Sarah Stivland: Thoughts on Being a Stillwater School Board Member

The past few weeks since being sworn in as one of Stillwater School District’s newest board members has been a whirlwind of trainings and meetings. I’m learning what it takes to be an outstanding school board member. The primary purpose of the school board is to execute wise judgement in the use of community funds in order to provide the best possible learning experiences for each and every child in our district.

According to Minnesota Statute 123B.09 subd.8:

“The board must superintend and manage the schools of the district; adopt rules for their organization, government, and instruction; keep registers; and prescribe textbooks and courses of study…”

In order to create the best possible learning environments, school boards must continuously engage with all community stakeholders to share accurate data on costs, academic achievement, building needs, innovation and technology needs, population trends, and many other important factors.

In order to have an effective system, community members need to be engaged in the process. The school board can encourage this ongoing dialog by sharing as much as possible with the community. A high level of trust is required for great school systems to be sustained.

Around the country, many school boards have come under fire for not being effective decision makers. Some individuals who’ve been elected to a school board see it as an opportunity to push through their own personal agenda. Others see it as a stepping stone to higher office or other positions. Still others see this powerful position as an opportunity to shape policy and make plans which will financially benefit their friends or family. It is a complete conflict of interest for an active board member to personally benefit from activity related to their position.

According to Minnesota Statute 471.87:

“Except as authorized in section 123B.195 or 471.88, a public officer who is authorized to take part in any manner in making any sale, lease, or contract in official capacity shall not voluntarily have a personal financial interest in that sale, lease, or contract or personally benefit financially therefrom. Every public officer who violates this provision is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.”

This law exists to protect our communities from electing persons who use their positions to make decisions that benefit them personally. It’s in the best interest of our community that decisions regarding our schools and our collective investment in them be made free from the influence of one person’s personal financial gain.

One can begin to see how many different negative influences exist, which can derail the effective management of schools. It takes many hearts and minds, all devoted to the best possible outcomes for the community dollar, to ensure that we are actually making the best decisions for all children.

This is one reason why board meetings are always open to the public.

Violations to open meeting laws suggest that the decisions being made are NOT in the best interest of all students and community members. Because transparency and openness is the most important factor in ensuring solid decision making, school board activities must remain available for all to see.

The school system we create for our children is perhaps the most important thing we do together as a community. It reflects our values and our hope for the future of our country. The schools we build together help define who we are as a community.

I believe this is one reason why the decision to close Oak Park, Marine and Withrow Elementary Schools is so painful. Elementary schools are such an intimate part of our family and community life. To lose our school feels just devastating. Community members deserve to be an integral part of such decisions from the very beginning so they can understand, prepare for and come to terms with the loss.

There are over 100 more students enrolled this year over last year, and new home construction is popping up everywhere. Conversations with local realtors and city planners reveal that growth is expected all across the district.

We currently project a significant surplus in our budget for this fiscal year. We have so many things to be proud of in the Land of the Stillwater Ponies: great kids, innovative teachers, devoted families and supportive communities who all work together because we care so much about our schools. Exciting times are ahead!