Valuing School Board Members for Their Knowledge of the Community

A national election year allows for both sagacious and salacious talk about ethics issues in the political arena. While most ethics talk fitfully follows what voters lose from negative and false political advertising, and superficially attends to the profound ethical dilemmas posed by the increasing link between income and political inequality, we think the local political arena offers some of the best insights about political ethics issues that impact us all.

As we go to the polls November 6th, the local ballot is full. In Washtenaw County, voters will be asked to weigh in on two city proposals and to consider a library building bond. In addition to the presidential race, there is a mayor, a sheriff and a water resources commissioner to choose. And among the many education institution contested seats is one for a place on the board of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Traditionally and until this year, voters have selected school board members in separate elections, most recently in May of each year. But as we found out in an expansive and absorbing talk with seasoned Ann Arbor Public Schools board member Glenn Nelson, the election date change is new.  The ethics issues school board members face, however, are not.

Among the ethics dilemmas Glenn outlined for us: the tension between the special, close-to-the-heart values that school board members often bring with them and the value of working to reach broader common ground in the interest of all; the dilemmas of making fair-minded decisions on resource allocation between schools with different needs; the appropriate role of school board members in modeling for all education constituencies and in following ethical guidelines. And above all, school board members' obligation to be committed to the district's children and youth by offering them equal access and diverse challenges to reach their individual and collective potential.

Glenn is not up for re-election this year. And he wondered whether the state's decision to move school board elections will make them more partisan and less informed--where ballots for school board will be marked on the basis of party affiliation and last name--rather than on what the candidate knows about the community's values and the educational aspirations of its children.

And while Glenn pointed out that he remains an amateur at politics, anyone who talks with Glenn quickly discovers that he is no amateur in his knowledge about education issues or in his willingness to pass on what he has learned to all of us.