Imagine a local school district governing body in which seven elected officials (all serving as volunteers) engage in vigorous but civil debate; they listen and consult regularly with the community to determine the highest priorities; they examine data and hold the superintendent accountable for results. They are cheerleaders for the school system yet also expect much more than the system currently delivers.
Imagine a board that thinks and argues together about all important decisions. Imagine a school board that respects teachers and school employees but also expects action on performance and incentive programs. Imagine a school board that successfully manages the tension and discomfort of focusing ever smaller resources on the most important outcomes.
This sounds like the District 11 school board of 2009. We haven't achieved every one of these scenarios, but it's a new world for successful governance in our community's largest, and our state's seventh-largest, school district. We serve more than 28,000 students every day.
Four years ago, it took no imagination to find a very different school board. In 2005 and 2006, Comcast Channel 16 was the best place to watch reality TV on Wednesdays. At live-action school board meetings, you could witness willful destruction of our public education system. Civil debate gave way to name-calling, witch hunts, threats, firing the superintendent, and intimidation and bullying.
In 2006, the fine citizens of D-11 had seen enough. They knew we needed better governance to deal with the urgent issues facing our schools. The 2006 recall, approved by 70 percent of the voters, plus one additional resignation finally allowed our board to work together to fulfill our role as trustees of the public's money and the community's children. We knew disparity in educational opportunity and in educational and social expectations was unacceptable. Finally we could get on with the messy but vital business of democratic school governance to address these disparities. The tyranny of the old crowd was gone.
We accomplished the painful and difficult process to realign our system for better efficiency. We built dynamic new partnerships with all segments of our community including the arts, business and the nonprofit world. We praised the many great accomplishments of our students and staff, and we demanded action and accountability for improvement. In 2009 we also made perhaps our most important decision: We hired Nicholas Gledich as superintendent, a professional with great talent, no baggage, and the right combination of vision and management skills to make bold progress.
District 11's success rate has seen steady improvement despite the challenges around us. In 2005, 40 percent of our students qualified for free or reduced lunch. In the latest count this fall, 51 percent qualify. Despite these numbers, our composite test scores have risen consistently, a greater accomplishment than any other district like us in the state. Our graduation rates have increased and are now within seven percentage points of the state average, instead of the 15-point spread of a few years ago.
District 11 has made significant progress, but we know we must do better. We are not afraid to acknowledge and address our challenges. If we had all the answers, it would be easy. But we lead in many areas, and we have thousands of dedicated professionals who will stand behind every student.
What advice would I give to future boards? First, believe in public schools as the best way to educate citizens to participate in our society. Second, work hard to govern and lead, rather than manage. School boards must keep the vision and constantly engage the public on the big picture. The superintendent will manage the system to make the vision a reality. Third, board members should give direction only as a governing body, not as individuals. We too often expect that our individual words give direction to the superintendent or others, rather than making decisions as a full board.
District 11 is a great public school system, but the board's constant challenge is to renew the urgency to govern so that we prepare every child for a world yet to be imagined.
John Gudvangen, elected to the District 11 board in 2005 and having served as its president from 2005 to 2007, is leaving office this month. He also is associate director of financial aid at Colorado College.