Editor’s note: Have you ever wondered what a school board does? Today marks the first installment of an eight-part series focused on what the St. Vrain Valley board does and getting to know its members.
Today: Q&A with Board President Joie Siegrist on how the board operates.
Tuesday: Five questions with Siegrist
Wednesday: Five questions with Paula Peairs, board vice president
Thursday: Five questions with Karen Ragland, board treasurer and assistant secretary
Friday: Five questions with John Ahrens, board secretary
Saturday: Five questions with member Chico Garcia
Sunday: Five questions with member Jim Berthold
Monday: Five questions with member Richard Martyr
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
What is a school board and what does it do?
The Colorado Constitution requires the General Assembly to organize schools into districts that are governed by local boards of education. The way it works in Colorado is that each board of education exercises what we call local control. The local control allows the district to tailor its educational policy to meet the needs of its students and its community individually, which can include curriculum, management of district instruction, budge management and the school calendar layout.
In St. Vrain, we have seven board of education members. We are elected by the school district at large, but we are each required to live in a different geographic location. This ensures that our entire district has representation based on the needs of the communities that make up SVVSD. It is important that we all live in a different location so that we can equally represent the district.
It is a volunteer position, we receive no pay or salary for serving on the board of education. We are term-limited. Generally board of education members serve two four-year terms. There are some exceptions to that. I am a perfect example. I was appointed in 2011 and because I was appointed I can actually serve three terms. I am in my third term, this is my 10th year on the board of education.
We are elected. We are nonpartisan. We do not run or govern with a political affiliation. We also only have power as a whole body when we are in session. I have no individual authority whatsoever.
What I like to make sure people understand is we are parents and community members just like all of you, who have a passion for public education and we all believe that public education is a cornerstone foundation for our democracy.
I think this is a key way that we can make sure that our communities have a say in what their schools look like because really at the end of the day the schools belong to our communities. They belong to you and me as a parent and a community member, so it is important to have that local control.
What are the most important functions of a school board?
There are four key functions that board members have as stewards of the community.
The first one is to hire the very best superintendent. I believe that is the absolute most important decision that a board of education will ever make.
The second thing that I believe is a key function of a board of education is to ensure that the district finances are strong, to make sure that they are responsibly managed so that the superintendent has the resources he/she needs to meet the needs of the students.
I believe a board of education should always govern in an effective, high-functioning manner. We set the tone of leadership for the entire district. I believe that in a school district it is so important to have community support and partnership.
And one of the very most important things that a board of education will do is that we’ll communicate the community to the district and the district back to the community. We’re a link between the public and the schools.
How is the school board set up to execute those functions?
We have established a policy-centered governance. The board of education has one employee and that is the superintendent. We delegate to him the task of running the school district. We do that by outlining a course of action through approximately 358 board of education policies.
The way I look at those, they are fluid of course, many of them are based on state and federal statutes, some of them are based on best practice, but I think of them as guardrails along a highway. We help set up those guardrails as a board through those policies and then the superintendent can travel through those lanes and operate the district within those policies.
We also work as a board to set up strategic priorities for the district. Our interactions are with the superintendent. We don’t get involved with the day-to-day decision making of the district. At the school level, if there are day-to-day concerns the point of contact is still that school. You can imagine how challenging it might be if you had seven members of a board of education, who all had their own ideas, and each one was telling the superintendent what to do and also telling parents “this is how it should be,” or going into schools and telling principals “this is how it should be.” This form of governance works very well for us and (superintendent) Don Haddad.
Why is a well-qualified superintendent a high priority for a district? What values/ characteristics do you think are important for a superintendent to have in order to run a district effectively?
The quality of our public schools will play a significant role in determining the future of our communities, state and nation. The superintendent is the CEO of the school district and is tasked not only with managing the overall day-to-day operations and resources of the school district but with helping the board think through what skills preschool students will need when they graduate 13 years from now. Superintendents must be exceptional leaders, visionaries and communicators with a wealth of experience in public education.
School districts are highly complex organizations to lead and manage. As such, the responsibilities of a superintendent are extensive. They must have a deep understanding of today and tomorrow’s educational needs in a knowledge- and technologically based, global economy.
You mentioned being financially strong in order to give the district the resources it needs is important. What role does the board play in that?
Boards are responsible for working with their superintendent to ensure the district’s fiscal position is strong and the budget is reflective of strategic priorities. Given the landscape of education funding in Colorado, districts must secure additional funding through mill levy overrides, bonds and grants. The district’s strong fiscal position allowed it to be responsive to the pandemic’s impact on educational delivery despite state funding cuts.
What are some of the board’s achievements?
When John Creighton ran for the board of education, he ran because he was interested in creating equity across the district. Don was hired as superintendent during John’s tenure and the two focused on equity, creating a really articulate and clear vision of what they wanted to do with the district. It has evolved over more than a decade into what we have now. I firmly believe that the board of education’s commitment and Don’s commitment, with tremendous support from the community, is what finds us where we are now.
And where we are now is in a place where, as a district, we can navigate COVID in the very best way possible. Some examples of that would be our district finances. We had that strong financial foundation (and) there have been no furloughs in St. Vrain. Everyone who works for St. Vrain, still works for St. Vrain. They may be doing a different job but they are still employed by St. Vrain.
The Learning Technology Plan is another thing that has been done through an equity lens. Everybody might have a different opinion on the best way to learn right during the pandemic, but the reality is the way the kids in St. Vrain are learning and the way teachers are teaching would not be possible without the support of our community and that focus on equity. When they passed the mill levy to implement and create the Learning Technology Plan, every single student in St. Vrain now has a device. We were also able to purchase additional devices for teachers so they could teach asynchronously for online learning. Because everybody already had those devices, the district was able to focus on different resources such as Wi-Fi access and adding a P-TECH program at Silver Creek High School.
Each board of education member was asked five questions to allow the community to get to know them better.