COLUMBIA — Shortly after Jan Mees was elected president of the Columbia School Board, her 8-year-old grandson asked, “You’re in charge of the schools now, does that mean you can get us new basketball hoops?”
“No, no, no, I’m not in charge," Mees told the boy, then jokingly suggested he speak with another district representative if he wanted to get the issue resolved.
Although the seven board members aren't in charge of the school district, which in 2008 had almost 17, 250 students and some 2,700 employees, their work doesn't end once they wrap up Monday night board meetings and Thursday morning work sessions. Speaking with people in the community, visiting classrooms, attending educational conferences and surfing online to learn the latest developments in school districts nationwide require a serious time commitment.
But they see it as time well spent as they go about doing what they think is best for the district.
“I can easily spend 20 to 25 hours per week on School Board-related issues, and that’s on top of my family and job,” Ines Segert said. "I knew it was going to be time-consuming but not that time-consuming."
On average, board members said they set aside about 10 to 15 hours each week for board work. Christine King, who was elected in April, said the hours could increase this year as the board takes on a new bond issue, construction of a new high school and the likelihood of budget cuts for a third straight year.
“I think I could be spending less time on board activities, but I wouldn’t be satisfied," said another board newcomer, Michelle Pruitt. "When I make a vote, I try to have the information I need."
Pruitt has been taking time off from work since she was elected in April. She said she's lucky her employer is flexible and doesn't mind her missing work, as long as she gets her work done and her hours in.
Other board members said they have sacrificed either personal or professional time to make room in their lives for district-related duties.
Segert said she has to be more efficient in preparing lesson plans for the classes she teaches at MU. She said she spends less time reading for pleasure, but it's her housework that has suffered the most.
Segert, who was elected in 2008, tries not to cut back on family time. Recently, her son Julian complained he was tired of hearing about district business all the time. "I've tried to stop obsessing about School Board issues at home," Segert said.
Karla DeSpain, who is serving her third and final three-year term on the board, has two daughters, Caitlin and Ryanne, and said she sometimes feels as though she's bypassing her children to help others in the district.
Board Vice President Tom Rose works full time as a managing partner of Rolling Hills Veterinary Hospital and never thought the time commitment would be too much to handle. Rose said he was so involved in the district before being elected in 2008 (He was appointed a year earlier.) that his workload hasn't increased much.
“I’m the kind of person where if I have some time off, I’m thinking, ‘What should I be doing?’” he said.
James Whitt, the board's newest member, said that when he told his two children about his plans to apply for the unexpected opening this summer, they told him, "That’s a tough job, Dad, when you’re not getting paid.” Whitt, who is retired, coaches youth basketball through his nonprofit cPHASE Sports Association.
Although some school districts across the country pay board members for their work, Columbia Public Schools board members find it unnecessary.
“I think any resources people have need to go into the system rather than us," Mees said. "I’d rather pay a teacher more or get new playground equipment or whatever.”
"It's not the type of job you do for money," Whitt said.
Although Rose said he thinks more people would run for the board if it were a paid position, he said it's unlikely that current members would vote in favor of pay because they would want the money to go to better use.
Segert said she can see both sides of the issue, especially when considering the time commitment involved.
"I think if you were able to provide a salary, it would open it up to a lot of people who otherwise can't run," she said.
Although board members understand that part of their role is to be a voice for the public, sometimes the most effective thing they can do is pass on concerns and suggestions to district employees who are better equipped to deal with the request. Other times, they might dismiss a concern because the board is facing more pressing issues.
"I think a misconception is that we’re really powerful, and we’re not,” Segert said. “It is our job to point out, maybe, that achievement is going downhill, but we cannot, and do not, change the curriculum."
Because the board can't formally explore every suggestion and resolve every concern, the members understand that dissatisfaction is inevitable. "That’s one thing you learn — you’re not going to please everybody — and sometimes I feel like I’m not pleasing anybody," Rose said.
Sometimes getting the community's input can be as easy as going shopping. "I’ll just walk in Schnucks, and people always come up and talk to me and ask what’s going on,” Segert said. "I want to hear concerns. It's part of my job.”
DeSpain said that even in times of frustration, open communication is important. "I feel like people are pretty open about their feelings and their issues in the community," she said, "and that's good."
Board members said the desire to improve the school district is a major motivator. While growing up, each valued education in a way that still affects her or his philosophy for maintaining a successful school system.
Segert emigrated from Ecuador to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. Her parents spoke some English but not well. “I think what really drives me is that schools need to provide a path to success for all students, because some parents can’t,” Segert said.
Pruitt was excited to get away from her small hometown in Nebraska. “I guess I thought education was a ticket to do whatever I wanted," she said, and she still thinks so.
King's parents taught her to always support the education system, both nationally and locally. "It’s not just about where your kids are; it’s about how you support the school system," she said. King considers parental involvement crucial to a school district's success. She said after her children graduate, she wants them to be able to look back and realize “we were all really involved together.”
When board members research, discuss and vote on issues, their hope is to reconcile the difference between wanting to do something and following through with their aspirations.
Mees said the central question board members face is: “How do we make sure our children get the best education while living within our means and keeping the community happy while making sure every I gets dotted and T gets crossed?”
As volunteers, parents and community leaders, the board members take on the challenge of answering this complicated question.
“I am really just a normal person in this community," Mees said. "I’m not the 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.' I like to go home and read or do a crossword puzzle. Unplug me.”