Guts. That’s what Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst showed this year when she took on the state’s powerful education lobby with harsh but true words.
She said a few months back at an Austin hearing that the Texas Association of School Boards, which trains trustees in almost every school district, “indoctrinates” its members into “a kind of culture” that is unhealthy for schoolchildren.
It’s an adults-first, children-second mindset, the Brenham lawmaker said. Too much emphasis on the next building, not enough on academics.
She didn’t stand alone. At the same hearing, a school board member, parents and activists supported her contention with similarly harsh words.
Leaders of TASB, known by its pronunciation of TAZ-bee, didn’t see it coming.
What she said
Remember the lone man in China who stood up against the tank in Tiananmen Square? The senator is like that, and the tank is the billion-dollar Texas public school business. School board members are the largest group of elected officials in the state. It’s dangerous to poke the bear.
The senator, who represents parts of 21 counties, said this: “Here’s what I find when I deal with some school board members. The indoctrination. You’re supposed to tell your lawmakers not to do this. You’re supposed to tell your lawmakers that we need more money and less accountability.
“When they come back from [TASB] training, their personalities have completely changed.”
She promised, “I’m going to look very closely at the indoctrination — the training of these school board members.”
In an education bulletin to members of the Texas Association of Community Schools, a lobbyist later described these comments as “a turn for the nasty.”
“The truth is just the opposite.”
The rebuttal comes from Charles Stafford, a Denton ISD school board member who happens to be this year’s TASB president.
I told him about the senator’s comments.
“It’s just not right,” he said.
He tells The Watchdog about the wonderful ways that TASB helps school districts in addition to training — insurance, a purchasing cooperative, legal services, and understanding state education laws.
Oh, and don’t forget the corps of TASB lobbyists.
TASB critics complain that taxpayers pay for school board members to join TASB, and TASB lobbyists then go out and promote views that may be counter to children, parents and teachers. But they’re good for superintendents and board members.
Steve Lecholop, a San Antonio ISD board member, backed the senator’s comments.
TASB training is “not even close to good enough,” he told the Senate Education Committee. He called it “bad professional development, some of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Volunteer board members are not given the tools they need to think for themselves and challenge strong-willed superintendents by holding them accountable for proper management, he said.
Another critic, activist Peggy Venable, said there are enough dysfunctional school boards in the state to prove training is inadequate. “We shouldn’t have to have the FBI come in and do an investigation,” she said.
Richardson ISD parent Lynn Davenport testified that the training teaches board members “how not to listen to us.” Boards too often go through the motions of leadership in public meetings “with preordained outcomes established before the meetings even begin.”
When board members return from TASB conferences, she said, “they use words that don’t resonate with me as a taxpayer: global citizen, future-ready global economy, 21st-century learner, human capital, social emotional learning group, global workforce, outcomes, data-driven.
“The words we use in my house are reading, writing, paper, pencil, textbook, math facts, homework, solving the correct answer, grammar, good grades, spelling, progress report cards, academics.”
Highland Park ISD parent Meg Bakich testified: “In reality, our school boards become pawns of our superintendents. They vote 7-0 in lock step. We’re a diverse community. Who is representing all of our different views when everyone always votes 7-0?”
Parent Steve Swanson of Austin testified: “Sometimes a board member just needs to know the right questions to ask. … So often I’m in a board meeting where it’s courageous for a board member to actually ask a question. And usually the response they get is: ‘Oh, everything’s OK. Don’t worry.’ We have to become more mature than that.”
Two years ago, I attended a TASB training session called “Dealing with Mavericks, Malcontents and Mutineers.” The speaker described dissenters as “beepholes,” “jerks,” “difficult,” “special” and “interesting.” I call them brave.
That session is not unusual. At a prior convention, I heard a TASB speaker train on how to deal with “the lone wolf” board member. He said the community views this trustee “as a real nut.”
A TASB training video I saw a few years ago quotes a board member as explaining “When I first got here, I had an agenda, and that was a mistake. If you are a good board member, you can’t have an agenda.”
Lawmakers are poised to examine the nonprofit, multimillion-dollar unregulated TASB operations. Lecholop, the San Antonio trustee, has a few ideas. He wants a law requiring board meetings to be live-streamed so taxpayers can watch live meetings on their devices while at home as “they put their kids to bed.”
He wants financial transparency with every school district required to publicize their checkbook expenses for scrutiny. A few districts do it voluntarily.
Trustee removal laws also must be changed. Unlike mayors and city council members, school board members cannot be removed from office with a recall petition signed by voters, followed by an election. Under a new law, not yet used, a trustee can be removed on action by a county or district attorney and a judge in a court hearing. Too cumbersome. Why are we protecting disreputable trustees from removal?
The irony of this, Kolkhorst acknowledges, is that school districts are called ISDs for independent school districts. But with such a centralized indoctrination establishment at it core, the word independent is a joke.
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