Few issues are more important to a community than having a good school system. School quality drives home values, impacts the kinds of jobs available in a community and influences whether a business chooses to invest there. It even has a bearing on what kind of stores line your main street.
And few people have as strong an influence on school quality as the school board members who set the policy for the district. It is, in many ways, a thankless job: the meetings are long and sometimes contentious, the issues are complex, and board members can't go to a child's soccer game or the grocery store without hearing about people's opinion of their latest vote. All this means that, frequently, people who had children in school several years ago make decisions that affect kids and families now. But some districts have young parents on the board willing to step up to the plate to fight not just for the best schools for their own children, but all the children in a district.
We decided to talk to some of these hardy parents about why they're on the school board, what keeps them there and how they really feel about doing work that often goes without thanks.
Lisa Bradford, Royal Oak
Like many parents of school-age children, Lisa Bradford ran for the school board in Royal Oak after getting involved in a controversial issue - a tortured consolidation process. She was a member of the PTA at a school targeted for closing, and began attending meetings to voice her concerns.
That was in 2000, when her children were young; they are now in high school and college. Bradford is very candid about the challenges of balancing the needs of her own family with the demands of her career as a realtor and her service on the board.
"I have the normal 'mom guilt,'" she says. "I am more seasoned now and would tend more now, this many years in, to leave a meeting early and try to work around their schedule."
That said, she thinks that being a school board member has demonstrated to her children the value of giving back to their community. She serves on the board's curriculum committee, the expulsion committee, and is the PTA liaison with the high school.
Bradford says she thinks there's a lot of value in having a diverse representation on the board, including people who are currently raising children in the district and those who are not.
"Education is something that is not static," she says. "It's ever changing, and it's very important to have people who are engaged and have people in the building on a regular basis – but a lot of people whose kids are grown are very active in the community and see some things I don't see."
She says she'd encourage parents who are interested in getting more involved in their schools to just choose an area they can have influence in. "There are a lot of different avenues where people can give back," she says. "I hope everyone realizes they have a talent they can give."
Adam Phelps, Northville
A first-term board member, Phelps built his campaign for the board through his time as a soccer dad. His children are 8 and 6, and he's coached his daughter's soccer team for several years. He's also on the Dad's Club at Silver Springs Elementary, where his children attend. When three seats were open during the last election in 2012, he decided to run and was successful.
"To be honest I wasn't extremely active in the community," he says. He knew a lot of people through soccer, his childrens' school and his own work, so he was able to get some recognition as a viable candidate. "I felt I could represent them well, and fortunately they agreed with me."
Since being elected, the board has overseen a teacher contract negotiation and a reorganization plan. Phelps says he's been impressed at the collaborative, thoughtful discussions that have resulted.
"I have learned an awful lot more than I was expecting to," he says. "The thing I am most surprised about is how much the school district -- and managing the business of the school district -- closely compares to running a corporation."
Phelps works in purchasing at Ford, and finds that the same kind of balancing of diverse groups' needs and wants applies both as a school board member and in his work with varied disciplines at Ford.
Having a supportive spouse is key to his ability to manage all his various responsibilities, he says. "My wife is 100 percent behind us getting involved in this way," he says. "For the next four years, I'll be busy every Tuesday night, and obviously I have other responsibilities before meetings, board activities and other things. But I can trade off my Tuesday nights for four years to be able to make a difference."
He doesn't want to take anything away from the people who have been on the board for years and no longer have young children in the school, Phelps says those members are very effective. But when you're on the ground, as it were, hearing from your children and their teachers what's really going on in the classrooms, it gives one a different perspective.
"(We) are very close to the pulse of the school districts and what is happening in the classroom," he says. "There are more opportunities to get feedback …if you don't have kids in the schools it can be more challenging to get that communication."
Aimee Schoelles, Dearborn Schools
"I have become the people I ran against," says Aimee Schoelles with a laugh, referring to her 13-year tenure on the Dearborn Board of Education. She joined the board at a time when no parents served on the board and she was young enough, in her mid-20s, to be the daughter of many of the trustees.
Her children were young when she first started on the board – she used to make them attend meetings with her when they misbehaved – and last year she had one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school. That has has made a huge difference when it comes to her votes on board policy, she says. For example, the district allows schools to start school an hour late on a periodic basis to give teachers more time to plan. Some schools, however, started implementing it almost weekly, which made life very difficult for working parents. The Board of Education finally had to step in and set limits.
"Other board members have said to me before that it is incredibly helpful that I have a different perspective," she says.
Of course, there's a lot that comes along with that level of influence in the community, from getting confronted at the grocery store to feeling the huge pressure that comes with an expulsion hearing. "We have an awesome responsibility …to balance the needs of one child versus 19,000 children," she says. "But you understand how you would feel if you were on other side of the table."
Schoelles says it's essential for young people to get involved. "When young people are not represented, we're missing a whole segment of the population in government. When we make decisions (on the school board) today it affects you tomorrow. I don't understand why more young people aren't involved."