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School boards rely on each other, staff

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alcona Community Schools Board of Education President Gary Sims checks his email March 4 at his home in Alcona County.

ALPENA — A school board is only as good as its members, and the school staff on which its members rely.

That’s the message of three Northeast Michigan school board trustees who discussed their jobs with The News:

BIG-PICTURE, WHAT IS YOUR JOB?

Eric Lawson, trustee, Alpena Public Schools Board of Education: “The board members really function as a whole. Once we’re together, which is when we do our business, it’s hashing things out, talking about plans, really just functioning as part of a body is what I do as a board member.

“Individually, we may reach out to staff for some other information, but, really, we just go over the issues presented to the board as a body and offer our thoughts.”

Greg Zurakowski, president, Rogers City Area Schools Board of Education: “I’m honored to have been elected by my fellow board members to serve as president for 2021. This means that I work with the superintendent of schools and Central Office staff to set meeting agendas, and, in turn, chair meetings of the board and serve as the spokesman for the board.

“I meet with the superintendent on at least a weekly basis so that I am current with any issues and opportunities within the school district that may come up between board meetings, and, if necessary, relay that information to the board members — but not seeking their input/feedback, as this would be a violation of the State of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. I am chairman of the Executive Committee, and also am a member of the Property and Facility Planning Committee.”

Gary Sims, president, Alcona Community Schools Board of Education: “The big picture for the school board, probably the best analogy that I have, is you give the ship direction. You don’t tell what ports you’re going to, you don’t tell where to stop or those kinds of things, you help direct the direction of your school, of your school district. You do that through your superintendent, who does it through the principals, who does it through the teachers.

“The Board of Education directs our superintendent, and that is always how we get there. The superintendent is the one who actually makes those decisions based on information gathered from the teachers and principals.”

WHAT ARE THE TOOLS YOU HAVE AT YOUR DISPOSAL TO DO THAT JOB?

Lawson: “Primarily, we rely a lot on information from administration about the lay of the land. Of course, our relationship with administration is we are the body of trustees who are representing the people of the district, and then we, as an embodiment of that district, interface management and the superintendent, primarily. So, a lot of the information that we get about what we need to do does come from administration from the superintendent.

“I have found discussion with staff — particularly Assistant Superintendent for K-12 Instruction Meaghan Gauthier, she’s an incredible resource of information for how the district runs, sort of issues we face.

“Of course, there are others. The Michigan Association of School Boards, for example, puts out information regarding issues before school boards, but those are really secondary to the relationship we have with management.”

Zurakowski: “The most powerful tools available are the intelligence, creativity, and commitment of my fellow board members, the exceptional administrators, educators, and support staff in the district, and the support of our constituents in the district — our parents and students.”

Sims: “We have a number of them. Michigan Association of School Boards — we can get a hold of them at any time and they’ll answer our questions.

“I think anyone on the board of education has areas that they have interest in, and I think that’s important for people on the school board and who run for school board.”

WHAT’S SOMETHING PEOPLE THINK YOU CAN DO BUT YOU CAN’T?

Lawson: “People always think board members can individually influence school policy, issues with staff, and we absolutely cannot. Any individual board member, we can request information from staff but we can’t give them any instruction. So the idea that a school board member might tell an elementary principal, for example, how they should do something — that absolutely cannot happen.

“I think they think people have more influence individually than they do. Those folks are there for us to convene with and ask questions of, but we may not give them any direction except as an entire board.”

Zurakowski: “As president of the board, my principal task is to set meeting agendas and chair meetings of the board. I do not have any executive authority to make decisions on behalf of the board.

“I’m one of seven trustees, each of whom has both voice and vote on all matters that come before the board — and my vote is no more important than any other. I can’t wave a magic wand and fix problems, fire staff, change curriculum, or dispose of or acquire property on my own — the entire board must be involved.

“In my role as spokesman for the board, I can only share information that has been agreed to by the board. Questions raised by constituents or the press are taken back to the board for discussion and deliberation so that a proper response can be developed. This can be very frustrating to those who raise concerns and want immediate action/answers, but, by taking questions/concerns back to the board, the best solutions are almost always the result.”

Sims: “A lot of it is budgets. For one thing, that is probably one of the most difficult things that we as a school district — we have to set our budget before the state tells us how the budget is even going to be. Does that make any sense? It doesn’t.”

Contact your school boards

∫ Alpena Public Schools, 2373 Gordon Road, Alpena, 989-358-5042 or alpenaschools.com

∫ Alcona Community Schools, 51 N. Barlow Road, Lincoln, 989-736-8534 or alconaschools.net

∫ Atlanta Community Schools, 10500 County Road 489, Atlanta, 989-785-4677, atlantaschools.us

∫ Hillman Community Schools, 26042 M-32, Hillman, 989-742-2908 or hillmanschools.com

∫ Onaway Area Schools, 4549 M-33, Onaway, 989-733-2700 or onawayarea.schoolinsights.com

∫ Posen Consolidated School District, 10575 Michigan Ave., Posen, 989-766-2471 or posen.K12.mi.us

∫ Rogers City Area Schools, 1033 W. Huron Ave., Rogers City, 989-734-9100 or rcashurons.org

About this series

Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of government transparency laws and the First Amendment and a time to advocate for more openness by those in power, from local government to the federal government.

This year, The News decided to get back to basics and asked various government leaders in Northeast Michigan to open up about their jobs and what they can and can’t do on behalf of the people they serve.

Check out The News every day this week for the latest Sunshine Week installment.

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