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Sage Advice from Two 40-Year School Board Members

By Dr. Darrell G. Floyd on February 05, 2016 hst Print

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with two longtime school board members who each have served their local districts for four decades – Willa Jo Fowler who has served on the Enid (Oklahoma) School Board for 41 years, and James Vanderlin who has served on the Lake Station (Indiana) School Board for 44 years – about the key issues involving education-based athletic and performing arts activities addressed by school board members.


Question: What year were you first elected to your local school board, and what are the specifics of your district?

Fowler: I was first elected in 1975 to the local school board of Enid Public Schools in Enid, Oklahoma. The district is one of the fastest-growing school districts in Oklahoma with 8,100 students at 12 elementary campuses, three middle schools, one comprehensive high school and one alternative high school academy. The ethnic breakdown of our district is 63 percent Anglo, 22 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, 5 percent African American and 3 percent Native American.
Vanderlin: I was first elected in 1972 to the school board of Lake Station Community Schools in Lake Station, Indiana. Our district has 1,400 students at three elementary schools, one junior high school and one senior high school. The ethnic breakdown or our district is 51 percent Anglo, 37 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African American and 1 percent Asian.

Question: What do you see as the greatest benefits of performing arts and athletic programs in schools?

Fowler: I believe the greatest benefits of athletics and performing arts is the discipline learned and the teamwork required. Motivation is instilled in students, which helps them keep up their grades. They also learn the self-discovery process of belonging to something greater than themselves. For some, these programs become a reason to stay in school. This sense of belonging and the opportunity to be involved are both extremely important issues for high school students, and research shows that these benefits carry over into life after high school as well. Then, for a small group, there is also the possibility of a college scholarship, which can end up positively changing a student’s life forever.
Vanderlin: I think the greatest benefit of these programs is that students working together as a team to succeed in their endeavors makes for a better, well-rounded person. Later, these benefits can also help them achieve their lifelong goals.

Question: What can school board members do to most effectively help support performing arts and athletics in schools?

Fowler: When one or more of these activities is offered by the school district, board members must do their best to see that students have what they need in order to succeed – making sure they are aware of all offerings and support them equally. Also, educating the public regarding the scope and value of these activities is crucial. Programs like the football program are usually high-profile and obvious; the debate team, not so much. Also, the awards and recognitions given to teams and individuals by the board is great, and board member attendance at activities also shows support and encouragement.
Vanderlin: School board members should praise students and parents for their efforts, no matter what the venue. Let them know that you care about them by attending events. If money problems arise, look outside the system for support.

Question: What traits do you feel are most important for an effective school board member to possess?

Fowler: I think a person should serve for the right reasons, which would not include getting on the school board to try to fire a coach because of a grudge or to settle some kind of score. The right reason is a strong desire to provide the best possible education for ALL students. Other positive traits include: dedication, a willingness to learn, good communication skills, the ability to listen well, being proactive and being a visionary for your district.
Vanderlin: When I became a school board member, my first superintendent told me that if an idea is good for me and good for the superintendent, but not good for students, then it’s not a good idea.

Question: What are some of the most significant changes you have seen during your school board tenure?

Fowler: Probably the most dramatic change has been technology. We have gone from blackboards to Smartboards. Our challenge is to utilize the current wireless environment effectively and make sure that the technology department and the curriculum department work together effectively. On the negative side, unfunded mandates from both the state and federal governments are killing us.
Vanderlin: I think the biggest changes that have occurred are probably testing, funding shortages and political intervention (both state and federal).

Question: How have you been able to make the most difference locally, statewide and nationally?

Fowler: I have made an effort to participate in local, state and national workshops, meetings and conferences in an attempt to learn and stay fully informed on issues. Locally, I try to listen effectively to parents, students, teachers and administrators to identify potential challenges and needs. In addition, I have also served as a longtime member and past president of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
Vanderlin: Locally, I have been involved with the renovation of all schools in our district. Statewide, I have served as a longtime member and past president of the Indiana School Boards Association and also served on the executive director search committee.

Question: What advice do you have for new school board members?

Fowler: My advice would be to listen effectively to parents, students, teachers and administrators. Become familiar with your local legislators. Let them know about your successes and challenges, and get involved legislatively to the extent that you can. Be willing to learn, and devote your time and energy to becoming well-informed. Learn from educational experts and other school board members (network effectively) – and know, respect and follow the chain of command when patrons bring you their problems and grievances.
Vanderlin: My top suggestion for new school board members is to be open-minded. School board members should not have an agenda, and they should remember that they are only the policy setters.

Question: What do you see as two of the greatest challenges facing school districts in the next few years?

Fowler: I think the greatest challenge is the ability to maintain – and increase – funding for public schools, along with the teacher shortage/teacher pay issue.
Vanderlin: I believe the biggest tasks for school boards are finances and possible alternatives to current testing issues.

Question: If you had it to do all over again, what would you change?

Fowler: I think a simpler school finance system would be great, so that school board members and the public can more easily understand where the money comes from and where it goes. I would also begin to participate in statewide activities earlier than I did.
Vanderlin: Better public relations and communications between teachers, students, and the community. And I would make sure that our teachers know how much they are appreciated and what a tremendous job they are doing – especially during adverse times. I always tell our teachers at the beginning of the school year that our parents send us the best they have. It is our job collectively to provide them with the best education we can.