Our School Board Conversation

by Maddie Fennell, NSEA Executive Director

Last month, NSEA President Jenni Benson and I were invited to attend the annual meeting of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. In fact, NASB leaders were kind enough to offer NSEA an opportunity to present at the conference. We asked outgoing NASB President Linda Richards to chair a panel that included Jenni and I, and Nebraska State Board of Education members Patsy Koch Johns and Lisa Fricke, both former active teacher members and now members of NSEA-Retired.

The hour-long session was promoted thus:

It is imperative that Nebraska’s education community work together to ensure strong public schools and a quality education for all our public school students.  As it celebrates its 150th anniversary, the NSEA has embarked on a new strategic plan.  Join a panel of NSEA and school board leaders to hear about NSEA’s new direction and for candid answers to your questions.  

The NSEA strategic plan was built over the last two years with input from members across the state. At the 2017 Delegate Assembly, delegates approved five goals and associated outcomes that will drive our work in the coming years. We believe that by increasing the capacity of our Association to effect change through member organizing, political involvement, advancing social justice issues, and responsive governance structures, our members will be better prepared to advocate for and meet the needs of our students, our profession and public education.

Questions Asked

Prior to the conference, we asked Linda to ask us the kind of questions that people always want to ask NSEA, but may not feel are appropriate (or the ones they will only ask when we aren’t in the room to answer!). It was probably a good thing that we asked, since Linda is a straight shooter and wouldn’t have pulled punches anyway!

I want to share with you some of the questions, and our responses, from that afternoon.

Why should the NASB and the State Board care about – and even support – NSEA’s strategic plan?
While “I Love Public Schools” shirts are proudly worn across our state, there are forces out there that are actively seeking to dismantle public schools. They see a business and profit opportunity by funneling tax dollars into private pockets through vouchers and charter schools. Those forces would love to see NSEA and NASB at odds with each other.  Our division would be their opportunity.  But NSEA is actively working with NASB, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, the Nebraska Department of Education and many others to meet our shared mission: a great public school for EVERY child.  As Linda said, we are focused on working together for the benefit of the 312,000 students in our Nebraska public schools!

How safe do you believe teachers feel in speaking up when they have a problem or idea?
We stressed that the school board members need to have policies that clearly outline when and how teachers can speak to board members or speak on public issues.  The two-way lines of communication between all education stakeholders must be open. The level of safety felt is in direct correlation to what teachers see happen to a teacher who speaks up. Was the teacher supported? Was their idea given thoughtful consideration? Was their problem openly addressed?  It’s not enough to have an “open door” policy; your actions must be in support of collaboration.

Local school boards sometimes feel that the NSEA and local teachers’ association focus only on salary and benefits – and block progress and reform. How do you respond to that and what can our state organizations do to promote increased collaboration in our local public schools?
Teachers are parents and breadwinners – and holders of student loan debt! They need a salary that allows them to provide for their families while committing their professional lives to their students (while not being exhausted from working a second and third job to make ends meet). While the union and school board have a duty to work together on negotiations, our real collaboration should go far beyond the bargaining table. Too often, we burn bridges across our differences instead of building them across the common interest we have in seeing our students succeed.  We all need to listen to understand rather than reply while staying focused on doing what is in the best interests of students.

As Jenni often reminds all of us, “While students comprise 27 percent of our population, they are 100 percent of our future.”

I am proud of the collaborative relationships that NSEA enjoys with NASB, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the myriads of other organizations and individuals that support the future of the 312,000 students in our Nebraska public schools.   

Note: NSEA’s full strategic plan is found at: www.bit.ly/NSEAPlan