Op-Ed: Step up to the school committee – somebody has to do it

All five seats on the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) committee will be up for election on the first Tuesday in November this year. Two members of the present UIRSD committee will not be running for reelection: Susan Parker of Chilmark and Marshall Segall of West Tisbury. It is important that other up-Islanders step up. In 2006, there were only five candidates for five positions. More than five would be healthier. For those interested in running, the first deadline is July 20.

The down-Island town school committees on Martha’s Vineyard (Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury) elect one member (of three) in the spring for a three-year term, but not the UIRSD, which seats the whole five-member committee every four years. That is probably not the smartest way to organize a school committee. Four years is a longish term without any new blood, and there is the risk that continuity could be lost if no old members were reelected. However, the Massachusetts law that established regional schools requires this cycle, and we’re stuck with it.

Who might serve? Almost anyone. Typically it is a parent or grandparent who has a special interest in seeing that the school runs well. Former teachers and administrators (like me) get involved because we know something about education and want to help, or maybe just because we love schools and can’t stay away. Concerned taxpayers who are interested in school budgets are another possibility. But really, any person who cares about our schools and has a bit of common sense could be an excellent school committee member.

Why take on the challenge? The short answer is, “Because it’s important, it’s not hard to do, it’s interesting, and it feels good to help.” It would be hard to imagine a job more important than providing our communities with good public schools. Schools give our community’s children the most valuable possession they will ever own, an education. School committees don’t administer the schools — professionals do that — but the school committees are the guardians of that gift. They set policy and certify the budgets. Because the stakes are nothing less than the future of the community, it’s important that those individuals who can serve, do step up to the plate and accept responsibility.

Somebody needs to do it. Why not you?

How hard is it?

No particular expertise is required in advance, but new school committee members are required to take a day-long orientation offered by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Topics covered include conflict of interest laws, the open meeting law, the public documents law, school finance, negotiations, and laws governing special education.

Each school committee meets once a month, and during budget preparation there are also often extra meetings. Membership on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee goes with election to town committees (but only three from up-Island, one from each town, serve on the high school committee). All members of the town and UIRSD committees automatically belong to the All-Island School Committee (AISC), which also meets once a month. The AISC has very little statutory power but serves an important function in Island-wide initiatives, such as hiring and evaluating the superintendent, discussing policies, and approving the superintendent’s and shared services budgets. There are other subcommittees which meet irregularly, the most time-consuming of which is the negotiations team, active now but not (we hope) for another three years.

You might plan on two or three meetings a month, almost always in the evening, and maybe three or more extra meetings at budget time, October to December.

How to run for the UIRSD committee

The UIRSD election is unique among Martha’s Vineyard public schools. You need to pick up a nomination form at the Aquinnah, Chilmark, or West Tisbury town hall, or from the office of the Superintendent of Schools (4 Pine Street, Vineyard Haven). You’ll need at least 22 signatures (one percent of the number of up-Islanders who voted in the governor’s race in 2006). It’s a good idea to get a few extras, just in case some are disallowed. Remember to ask your signers to list their street addresses, not post office boxes. The election is district wide, but most candidates get signatures only from their own town. If you want to canvass the other towns, pick up extra copies of the form and get a separate set of signatures for each town. The forms are all the same, but there is a box at the bottom of page 2 that says, “Only registered voters of [town] may sign this sheet.”

Next, take the signed nomination form to the registrar (town clerk) in its town before July 20. The clerk will verify that your signatures are actually registered voters in that town, and get the board of registrars to sign your form.

When that’s done, you’ll need to pick up the form again and deliver it to the superintendent’s office before Aug. 17. Superintendent James Weiss, who is also the UIRSD district clerk, will notify the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and your name will appear on the ballot.

How to get on other public school committees

The three down-Island towns normally elect one member of their three-member school committees in the spring town election, along with the other town offices (selectman, fincom, etc.). It’s a three-year term. You’ll need to get signatures on a nomination form, which means starting early enough to get them certified in time to make the printed ballot, probably in January or February. Get the rules and the deadline for your town from your town clerk.

The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) is an independent public school chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not under the jurisdiction of any school district. It is governed by a 10-member board of trustees. At an annual meeting early in May, the MVPCS community (parents, teachers, and students) elects three regular trustees for three-year terms, plus one alumni trustee for a one-year term. Candidates are examined and recommended by the trusteeship committee of the board of trustees, and the board presents the slate to the annual meeting. To express interest, contact any member of the Board or Bob Moore, director of MVPCS.

It happens that at the moment, MVPCS is looking for a replacement to complete the last year of the term of a board member who will resign on July 1.

Dan Cabot is vice-chairman of the UIRSD committee, chairman of the AISC, and chairman of the personnel subcommittee of the AISC. He has completed two three-year terms on the Board of Trustees of the MVPCS.