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Diverse voices needed on school board

By Sherri Story

As I approach my final 18 months of my four-year term on the Suffolk School Board, I have begun reflecting on the journey, what goals I have accomplished, and what goals are still elusive. I set goals each year having to do with the desire to see student achievement improve and to be faithful to the promises I made to my constituents while campaigning. I also promised to be faithful to the laws of Virginia, especially those concerning education. 

Although my questions regarding how the Suffolk school board operates have been answered over time, one area continues to baffle me. It is the mindset or accusation that the board cannot accomplish anything unless we are all in agreement. Where does this thinking come from? Is it mirrored or expected from any of our other public bodies? Is it true?

For example, I would argue that both our U.S. and state Supreme Courts accomplish much every year, yet they rarely are in total agreement. Would one accuse judges of just ‘stirring up trouble’ who contribute toward dissenting opinions? Of course not. In the end, the majority rules, work is accomplished, and minority voices have been heard both before and after the final decision is made. The public wins. 

Consider the U.S. and state legislators. They don’t agree all the time while governing. Yet, they also accomplish a great amount of work during a legislative session. They have dissenting opinions on almost every issue. Discussion, debate and then compromises occurs from all sides of the aisle. These governing habits demonstrate respect, equality and a belief in open government. Hence, the public wins.  

So, why is it then that some people promote the idea that school boards cannot accomplish anything without being 100% in agreement? This false idea that voices of differing opinions is somehow the cause for the district’s lack of improvement, especially a lack of improving student achievement, is just not true. It is a falsehood that has been perpetuated over time with no sound evidence or reasoning. Has this rhetoric become a norm in order to deflect accountability?

Discussion, debate and being able to openly confront district problems should be the very basis of a functioning and vibrant board, one whose members represent a city of almost infinite opinions and backgrounds. The members of this board, and boards to come, will have different viewpoints, different suggestions, and different questions to ask of our administrators. Oversight is impossible without asking questions.  

If board members never ask questions, if we do not grapple with district weaknesses, then how does anyone know when the district improves? Should citizens of Suffolk be satisfied with just taking someone’s word for it? Are we improving or are we stagnant on issues such as desegregation, reading achievement gaps, assessing building safety, improving teacher morale in buildings where it suffers, and meeting the diverse needs of our special education students? Should our citizens and city leaders be satisfied with a board that consistently gives a silent response to the realities of mediocrity? Becoming a better school district does not lie in the hands of one or two appointee positions, but it lies squarely at the top, on the shoulders of the school board and its leadership. 

We do not need a board full of voices that all sing along to the melody line. We need diverse voices. We need a school board that has the confidence to harness the gains that could come from listening to ‘the other’ rather than stifling it. Then the public will win. 

Sherri Story represents the Chuckatuck Borough on the Suffolk School Board; however, the opinions expressed here are her own and do not represent the entire board. Contact her at sherristory@spsk12.net.