Bob Rader has spent almost 25 years as executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (or CABE) encouraging elected board of education members across the state to follow a common set of best practices when working with fellow board members, the public and media.
“We have no authority to police or regulate our districts,” Rader said. “Instead, we rely on them learning best practices and working with their superintendent to effectively lead.”
This fall, hundreds of newly-elected board of education members will attend a full-day conference led by the registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, drawing from about 150 member districts from across Connecticut.
The day begins with an address by Commissioner of Education Dr. Miguel A. Cardona, followed by training on the roles and responsibilities of individual board members, policies adopted by CABE member districts, and on common mistakes by new board members.
“We teach them that they are agents of the state. We need to teach them separation between everyone and the proper chain of command,” Rader said.
He impresses upon board members the importance of avoiding becoming entangled in the inner workings of the schools. “Leave that to the superintendent–let them communicate with the teachers and discuss concerns with the board.”
Being a team player, a part of a larger board, rather than an individual member is a point of emphasis in the training and district guidelines. Rader, who previously worked for the New York State Association of Boards of Education, said that far from an outlier, the association collaborates with other associations across the country.
“Common issues we hear a lot are that board members feel isolated. We help with board cohesion. We help members know that everyone has a right to speak and that also they should be on the same page and work together,” Rader said. “The board works best when they work together with the superintendent to accomplish their goals. We teach them it’s always best if they’re on the same page.”
That shapes the association’s guidelines for elected members’ communication with the media and public.
“We don’t tell them they can’t talk to the media, but we tell them they have to be careful,” Rader said. “It’s their first amendment right, they can speak to the media, but they also have the right not to. They might not have experience interacting with the press, they might be scared. Their name is going to be in the newspaper the next day.”
The association advises board members to speak with one voice. “We advise members to be careful, to not undermine their fellow members. When it is a 6 to 3 vote and you are in the three you might want to speak out and complain. To get more of the public on your side. But when you’re in the six, you won’t want that,” Rader said.
Conference attendees are given advice on responding when a local resident “bypasses the chain of command and brings a school problem directly to you,” as well as advice on what to do when “you’ve lost a hard-fought battle and disagree with the board’s decision.”
Nearly all of the association’s member districts have adopted the association’s recommended policies. These include guidelines for speaking to the press, hiring employees, legal concerns, educating the public and working with town government.
According to Rader, working with the town can often be one of the most difficult parts for a school board and superintendent.
“School boards today want to do the right thing. They want to make sure their students have every opportunity available, but that takes resources, but school districts have to go to towns to get their budget passed, they don’t have the ability to tax,” Rader said. “We spend a lot of time working on town-board interaction. We talk to superintendents about it a lot.”
Although technically the association represents school boards, Rader said that superintendents — hired and subject to the board control — are also in close contact with Rader and his staff of legal advisors. “Some superintendents are very supportive of us,” Rader said. “They see the value in us helping their boards to be more professional.”
Advocacy and lobbying
The association has also lobbied to increase the state-funded portion of the Education Cost Sharing grant program, to increase funding for special education, and to promote diversity in school administration, staff and boards.
“Boards want to do so much for the kids and they just don’t have enough money to do everything. We want them to get as much of the funding they are promised as possible,” Rader said. “We have a big advocacy focus on special education because it can be a dividing line for boards. We push them to not pit special education kids against other kids, but it is an issue, when one child requires so many resources and then the board can’t offer gifted & talented programs or specials.”
Rader said that the association is watching a legal case wend its way through the courts that will determine whether school districts will be required to pay for a second evaluation in addition to the initial evaluation completed for a child with an individualized education plan.
“School districts often feel forced to settle because they are worried about paying the legal fees for the family who brought the case,” Rader said. Today, most special education cases never make it to court, instead they end in a mediated settlement because of the cost a court case might entail. For the district, that cost is often the family’s legal fees. “We think the person who brings the appeal should have to pay. We are pushing for the burden of proof, the second evaluation, to be on the person bringing the appeal.”
During the last legislative session, the association opposed proposals that would have mandated school regionalization for smaller member districts.
“We want the state to encourage thinking about sharing services and opening up opportunities for kids in smaller districts. We are for voluntary regionalization, but against the state mandating it. That’s wrong,” Rader said. “People like their districts.”
Rader said their mantra is “no new mandates” especially on the curriculum.
“We want to see more innovation and support, not more mandates. We need more employees at the State Department of Education, more curriculum experts and technical assistance,” Rader said. “We don’t offer those services and that’s what districts need.” In recent years, in addition to cutting staff, the Department of Education has cut funding to the association.
The majority of the nonprofit’s funding comes from member dues paid for out of school district budgets.
“We were getting some money from the state, but not anymore. This loss scared the hell out of some of our members – so they left because they were worried about fees,” Rader said. School districts like Region 13, the towns of Durham and Middlefield, have yet to return since this loss of funding.
According to Rader, depending on the size, districts pay about $10,000 each year in dues to the association. A 2018 tax filing for the nonprofit itemizes about $1.59 million in payments by school districts.
Rader said that the guiding purpose of the association is to provide “the professional development and advice so that boards of education can be as effective as they can for the public that votes them in.”
“It’s all about building relationships with boards and the state. It’s about leveraging those relationships to help boards and the students that they educate,” Rader said.