School Board Report Card - Part 3

By: Erin Logan Email
By: Erin Logan Email

Is the damage done, or can the South Bend Community School Corporation move forward from a bumpy year?

Its board has gotten a lot of "unwanted" publicity after ousting Dr. Robert Zimmerman as superintendent. Long-time board members say he had difficult shoes to fill when replacing Dr. Joan Raymond.

So what will it take to fill those shoes, and what makes up a solid board?

First and foremost, it has to be a team of eight, led by the superintendent.

I sat down with former board member Richard Sheehan, who says he knows what it's like to be on a team.

I also met with Dr. Kitty Green, an education professor at St. Mary's College who has studied the "study" of education for 40 years.

Dr. Kitty Green

Both say a board's behavior sets the stage for student success or failure.

The payoffs of helping children in the classroom don't come with a high paycheck as a school board member -- the reward is successful student performance.

"It sets the tone for everything," says Green, who believes that if the tone is poorly set by the school board, student performance will slump.

She cites a study done by the New England School Development Council that says "school districts cannot effectively raise student achievement without strong leadership and teamwork from the school board and superintendent."

Green also has first-hand experience from studying education for over 40 years. She has even served as principal and as an assistant superintendent in Illinois.

"Not to say that personalities don't necessarily get involved -- they do. But if you have this professional vision where the good for the children is what's guiding everybody, you tend to not have the kind of crises that sometimes we see," she says.

Board members here in South Bend admit they've been a part of a recent crisis. President Sheila Bergeron says they didn't do a lengthy search to find a superintendent. In the end, he was exited off stage, and all the players -- the board members -- put on a public performance.

"When it's a successful operation, they see themselves very much in the role that they're supposed to have," Green explains.

She says there is one sure sign of failure.

"Sometimes the people who run for boards think that you’re going to run the school like a business."

Dr. Richard Sheehan

Former South Bend School Board member Dr. Richard Sheehan agrees. He was on the board for eight years, or, as he says, "eight damn long years."

But he believes that they were progressive years under Dr. Joan Raymond's leadership.

"She put a management team in place. I think, in part, she had a budget process in place. And I think, in part, she had some programmatic efforts," he says. "It was never a surprise."

"She took great pains to make sure that the board came out looking as good as it could under the circumstances."

Green says it's that leadership Sheehan described -- and also understanding from the board -- that always got the job done in a northern Illinois district she was a part of.

Hashing out issues was done behind closed doors.

"They always presented a united front," recalls Green.

She says there are specific qualities that shaped the board's success.

For one, it was a diverse group, both in educational experiences and past leadership positions.

The group members possessed strong interpersonal communication skills, which helped foster an atmosphere of respect, honesty, and compromise.

Also, Green says there were no hidden agendas -- kids were the priority, not politics.

Finally, she credits confidentiality with shaping the board's success. What happened behind closed doors remained private.

So can the current South Bend School Board take these suggestions and pull it together?

Members have different thoughts…

"We need the best and most qualified superintendent," says Marcia Hummel.

"We're moving forward. We have to put the past behind us," believes Ralph Pieniazkiewicz.

Sheehan is less optimistic.

"I think there's more disharmony on the board, there’s more lack of respect among some board members," he explains. "I don't know that there's any board member now that should continue to be a board member when their term expires."

After being on the board 14 years, Marcia Hummel has had the chance to be on an appointed-only board as well as an elected-only board.

Mayor Steve Luecke says he would like to see a combination, with some members appointed and the rest elected.

Most board members agree. Hummel, Jones, Sniadecki, Rosen, and Bergeron leaned more toward elected officials, but were not against a combination of appointed and elected.

They say that, ultimately, it is up to what the voters want.

On the other hand, Ralph Pieniazkiewicz says elected and elected only.

Dr. Green admits she's really only had experience with elected boards, but that given the situation here, it may be a good idea for some changes.

To view the first two parts of this series, click the following links:

School Board Report Card - Part 1

School Board Report Card - Part 2

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