drive accountability.

In 2012, when past Mayor Pedro Segarra appointed himself, Dr. José Colón-Rivas, Dr. Cherita McIntye, Hartford Public Library CEO Matt Poland, and attorney Richard Wareing to the Board, it was a strong team. Nonetheless, he caught some flak: None were parents of Hartford schoolchildren.

New Mayor Bronin already has said he will not appoint himself to the Board and will seek to name up to three Hartford school parents.

A Look at the History of the Hybrid Board

The Hartford Public Schools were subject to a State takeover in 1997, in the midst of a whirling, revolving door of superintendents coming and going and a private management effort that failed.

After his election in 2001, Mayor Eddie Perez worked to revise the City Charter to replace the councilmanager form of government with a mayor-council setup, under which the mayor is CEO. As a builder with success in producing the Learning Corridor, Mayor Perez was first elected under the councilmanager system. But he then formed a Charter Revision Commission and in 2002 won 77 percent voter approval for both the strong-mayor structure and mayoral authority to appoint five Board of Education members (the other four being elected).

In an interview this week, former Mayor Perez made these observations about the hybrid Board

  • “It does provide balance” and with some 53 percent of the City’s budget linked to schools, the mayoral appointment power appropriately forces the City Council to be more engaged
  • At the time, his support for the hybrid Board was in large part out of respect for the African American community, which had an historical need for enfranchisement, he said. “Otherwise, I would have gone for a fully appointed Board … the elected component is not to disenfranchise – and to provide a balance”
  • Still, “The civic capacity of the community has to be considered,” he added, pointing out that with low voter turnout, elected Board members can be more symbolic than a guarantee of balance
  • Indeed, “the luck of the draw” with all elected members provides no guarantee that the Board will have the expertise and sophistication to run a school system
  • The partly-elected, majority-appointed Board of Education structure is important because of the vital connections between education and the City’s budget and economic development efforts
  • Whereas in the suburbs, Board candidates are asked first about their specializations and resumes, he said, in the Clay Hill neighborhood it might be more important to identify available time, strong interest and passion.

In any case, Board members’ dedication, commitment to children’s and not adults’ agendas, and willingness to learn are paramount, former Mayor Perez said, recalling how shop owner Maria Sanchez – the longest serving Hartford Board of Education member – would host him at her counter while they discussed the Board agenda.

“She would spend 60 to 70 hours a week worrying about this stuff,” he recalled. “She was a humble person; her store was a social service center; that was her life.”

Since not everyone is or can be a Renaissance person, good Board Members tend to select and then specialize in areas where they have expertise – and other Board members can then rely on them for effective committee and community liaison work, he reflected.

“There is always a need for an orientation for folks who are not totally prepared,” he also said, maintaining that while the details about specific issues are important, so are the skills of “how to do your homework” and how to speak at public meetings.

Having been through 28 different superintendents (including those in brief acting roles) and having once known the Board of Education as “an employment center for adults,” the former Mayor emphasized training to understand systems and structures and providing vehicles to amplify parent voices.

Continuous training for Board members is important, too, he added. “You can’t go to Harvard and become a Board member in six weeks, or six days, or six hours.”

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