Serving on school board is a commitment

Attending board meetings will be just one part of the job for candidates who earn seats

When a meeting is called to order, school board members are serving in their most visible role.

But the hours they put in at Hinsdale High School District 86 regular and committee of the whole meetings are only part of the job. Just getting ready to participate in the board meetings can be time-consuming, especially for new members.

“In the beginning, you read as much as you possibly could just to get fully immersed into what was going one — and even then you’re not quite sure what’s going on,” said Jennifer Planson, who spent two terms on the District 86 board.

“It’s a steep learning curve,” said Planson, who spent eight years on the Gower Elementary District 62 Board before being elected to the D86 board in 2011. “I kept quiet for a lot of the meetings, just because you’re absorbing what you’re hearing and trying to understand and navigate the ins and outs of being on a board.”

Board members also spend time prepping for and attending committee meetings and participating in training on everything from the requirements of the Open Meetings Act to Robert’s Rules of Order to serving as an officer.

In District 86, board members also have to spend time familiarizing themselves with the strategic plan and learning about its different goal areas, outgoing board member Cynthia Hanson said.

Also a former District 62 board member, Hanson said moving to a bigger district with a larger student body and three buildings was a challenge.

Between attending and preparing for board meetings twice a month and three monthly committee meetings, Hanson estimated she spent about eight to 10 hours a week on board business.

Depending on what’s going on in the district, that time commitment can change, Planson said, recalling her work on the 2019 referendum.

“I would spend a couple of hours a day on referendum stuff,” she said.

Board members also must devote time to hearing from district residents, typically through emails, and determining how to factor their feedback into decisions.

“For me, I tried to listen to both sides of the issue,” Planson said. “I listened to what the administration was saying. I listened to what (then Superintendent) Bruce (Law) said and the perspective from his point or the teachers’ or the administrators’ (point of view) and tried to find the best solution.

“You know you’re never going to please everyone,” she added. “At the end of the day, you have to figure out what’s best for students.”

When residents are unhappy with an administrative recommendation, trying to find a compromise is important, Hanson said. But board members often have a different perspective than community members. They also must look beyond their own students’ needs.

“I never regret making the right decision for an organization, even if I have to come home and help my kids adjust to a new something,” Hanson said.

Keeping the students utmost in mind is key, Planson said.

“It’s not a hard job,” she said. “You just have to have common sense about things, and at the end of the day, you have to remember you represent all students, not just the one school your kid goes to. Sometimes you lose sight of that.”

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean