On the Road 1 – Sitting at the board table in Rhode Island

It has been a few years since I sat at a board table. So I was thrilled when Eva-Marie Mancuso, who chairs the Rhode Island Board of Education, extended me that courtesy at their regular July meeting on July 15, which also marked the beginning of my second week at NASBE.

My trip to Rhode Island is the first of what I hope will be many state visits. I chose the state, I told members of the board, for three reasons: first, because NASBE is committed to building strong relationships with our member boards, and that necessarily means meeting them in person. Second, I came to Rhode Island because this small state consistently tackles tough issues and has been a real leader among the states.  In boxing parlance, they punch above their weight.

And finally, I confessed, I came to Providence because Patrick Guida, a member of their board and the President of NASBE (and thus my boss), asked me to!

I was given a few minutes early on the agenda to address the board. But first came the portion of the meeting known as Open Forum.

Most education boards have some sort of public comment period. In Rhode Island, citizens are allowed to address the board on any topic, but preference is always given to those who want to speak to an item that is on that meeting’s agenda.

The speakers addressed a wide range of issues. Many were there to advocate for a charter school, the Segue Institute for Learning in Central Falls. The school’s charter was up for renewal. Commissioner Deborah Gist had recommended a three-year renewal. The speakers wanted five.

Students, teachers, and parents all testified. They were backed by a crowd of other school supporters, all wearing maroon shirts. They were polite, but firm.

I recalled all the evenings when as a member of my local school board, I had sat at other board tables, facing other crowds of citizens who often showed up wearing matching shirts. This ability to talk directly to policymakers about our children and their future—and sometimes to have the students themselves talk—is one of the greatest strengths of our system of school governance.

Board members didn’t have staff who were designated to listen. They heard the testimony themselves.  They also heard concerns about the state’s high school exit exam, about teacher preparation, and about renovating school facilities.

Something magic happened in that big room in Rhode Island. Citizens talked. Policymakers listened. And in a time when people get cynical about schools, or about policymaking, or about school boards, I came away with a renewed faith in all of those.

Citizens who come to school board meetings do not always get their way. But their voice can always be heard.