What Real School Board Leadership Can Look Like

Cascade Commentary


Dick Stamm’s experience on an Illinois school board shows what four dedicated people can do to improve education in their district. During his tenure, test scores rose from the 54th percentile to the 90th.

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Four decades ago, I was fortunate to serve on a seven-member school board in Illinois. At the time, we had between 10,000 and 15,000 K-8 students in two dozen buildings. Our income was mostly property taxes and was limited by the state and the voters.

I was appointed to fill a board vacancy in 1967, and initially most board votes were 6 to 1. The school district was over $8 million dollars in debt. The average Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) score for the district was in the 54th percentile. The teachers were paid with scrip that had to be recovered at one bank. By 1971 we had a lot of 4-3 votes. At that time we had a superintendent who couldn’t handle a confrontational situation with a teacher, parent or school board member. He would leave the office and hide. We fired him the first day we could muster a 4-3 vote.

“[W]e closed the school year with a $40 million surplus (enough to run the school district for a year if all money stopped coming in or if we decided to switch to a charter school approach).”

The old board members wanted to go on a nationwide search for a new superintendent. We had about 750 certified employees who technically could fill the job. The new board members decided we should at least take a look in-house. We selected one of our junior high school principals—a 6’6” tall, former pro basketball player and a real leader. He wanted the job, and he got it.

At this point the district was still in debt. Four years later we closed the school year with a $40 million surplus (enough to run the school district for a year if all money stopped coming in or if we decided to switch to a charter school approach). We endured two employee strikes.

We were the “big money” school district in the state, and this made us a target for strikes. During the first strike we followed precedent and paid the strikers while they were not working, a common practice across the country.

During the second strike we closed the schools within minutes of the teachers’ union strike vote, refused to talk for two weeks and later refused to extend the school year or to pay retroactively for the strike time-out. The teachers went to work instantly. They realized they were paid better than anyone in the area, and the union was attempting to set a higher bar in order to negotiate with other districts.

The new superintendent asked us for an open school system where students could attend any school they wanted in the district. The only condition was that parents would be responsible for transportation if they did not choose their neighborhood school. If parents wanted their child to ride the school bus, the student went to the school that was convenient for the school board. This resulted in some huge audiences at school board meetings.

“We ended up with outstanding teachers….About four years later our average ITBS scores rose to over the 90th percentile.”

But it suddenly put each school in competition for students. If the school did not do a good job, in the eyes of the parents and the students, it lost attendance and funding. Parents could move their children at any time. They even could move students in the same grade to another teacher in the same school. This put teachers in competition with each other. Many teachers quit or moved to other school districts. We ended up with outstanding teachers. Teachers were encouraged to participate in the community by joining local organizations like the Chamber, Rotary Clubs, and Kiwanis.

About four years later our average ITBS scores rose to over the 90th percentile.

Unfortunately, as the years went on we lost key board members, and the superintendent retired. All were replaced with more conventional people. Fortunately, a number of the schools were converted to charter schools, where some reforms remained in place.

The list of parent and student complaints with public education in Oregon is growing every day. My experience proves what four people dedicated to change can do when they show courage and patience.

Dick Stamm was a local school board member in the State of Illinois from 1967-1989. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in systems engineering, he is still active in industrial refrigeration engineering and lives with his wife in Sandy, Oregon.

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