The School Board

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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth is just finishing up a two-year stint as a Burlington School Board member. And today he offers us a rare glimpse of that secret, tempestuous world. Here’s Philip.

(BARUTH) So I’ve been serving on the Burlington School Board for the last two years. I’ve been keeping it sort of on the Q. T., but with my term ending on Town Meeting Day, now seems like a good time to blow the lid right off this pot. Because I’ve learned a lot during these two years, believe me. A lot of gritty truths. A lot of harsh realities. No man is really a man – a real, grown-up man – until he’s been tested in the white-hot crucible of a school board.

And I’ve been tested, harshly and grittily tested.

This testing allows you to glean certain truths. And when you’re done gleaning, you can pass on those truths, already fully gleaned, to others. That’s my purpose today. And so here are some of the things I’ve only recently realized that I’ve gleaned:

1) They don’t pay you any money, at all, to be on the school board. Let’s say I was a little surprised at that, because the woman who had the seat before me told me, specifically, two or three different times, that there would be “lots of rewards to the job.” But nope, nothing, not dollar one. One time this group advocating for sustainable cafeteria food gave us a muffin. One muffin. It was made out of various sustainable stuff, and it was an excellent muffin. But that’s it.

Seriously, that was it.

2) It turns out that school board meetings are mostly discussions of numbers, and these numbers apparently translate into money, and that money – I was told – comes originally from people who live physically near you. And so that turned out to be a problem. Finally, I just concentrated on the big picture: the Burlington School District has an eight-figure budget each year. Now think of those eight digits sitting in a straight line. If you vote to change the six digits furthest to right, nothing happens. You’re golden.

But if you vote to change the two digits furthest to left – the ones for the millions – people throw stuff on you outside the grocery store. And it doesn’t matter in the least how you change them. If you vote to make those two numbers bigger, people throw stuff on you. If you vote to make them smaller, people – different people – throw stuff on you. So if anybody talks about changing those two numbers in the budget, remember that the phrase “I abstain” never goes out of fashion. And using it does not indicate that you are “gutless” or “a spineless wonder”, no matter what any other members of the board are quoted saying about you in the morning paper.

3) If serving on any school board is combat duty, then serving on the Burlington School Board is like a tour with the Navy Seals, and there are people on the school board, right now, who have served three and four, even seven two-year terms. They’re in that meeting room month after month, year after year, voting to change those two explosive numbers furthest to left, and for free they do this.

Sure, maybe they’ve accumulated six or seven muffins by this time, but that’s it. They do it because they love it.

And when you’ve gleaned that, people, you know you’ve really gleaned something.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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