Reporter Rachel Alexander outside Four Corners Elementary (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)
In my experience, most people think about their local school board on two occasions: when they’re considering a controversial issue (like last year’s changes to school boundaries) and during election season.
The rest of the time, the seven volunteer elected officials who oversee Oregon’s second-largest school district fly under the radar for all but a handful of residents.
Two weeks before this year’s board sat down for its annual day of planning and discussion in August, my editor, Les Zaitz, asked me to take a deep look at this year’s board. He left the parameters broad so I could follow my own reporting instincts, but suggested I try to capture both what a school board is and does, and how these seven people planned to work on behalf of 40,000 Salem-Keizer students in the coming year.
I’ve only been covering education for a year, but it’s an endlessly interesting beat that mixes tough political questions about identity and equity with a bunch of smart, engaged and often cute kids. No matter what you’re covering, part of a reporter’s job is to cultivate relationships. For local education, that means talking to board members regularly and earning their trust.
It’s my job to know who’s a night owl and who prefers to talk in the morning, who has a special interest in issues like bullying or kids in foster care because of their own experience, and who’s willing to disagree publicly or privately with colleagues on issues.
And it’s my job to understand how people those most engaged with the board, including district administrators, employee unions and community groups focusing on education feel about individual board members and which issues tend to be sticking points.
My hope was to convey the personality and dynamics driving board members and ground that in a deeper understanding of the role of a school board.. The resulting portrait, I hoped, would be a fair appraisal of the very real challenges and differences of opinions among board members with assessments from them about how they’d work together as a team.
To start, I consulted researchers who study school board effectiveness. Compared to virtually every other topic in K-12 education, there’s relatively little that’s been studied about what makes for an effective board, or how relationships and decisions on the board trickle into the classroom. But the researchers I spoke to said there’s good data showing how a board works and sets goals does impact student achievement – and that relationships on the board and an ability to work together can be just as important as education issues.
I also read the current board’s operating policies, which detail their relationship with the superintendent, their goals and expectations, and how they operate.
Even for a details geek like me, it’s not the most thrilling reading, but it was necessary context. The exercise taught me more than I expected about the uniquely limited role of the Salem-Keizer board.
Armed with more information, I sent each school board member 10 written questions covering board dynamics, top issues, how each viewed the board’s role in relation to the district and spending priorities for extra schools funding.
Most sent written responses of varying detail. A few preferred to call and talk through their answers. From that reporting emerged a sense of individuals with high hopes around improving student mental health and in-class behavior and some differences in opinion about how active a role they should play. I followed up with each board member to clarify answers and probe deeper into their relationships with each other.
My interviews also included former Salem-Keizer Superintendent Sandy Husk, who suggested the board adopt its current hands-off governance system, current Superintendent Christy Perry, former board members and community leaders. The end result was nearly 30 pages of typed notes.
While reporting, I filed a public records request with the district for all email correspondence between board members, and from Perry to the board, since the election of two new members. Though the emails of government workers and leaders are public records, my experience is that people are often more candid in emails they view as internal than they are answering questions from reporters.
There was nothing shocking or scandalous in those messages, but they shed some light on how members interacted and allowed me to inject some humanity into my descriptions of their interactions. (I also think it’s a good practice for reporters to regularly remind those working on the public’s behalf that their emails are public documents.)
I'm a sucker for white boards to keep track of larger stories. Here's my fact-checking grid by mid-afternoon Friday, after sending out a barrage of emails. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
From there, I had about 24 hours to outline and write a coherent story. I took a step back from the minute details in notes and talked with Les about the big picture.
We settled on three big sections to explain the board’s role to the public: what they do, the issues they saw as central for the coming year, and how relationships and politics on the board might make or break those goals.
The final section eventually split in two, with a portion focused specifically on equity in Salem-Keizer and concerns Latino and immigrant community groups have raised about prior board decisions. Through it all, my goal was to keep a clear focus on why this all matters to the average person, which is to say, how these dynamics and decisions affect your kids and your taxes.
I sent fact-checking emails to a dozen sources on a Friday afternoon, with plans to address any issues and publish the story on Monday. The weekend was more relaxed than I thought, with a few clarifications of opinion, but no major changes.
Diving into the nitty-gritty details of school board governance has given me a better foundation to keep an eye on both the district and board this year, and a better sense of what questions to ask as issues arise.
This story was a major investment of time – for me and our small newsroom of four people. I spent the better part of a week working on this story, juggling it with a few brief daily articles to make sure our readers still had the latest updates on their local schools. In an era where fewer newsrooms are able to spend time on in-depth projects like this, I’m grateful to our readers who are interested in and willing to pay for this type of reporting, especially those who took the time to share their thoughts via email or in the comments.
Do you have any questions about how this work was done? Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.