Unsolicited advice

Soccer mom with many years' experience teaches the tools of the trade

When I first got involved in local educational issues, I was introduced to the old-timers. The veterans who had sat through many a Board of Education (BOE) meeting. I was new blood, and full of enthusiasm to elicit change. For many years I was the parent in our school who knew what happened at the latest board of ed meeting and understood the multiple sides of any story. Whether or not I agreed, I kept up with the opposition's argument. Yesterday I was introduced to a friend of friends with young kids. She has jumped onto the advocacy bandwagon. I support her cause (bringing full day kindergarten to Bridgewater schools). But it isn't my fight, and I'm glad to be an observer this time and not take center stage.  

Words of wisdom

Looking back I realize I have a lot of advice that may be helpful to share. There are certain things I wish I knew before speaking at the BOE's podium:
  • Keep it short! The BOE doesn't want to hear back stories of any kind. They don't care if you cry; they don't want personal narratives. Stick to facts.
  • Be Bridgewater-specific. It doesn't matter to them what happened in your sister's kids' district (unless it happened somewhere close and affluent, like Basking Ridge).  
  • Mind the BOE "rules of play". If you don't know them, an old-timer (or even a BOE member) will shame you, and you will learn quickly. The BOE is very particular on when you may speak and for how long.
  • Don't expect answers. Even if you ask direct questions, you rarely get feedback immediately - if ever. 
  • Know the budget related to your cause. Do your homework! Know what they spend now and any savings or costs if your initiative passes.
  • Cite the number of children your initiative would impact over time. 
  • Don't name names of board members, of teachers or of administrators. 
  • If you have a large group of supporters, have them speak if possible (otherwise the BOE doesn't know which item brought them) but keep it short. Five sentences is enough: 
    • My name is and I live at. You have to provide this information.
    • My kids attend [name] school. 
    • I am supporting [cause]. 
    • Please vote to [action]. 
    • Thank you. 
  • Remember you are being recorded and what you say becomes part of the public record. There are often press at big 

Beware of your allies

Don't assume that because a group agrees with you on this particular issue, you will have continuing support in the future. This is possibly my greatest fault. I've had the experience where I was sitting with a group of supporters, went to the podium, said my peace and sat down to a very different group of people. They didn't like PART of what I said. This is very true of organizations. They may love you, and love what you say, but they are a very strong, and very, very unified group come negotiation-season.

Beware of individual BOE members - if you say one thing they don't like (it doesn't matter if it is true), you may face unexpected consequences.

Unanticipated costs

Being very involved means your children enter a grade without a blank slate. This is something you should weigh carefully! While you think you are doing something in their best interest, or in the best interest of all children, once you are known in the district it can be a double-edged sword. Your children's future teachers will have heard of you, and it is very hard for even the best teacher to be unbiased.

Advocacy and ambivalence 

While the flame of my passion regarding the school district issues has somewhat abated (and being much less involved in district matters provides less fodder for blogging), I still want to express my experiences. If only I had equal amounts of energy and passion? My impressions of the district used to come from many sources, and not just my family's experience. My credibility has waned as I've pulled one child out of Bridgewater schools. Most of all returning to the full-time workforce has taken away a lot of free time to attend meetings and be involved in the schools. 

Other things have also happened - we no longer vote on the budget. This is a huge issue! I have no impact on the budget anymore, so who cares? When citizens had a vote, we had a reason to follow along with the process. 

Hope for new changes

So dear friend of friends, I wish you and your cause well. Although I can count tangible wins on a few fingers, being involved in the district's politics has consumed my energies for the past decade. I hope my experiences serve you well. In the end, even with politics, backlash and negative consequences, I am proud of my time fighting for my beliefs, and I am sure you will find it just as rewarding as I do. If I sound jaded, maybe I am, but I'm also inspired and proud of my engagement. Best of luck to you!


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Update: A reader e-mailed me offline and reminded me not to forget the importance of behind-the-scene e-mail. Send the BOE something in writing. Some will respond right away, others won't. Don't write anything you would not want seen in print.

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