Do I Like Being a Board Member?

One of the administration people at OPRF asked me recently if I enjoyed being a board member. I didn’t know what to say. It’s a complicated answer, and I don’t think I gave him all of it. I hadn’t planned to run again this term, because I feel like my writing career is at a sort of make-or-break point.

Not that it’ll actually break, but between kids and cancer and pandemic, it’s been interrupted over and over again for the last fifteen years. Now I finally have enough time and energy to really focus, and I have some potentially exciting opportunities, and maybe if I worked really hard, I could do some work I can be really proud of, and maybe even break out and go big.

I finally have time to spend with Kevin and Jed and friends again too, now that the kids are bigger, and to putter in the garden, and all of that, the writing and people and garden are very appealing. A wonderful private life.

Set against that — I ran for school board, even though I’d decided after my library term ended that I was going to take a break from politics, because of the pandemic. I was worried that with the pandemic crisis, we wouldn’t have enough candidates, and the board would be in the position of having to appoint multiple people, and that would be potentially very bad. Or that all the candidates that did run would be running on platforms I really disagreed with, and there wouldn’t be anyone I’d want to vote for.

And as it turned out, that was close to true — at least one of the candidates really did have values very far from my own, and if I hadn’t run, he might have won my seat. (I’d have to go back and check voting numbers to be certain; I don’t remember for sure if he beat out the other candidate whom I did happily vote for, who also wasn’t elected).

So I think it was worthwhile, running. And speaking personally, school board service, governance, is challenging and fascinating. High stakes, high responsibility, and it takes all of my brain and all of my heart (and all of my patience!) to do a good job with it, so there’s something very satisfying there, a sense that this is not only worthwhile work, but it’s work that I can do well, and that stretches me in good ways.

There’s joy there too, when we manage to make a policy shift that will increase opportunities for the students, when we think of a solution to a thorny budget problem that lets us stretch taxpayer dollars a little further. I love the problem-solving aspect of it; in another life, I would have been a corporate consultant.

But it’s very time-consuming, to do this well, and that is time I’m not writing, or spending with friends and family, or gardening.

I’m re-reading Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master of Hed, planning to re-read the whole trilogy, and I picked it up again because I am sad about her recent passing. But I’m realizing, reading it, that this series is one of my formative texts. It’s one that shaped me, when I was very young.

It’s a pleasure to read, seemingly slow-paced in a way, but with beauty of prose that keeps it from ever being boring, with every line rewarding. Read it, read it. You won’t be sorry. If you liked Nicola Griffith’s Hild, it has a little of that feel.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone, but I think it doesn’t give too much away to say that a central theme is the reluctant hero. Morgon, our initial protagonist, wants nothing more than to go home to the peace of his land, but he is harried at every turn — in part by people trying to kill him, but in part by a sense that there is something else he’s being asked to do. A larger role, deeper service.

That same theme was central to Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer / The High King, the last two books in the Prydain Chronicles. Taran wants nothing more than to be a craftsman, perhaps a great craftsman. A potter, making astonishing pots. But he doesn’t really have the gift for that, in the end, and he’s also being asked to engage in larger service, for the sake of his community.

Frodo’s another one. I’m guessing you all know that story.

So that’s where I am, with board service. It’s worthy work, and I do enjoy it. But I’m also Morgon and Taran and Frodo a lot of the time right now, frustrated that I can’t just sink into the quiet of summer and write my books and think of nothing else.

I’m one year into a four year term. I know the job better now, I can be a lot more efficient about it, maybe that will continue to improve, and it won’t be as much of a time requirement.

But every week there’s a new issue, some of them very serious — we had a student try to bring a gun to campus last week. The police were tipped off and were able to act swiftly and he was apprehended and the gun taken away before he ever made it onto campus.

Kudos to our local police for handling it really well, and to the school administration for their response too — they’re working now on refining their practices around this kind of issue, and they’ll keep working on it, and the board will too. We’re planning to meet again this year for a dedicated session on safety & security procedures, a deep dive to make sure we’re doing the best we possibly can to keep every child safe. My daughter is a freshman there, and when I got the message about a gun on campus, you can bet that my heart skipped several beats. It was terrifying.

And I’m a researcher, and I want our decisions to be data-driven, so when terrified parents ask whether we should have metal detectors in the school, my response is to go spend hours reading up on the subject, so I have at least the beginnings of a reasonable understanding that is based on best practices, rather than my initial instincts.

The short version of my research so far: metal detectors are mostly not recommended unless the school is one that has a high historical incidence of violence. The reasons for that are complex and multi-faceted, but if anyone is interested, I’m happy to point you to some initial articles you can review on the subject.

Actual best practices for reducing violence seem to center around early intervention, watching carefully for the signs of a student in crisis, having adults on staff connected to the students and their communities. And violence is an increasing issue right now, as we try to recover from two years of pandemic disaster which have led to shortages, economic difficulties, illness and death in many of our students’ families, and more. When the economy goes bad, domestic violence goes up. People are stretched thin, and more likely to turn to violence.

But to be honest, this is a subject that I haven’t researched much yet. I’m certainly not an expert, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming meeting where we’ll be presented with more information and recommendations.

This is what I mean. This week, gun violence and lockdown procedures are the main issue. But we also talked about a host of other issues at last night’s three-hour board meeting, and next week, it’ll be something else at the center, and a host of new issues. I can see why a lot of school boards are populated with retired folks, because they have the TIME. But I think it’s important that there’s a demographic range serving on the board, in terms of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc, as much as possible, representing the community as a whole.

So that’s where I am. Struggling a little with the duty to serve, an obligation I clearly feel strongly, even though I’m longing at times for a private life. (And of course, even aside from board service, I’ve been doing unpaid non-profit work for decades now, and that’s coming out of the same place. Strange Horizons, DesiLit, Jaggery, the SLF.)

If you’re glad I’m serving on the board, I guess you can thank Lloyd Alexander, Patricia McKillip, and J.R.R. Tolkien, for instilling a sense of duty in my adolescent self. It appears to have stuck.

If you’re reading this and thinking you’d rather I just walked away, well, I have three more years to go. Find some great candidates for that round, okay, so I can feel happy and confident not running again in 2025!

And while we’re at it, petition signatures will be due at the end of this year for 2023’s election, and we’ll have three seats available on the board, and I’m pretty sure at least one of those people is not planning to run again. So if you’re local and interested in board service, please consider it. There’s so much good that can be done in this job.

Hopefully I haven’t scared you away with this post! (Most people do not spend as much time obsessively researching as I do, I swear. It is not a requirement for board service, it’s just a requirement for being me.)

Onwards.

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