A Rookie's Perspective
By Michael Citak
(Note: Michael Citak is a newly elected school board member on Pulaski County Board of Education. He wrote this article following participation in the KSBA Winter Symposium as part of his preparation to begin his term this week. We share this as part of the January observation of School Board Recognition Month.)
The campaign was demanding. A newcomer to the political arena, I was truly in for an education. Ironic, since I was running for a position on our county's school board. In the weeks that followed there were meetings to plan strategy, studying the district map, getting materials printed, signs distributed, and making key contacts. A good friend of mine who had a lot of experience working with politicians told me, "Once you get into this, you won't want to lose." He was right. I spent weekends going door to door, introducing myself and spending time listening to those who had concerns. There were fish fries, a Masonic Lodge breakfast, school rummage sales and fall festivals to attend. At one event I got initiated into local politics by a magistrate, obliging me to bid $105 for a pie at a charity auction. Win or lose, it was for a good cause.
Tuesday, Nov. 6 was a cool and clear morning in Pulaski County. I arrived at the polls shortly after six as I was eager to vote before a busy day at work. After a brief moment of thanks, I stepped out of my truck and into the voting booth. I placed my Xs dutifully and the one by my name brought a proud feeling. How grateful I am to live in America and to be a part of the democratic process.
That evening, with my wife's hand in mine and two teenage children keeping pace, we entered the county clerk's office. People soon filled the room: candidates, families, reporters, radio announcers and county staff. As the results rolled in there were handshakes, congratulations and for some, disappointment. A celebratory reception and brief newspaper interview concluded the evening. I have been entrusted by the people in my district to look after our young people's education. Now the work really begins.
I couldn't wait for the KSBA Winter Meeting. I have been to many professional conferences, but none on education. I was looking forward to meeting a lot of new faces and learning about things that I did not deal with on a daily basis. Both desires were fulfilled: I met a lot of people and learned a lot about school board responsibilities. Some meetings had surprises, others just great information.
In the opening session, I sat down at a table with several new board members from other districts. In making conversation I asked about their respective races. To my surprise, two of them ran unopposed and one was appointed. I almost spilled my Starbucks. Minimal money spent. No long weekends, no speeches, no politics. I met others later who had opponents, but less contention among them. I even met someone I knew in another county that won as a write-in candidate. I never met the winners from Jefferson County, but I heard the races were aggressive for some in those districts. So my first enlightenment: politics is politics, school board races vary along a broad spectrum of competitive difficulty which varies depending on the local issues and people.
I found the core content of the educational sessions to be on target. I attended two of the finance sessions and in addition to the required material the findings from some recent state audits were presented. They were quite sobering. As board members we have a huge responsibility in the oversight of our district finances. I found the session on what the KSBA offers in the way of supportive resources quite valuable. We don't have to go it alone; there is a lot of help out there.
I save my next observation and thought for last, as I hope it will stimulate some deliberation. While at the meeting I heard phrases like, "Make your decisions with the kids' needs first, "or “We are here for the students above all else." These comments are clearly important and likely represent why we ran for our school board in the first place. What I did not hear were any comments pertaining to those that pay the educational bill, the constituents that elected us; the taxpayer. It is the other side of the financial equation and must not be overlooked. One could argue that by using care in allocating tax dollars we are fulfilling that responsibility. Fiscally speaking, that is unmistakably part of our job, but not all of it. While campaigning, the topic of taxation came up among several of my constituents. It is a hot button in these economic times, one that we must pay attention to.
School boards have taxing authority, and as such we need to have an understanding of the economics of taxation. We heard a lot about taxes in the presidential election and will likely hear more in the weeks to come. What are the effects of tax increases (or decreases) on our local economy? How do we balance taxation with the needs of the schools? What actions should a Board take before considering a tax change? I would take pleasure in hearing more on these topics.
With nearly 100 newly elected board members in attendance, this conference serves a pivotal role in the orientation process. The education and networking were significant. I am pleased to be a part of the educational system and am glad the KSBA is there to support all of our efforts. I enthusiastically look forward to the challenges ahead.