Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Adventure Running for Schoolboard.

Preface: The election was last Tuesday. I made the ballot by one vote.

Yes. I am running for school board. Why? Because, once again I have to back up my rhetoric with actions. Plus, I am no longer willing to watch my local community-school get squashed by the market driven reforms being thrust upon it. If our school goes down I want to go down with it.

There is a quick story as to how I became a candidate. In the winter, two of our board members stepped down, creating temporary vacancies. A call went out to the local community for volunteers. I got a little nudging from "friends" but I made the decision to put name in pretty much on my own. Walk the talk.

The process for replacing board members that step down is relatively simple. You submit your name and resume and explain your desire to be considered. You then appear in front of the current board and answer some school board-related questions. If the current members find you acceptable and they vote for you, you're in. I completed all the necessary paperwork and received confirmation that I would be considered as a candidate.

The following week I was at the elementary school dropping off some materials for my daughter when I was stopped in the hallway. According to this person there were a lot of people supporting me. The term would only be for four months until the general election, and considering my background as an educator, I felt relatively confident in my chances of being selected by the remaining board members.

However, one week before the interviews I was informed by a friend that I was not going to be selected. "How could that be? I hadn't even had my interview," I thought. The current board didn't really know anything about me except for what was on my resume -- or so I thought. I pressed my friend for information: "Why? What was the problem? How was it possible to be eliminated before even interviewing?"

That's when living in a small, conservative (and I don't necessarily mean that in a derogatory manner) town smacked me upside the head. According to my friend, even though some community members liked my background in education, I had a major problem. You see, according to some in the community, along with being involved in little league baseball and football and being a member of the PTO, I am also a liberal college professor, most likely an atheist, and I probably have plans to get rid of the Christmas play. I looked at my friend in disbelief.

He then told me how he launched into an hour-long promotion of my education related qualifications and how I actually have really great ideas when it comes to public education. But he said his listeners had serious hearing problems. In truly conservative towns, right wing rhetoric is typically viewed as unbiased news -- absolutely factual! Therefore, since I actually do work at a college as a faculty member, I must be an unabashed liberal, atheist, and Christmas warmonger (according to the leading news agencies -- right wing radio).

Anyway, after pondering this new professional reputation, I attended the interview process the following week. I gave great answers related to public schools and what's best for children and communities that value public schools (I kept my disdain for Christmas a secret), but in the end I only received one of the four votes needed to be selected to finish out the terms of the vacating school board members. Oh well. It wasn't like I didn't have enough to do at my university job -- advocating socialism and the destruction of all religions.

However, after a month I received a strange call one morning from a standing school board member (a no vote for me). He told me that he had just filed his paper work for re-election and found out that I wasn't running. He wondered why. I told him very simply that since my "interview" with the board and finding out my reputation in the community, I was not going to run in the election. I told him I did not stand a chance at winning. Then it happened again (small town politics). According to this person, he now wished that he had voted for me and that "other community members" were hoping I was going to run. I just listened and thought, "Really? What about Christmas?"

The caller also volunteered to help me file paper work, collect signatures and "not hold it against" me that I was registered Democrat. My new supporter lived up to his word and within three days we had collected all the necessary signatures. I took all my paper work to the courthouse and filed it with the elections office and in five days I received confirmation that I was an "official" candidate for school board. Now what? Hand-shaking? Baby-kissing? Christmas in April celebration?

No. My next experience came in an official looking envelope addressed to "school director candidate Timothy D. Slekar." I didn't take the time to look at the return address so when I opened the letter I was a bit surprised. The letter was from the local Tea Party. According to the letter, the Tea Party was gathering information on all local candidates for school board. Along with this letter was a questionnaire. The Tea Party wanted me to answer their questions concerning my ability and desire to run for school board. If I answered the questions the Tea Party would post my responses to their website so community members could make some kind of judgment concerning my candidacy for school board.

After reading the questions it was obvious that the Tea Party had no objective intention to "gather information." They were looking for certain answers to their loaded questions. Considering that my reputation as an intolerant atheist was already known, I decided to answer their questions anyway. I'm sure they were looking for me to proclaim my hatred of taxpayers, my love of unions, and to finally come clean about my intentions for the Christmas play. However, I decided to play my own game and below are my answers to the Tea Party school board candidate questionnaire. I also decided that since I had taken the time to answer their questions that they should answer some questions for me. So after you read my responses you can see my questions to the Tea Party.

What are the main responsibilities of a school board, and what would your priorities be?

Local School boards serve the community. The community includes all members—children, parents, taxpayers, business owners, etc. My main priority would be to help establish communication between all these constituents and focus our discussions on how the community can support the main mission of the public schools.

Right away defining the mission of the community schools is a priority. Our community schools’ function in American society has been corrupted over the last 30 years. The schools are not the property of the federal government or businesses that have a single-minded idea about the function of schools—to supply compliant workers and obedient citizens.

It is time to get back to the roots of public education—providing a rich learning experience rooted in the classic liberal arts that prepares children for life in a democratic society.

Cite personal experiences that qualify you to set and direct a school curriculum.

I have spent the past 21 years as an educator at the elementary level, middle school level, and college level. I have developed curriculum at each of these levels and I have conducted and published research on issues dealing with teaching and learning. Also, I am a constant reader of education research and I am readily able to provide a rich analysis of educational programs that involved either the new development of curricular materials or judging the merit of existing curricular materials. Not that this matters much, but I also have a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Maryland.

Cite personal experiences that qualify you to develop and direct a multi-million dollar budget.

In my current position as Head of the Division of Education, Human Development, and Social Sciences I have spent the last three years developing and directing a $500,000 budget. This budget is also part of Penn State Altoona’s “multi-million dollar budget.” My combined duties of managing my Division budget in concert with the College budget has helped me develop a budget philosophy that continually looks for efficiencies, but keeps the core mission of providing the best educational opportunities for our students as my guiding principle.

Do you support every line item in the current budget? Are there essential items that could be provided more efficiently? Are there non-essential items than can be eliminated?

If anybody has a defined answer to this question then they are politically pitching an election gimmick. Community based school districts are constantly changing as society changes. I can answer generically that, yes, there are essential items that could be provided more efficiently and that there are non-essential items that can be eliminated. However, I am not in a position to judge specifics. I need to look at the total operation and investigate all the budget items and determine how the budget promotes excellence in education. If I find items that do not support the mission of helping all children thrive in a democratic society then I would be willing to discuss these items.

The student population has been declining and is projected to decline, while the cost of administration has been increasing. How do you propose to reconcile this?

Those darn statistics always have a way of being used by the messenger to make a point that supports a certain political position. A declining student population is only true for certain districts. In fact this question doesn’t even bother to identify where there is a declining population. Should readers assume a declining population in all of Pennsylvania, the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, or locally? Even if you mean locally, can you be more specific? Well at least I’ll be specific. In Bellwood where I am running for school director student demographics seem to indicate nothing—no growth and no decline. As to whether the cost of administration has increased in Bellwood at the moment I don’t have those statistics so I can’t confirm or deny the cost has risen. I do know that Bellwood has eliminated one administrative position for next year. This will save the district around $100,000.

Cite two steps you would work to implement and to improve communications between the school board and the public.

Personally I would be willing to be available on some kind of regular basis at a local establishment so that the public can come and talk directly to me about issues or concerns they have about the community school system. However, the public has the responsibility of making their concerns known. This democratic system requires participation. Griping over coffee is fine but it will never amount to policy changes. The community based public school system can only function when residents are fully engaged in the democratic discourse available to them in the form of public school board meetings. I have no ability to force residents to take their responsibility as a citizen. I can only remind them that if they have something to say then “put down the coffee and call me or come to the meetings.”

How was last year’s, one-time federal stimulus money spent by the district;and should it have been used differently?

The answer to this question involves understanding that the stimulus money was a one-time deal. Therefore how it was used is no longer an issue. It’s gone! Speculating on how it might have been used differently would be a dishonest act of politicking. Since the money is already spent why criticize how it was spent? Doing this requires no courage because it’s easy to criticize something that’s already been done. I’m sure candidates for school director can come up with ways to spend last years stimulus money that might make potential voters happy, but that’s all it would be is political pandering with no real consequences because if elected there is no promise to keep because spending the stimulus money is totally hypothetical. There is no stimulus money. Why would I try to spend something that doesn’t exist anymore?

Do you believe the total cost and design of all recent district construction projects can be justified?

Do you believe there is a method of determining whether district construction projects can be justified? If so, please share it with me in case I win the election. That would be a really handy tool. As for the design, I am not an architect so I am not qualified to judge the design to cost effectiveness equation. As a visitor to the newly renovated elementary school (Myers Elementary) I don’t have any problems with its aesthetics. The renovations are not ugly in my opinion. Internally the design seems to support a sense of community and the learning spaces appear to support good teaching. I have also heard “over coffee” that a lot of parents are very proud of “their” school. I have also overheard others “over their coffee” question the need for the renovations. My guess is that this is common. Depends with whom you speak.

Are there any lessons have you learned from the mistakes of the current or previous school boards?

I am not in a position to answer that question if it applies directly to a particular school board. If you want to know if school boards make mistakes then that seems like a pretty silly question. All forms of democratic institutions make mistakes. That’s the beauty of democracy and self-government. The ability to admit the fallibility of a government institution seems central to democratic ideals. If it was without fault then as a form of government it would not be democratic. There would be no need for active participation by the citizens—only subservient obedience. That’s what makes a community based school system worth having—it provides community members a true forum to practice living in a democracy. If you take away the public school system then you take away a piece of democracy. If elected I will always advocate for the community based public school system. The schools are the souls of our communities and a gauge on our willingness to continue to experiment with self –government.

Now that I have answered your questions, would you mind answering a few questions related to the Tea Party and its support of community based public schools?
  1. How do community-based public schools support the concept of self-government?
  2. Does the Tea Party support community-based public schools?
  3. If so, can you detail any Tea Party efforts to strengthen local schools?
  4. What would a Tea Party candidate offer a community-based public school if elected to the board?
  5. Does the Tea Party support the expansion of charter schools?
  6. If the Tea Party is for budget restraint in public spending, why do Tea Party candidates largely support school voucher bills when vouchers have been demonstrated over the last 10 years to actually increase the burden on local taxpayers?
  7. Does the Tea Party support limiting collective bargaining agreements that enable teachers to advocate for budget items that help children?
  8. Why does the Tea Party care about school board members when most visible Tea Party candidates openly advocate for policies that would harm community-based public schools?
  9. If the Tea Party believes in the concept of self-government, why do so-called Tea Party candidates take monetary donations from groups that are hostile towards policies that promote citizen voice over corporate interests?


  1. Did you win the primary?

  2. I made the ballot for November.

  3. Your answers are superb! You've been candid, thoughtful, and most importantly, refused to engage in petty politics which can be twisted to further one end or another. Bravo! I'm certain that you really ticked off the Tea Party in your community! No big deal; they are already a dead party; they simply haven't closed their eyes yet. ;>)

    I'd like to know if you received answers to your questions?

    Debbie K.

  4. From CA, but am loving your blog and ideas for public education. I wish you the best of luck. Would love to see the answers to your questions, if the Tea Partiers decide to answer them.

  5. The Tea Party has not responded. If they do I will post their responses.

  6. Not surprising, Tim.... Sadly.
    You've out "Foxed" them... ;>)

    Debbie K

  7. Brilliant. Will share widely.

    Makes me feel like running for something. Just for the sheer exuberance of saying what I think.

  8. Well done, Tim! (And, very witty) So, I suppose I should be seeing you on my ballot in Nov! :)

  9. I just received my official notice from Blair County. I am officially on the ballot in November. Anybody need a job (no money involved)? I need a campaign manager, chief of staff and communication's director. I'm the only Democrat on the ballot. I might be the only democrat in my voting district.:-)