LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- The president of the Lakota Board of Education reflects on her 16-year board tenure as she prepares to leave the school board for the first time since 1998.
Joan Powell, a West Chester resident and local real estate agent, was recognized Monday night for her service to the Lakota School District at her last regular board meeting before stepping down.
WCPO chatted with Powell Monday before her last regular board meeting to ask her how the role and education has changed during her tenure.
Q: How has the board fundamentally changed over the last 16 years?
A: I think that there is more responsibility placed on the board then there was 16 years ago. The easy access to information, like e-mail addresses and phone numbers and data that’s all available on the website, now has the public expecting that you’re going to have every answer to every question and every bit of information just on top of your head. They have an expectation that you’re going to be able to solve every problem much more quickly than they had in the past. Part of it is a misperception. Many people think that we work for the school district—that we have offices and are sitting there like during the day for our job. They don’t realize that we have other jobs.
I see a huge change in the culture around Lakota ... 16 years ago, there was a high sense of ownership by the staff and by the community here that was unique and of quality. More often then not, people had more of a sense of entitlement—like, “I’m entitled to a quality school district.” I don’t think the staff feels as empowered as they did 16 years ago. There is a lot more standardization within Lakota, in part due to changes outside of Lakota. I think that our staff feels like that has removed the flexibility it once had.
Q: What do those changes indicate about the evolution of education in the State of Ohio?
A: Be careful what you ask for. We’ve moved into this era of standard-based education. Long before the common core was brought up, Ohio developed its own standards. People asked for accountability within the education world. They were no longer content just to have kids graduate. They said we needed to be able to compare and contrast. The legislature then accommodated what was generally being asked for out in the community, and you started having report cards. It created an era of high stakes testing that got even worse with No Child Left Behind to the point that, in some cases, the performance of a single child could make the difference in what grade a district has on its report card. That seems hard to believe. The legislature is now saying that teachers must be evaluated based on the performance of their students on these tests.
What has happened is education has become more of a regurgitation of facts and less critical thinking. Now, people are suddenly throwing up their head and saying, "Oh, kids don’t have enough creativity and critical thinking, and you’re like "Duh! That’s the whole system you’ve created."
I don’t think that the processes that are being used are going to really get what we want from our education system.
Q: How has technology changed teaching strategies in the school district since you joined the board?
A: That’s a difficult one to answer because Lakota has not had access to the kind of technology that it really needs to bring kids into this century. Thank goodness that this levy passed and that there will be dollars spent to build the infrastructure. A lot of things people would point to as technology, in some ways, are just a different way of doing the same thing.
True use of technology--in the way it should be used--can dramatically change everything about the teaching process.
I think one example is we’ve started this MAP testing, which stands for Measures of Academic Progress. It’s a nationalized online testing program so you can test a fourth grader on where they are at math at the beginning of the year. It’s dynamic testing. Two different fourth graders can start taking the same test. If one gets all the answers wrong, it’s going to lower the kinds of questions that it gives that student so it can figure out exactly what that student knows, whereas if the other student gets all the questions right, it can make those questions more difficult so that the teacher can truly look at this data and see what each individual student needs to move toward.
Q: Describe the ways in which the school board’s involvement in the district has shifted over the last 16 years?
A: I would say the board is more hands on than it was 16 years ago. Sixteen years ago, we kind of showed up and had meetings, and now we’re involved in and have a lot more meetings than we used to. Just as the public has this desire to know more information, the board needs to know more to understand where we’re going and not simply be a rubber stamp on things.
I’d say we have focused more on some community events than we used to. I think that’s a real positive. I think we all have a sincere
desire to better understand what our community wants from our schools, especially as the community has not felt the same ownership in the schools.
Q: What have been the most challenging aspects of your board tenure?
A: I think it’s always challenging when people expect that you are going to fix things, and they don’t understand that that’s not really our job to be the fixers. In fact, the more a board tries to fix, the more it undermines its own administration, who is charged with the operation of the district. I think one of the biggest challenges is having the board identify its own work and do a good job of that.
[Another] challenge has always been that there are some board members that come and don’t really recognize their job as direction setting for the district, and in fact, they feel like they work for the superintendent. Board members don’t work for the superintendent. The superintendent works for the board….It’s very hard to get the board to be a cohesive group to take the necessary actions that it needs to. The board always has, and probably always should desire to act unanimously but sometimes you just have to recognize that there is a difference of opinion with five people and move ahead to do what needs to be done.
Sometimes, too, we don’t always get credit for the really hard decisions we make, such as three years ago when we opened up the second year of two-year contacts with our teachers. It was very difficult, and yet, I don’t know where we’d be financially if we hadn’t done that.
Q: What is your greatest accomplishment while on the school board?
A: I think the greatest achievement is reaching and maintaining the state’s highest academic rating for eleven years now. There are no other districts of our size that can claim that. I don’t consider it one of my personal achievements. I consider myself a part of that because it means making the right decisions of allocating resources so that people can do what needs to be done. It’s more an achievement of our wonderful teaching staff but we all can claim credit for it. If you’re a good board member, you don’t go on the board with an agenda that you’re going to check off.
Q: Given the Lakota School District's repeated levy failures up until this election when the levy passed, how did the school board handle the opposition towards proposed levies and make necessary budget cuts as a result?
A: In Lakota, we are proud to accomplish a lot with very little, and so we don’t ask for a levy unless it’s really needed. What I have found is if there are many people who oppose a levy, there are that many reasons why. You can have people that are irritated by something that happened to their kid 20 years ago, some people who would love to support but just can’t afford it and people who fundamentally do not believe in public education. There’s the whole gamet so trying to make a statement about why people support you or why they don’t is virtually impossible.
The board decision is very easy. Do you want to balance the budget or don’t you? What level of spending do you want to have? So what we tend to do is make those high level decisions and then say, you know, "We think we need to cut $10 million out of our spending or $12 million or $15 million, and then we pretty well step back and the administration goes to work on where those savings can come from. Under our current superintendent, we’ve done a lot of looking at return for investment, and also, how much it impacts the classroom. So some of the reductions haven’t been received favorably, but we’ve done what we can to protect the classroom as much as possible. That can have ramifications because people then look at your state rating and say, “Well, you’re still great. You don’t need any money,” and that’s because we’ve cut other services trying to protect the classroom.
Q: What message do you have for your successor?
A: I think my advice to people on the board has just always been if you base your decisions on what’s best for the kids, who really don’t have a voice except for the board watching out for them, keeping in mind what the community can afford then if you make your decisions based on that and nothing else and not based on who’s ringing your phone trying to pressure you one way or the other, you’ll always be able to look in the mirror and know you’ll do the right thing.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot of things around here to catch up on. I will continue working at Huff Realty. I have four grandsons under the age of three, and I enjoy them greatly so I will enjoy being able to spend more time with them and just not having the stress of the board hanging over me.