The story could have appeared in any local news outlet in the country. It concerned a school board that had made a controversial and divisive decision about a hot button issue. The name of the board is not important nor, for that matter, is the topic it was addressing. This was another example of public officials wrestling with a difficult choice, doing the best they could with the information and alternatives available to them.
Being a school board member is not easy. Those who run for or are appointed to the office recognize they are likely to be in the center of many storms. The issues that can be readily resolved—the ones for which good policies and procedures exist, where school personnel know their roles and execute them well, and for which the best course is obvious—are not the ones that wind up on a school board’s agenda. We select public officials to solve the problems that are enmeshed in competing priorities and values, that have weighty implications, or that others have simply failed to address.
Governance is, at its core, an exercise in choosing. If we expect leaders to render a decision, we already have conceded they have more than one option in front of them. As observers of this process, our perspective about what these officials should do is, naturally, skewed in favor of the outcome we favor-—whether our preferred solution benefits us personally, would help an interest we support, or just seems logical from our vantage point. “Of course, the board should keep that school open,” we might say. “It’s been a part of our community for years. How could they even consider closing it?” It’s perfectly clear!
If only it were so. There is always “the rest of the story,” to channel the late Paul Harvey. The reason some decisions can be so wrenching is not only that there are conflicting arguments, but that each of them has strong evidence to support its case. Reading and understanding all that information takes time, as does discussing it and evaluating the relative merits and criticisms. Looking in on this process, the public easily can feel frustrated by the time required to reach a conclusion.
There is palpable irony in all of this. Who hasn’t made a tough choice in their personal life only to have others question it later? Deciding whether to change jobs, move to another city, or buy a new home, for instance, can involve extensive research, consultation, and even sleepless nights—an experience that other persons could never fully appreciate. School board members are familiar with this frustration. The difference is that they are on a public stage. They know their actions may disappoint or even anger some of the people who elected them, so making a decision can be a tortuous process. Yet, the goal is not to make everyone happy but to produce the best results for the school district and its students.
This role carries with it important responsibilities — most notably, the need to keep the people who will be affected by a school board’s action well informed throughout the decision-making process. While some of the information that boards review may be confidential or legally protected, much of it probably is not. Ensuring that regular reports are provided to the public during the entire time deliberations are taking place is, often, as important as the final decision itself. Leadership is both deciding and explaining.