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School boards and districts across Michigan are getting the support and resources they need from the Michigan Association of School Boards. A school district is at the heart of …

School boards and districts across Michigan are getting the support and resources they need from the Michigan Association of School Boards.

A school district is at the heart of every community, and its success depends upon the involvement and support of all. Superintendents, administrators, boards and local communities each serve key roles in the functioning and future of their districts. School boards are tasked with the role of governing the school district by paying attention to the budget, developing policy, and hiring and evaluating the superintendent. Thanks to the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), school board members across the state have the resources they need to be successful in their important roles.

Don Wotruba has worked for MASB for almost 22 years. He first interned at MASB during college to get a better idea of the policy landscape in Lansing and how it affected education. “I liked the advocacy role,” he said. “I got a job with the legislative staff, which was a fairly common path to lobbying.” Wotruba became a junior lobbyist before moving up to director of government relations, doing state and federal affairs. “I did that for about 18 years before the executive director retired and they put me in the position.”

Wotruba and the MASB’s 30 staff members’ main focus is representing the nearly 4,200 individuals in their membership, requiring a vast comprehension of the inner workings of the industry. 

“We serve boards and administrators,” he said. “Having that understanding is the most important thing — how does district governance work, how are districts run. That’s a knowledge base that our staff has to have the best handle on.”

MASB has been around since 1950 when a group of school board members from rural areas felt it would be important to have an organization providing them knowledge and information on how to be in their roles. 

“They were smart enough to say they didn’t know what they didn’t know,” Wotruba said. “The organization was created with that in mind. We’re set up as an educational organization, which means our mission is predominantly providing education and knowledge to school board members across the state of Michigan to better perform their responsibilities.”

The association became more organized in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, starting a certification program with classes that board members could sign up for voluntarily. In working with boards and superintendents, MASB came up with a curriculum that highlights the things members need to be successful. MASB now offers over 50 classes — 20 of which are available regularly — on topics such as roles and responsibilities, public relations, advocacy and one-day workshops on trending items. Wotruba says that over 90% of MASB members have taken something in the last three years. 

The Lansing School District is one of many districts in the state that takes advantage of the resources and services available from MASB. Yvonne Caamal Canul, who became superintendent in 2012, said that working with MASB has been an integral part of their success as a district. 

“One of the things that they did early on was to help us develop our strategic plan,” Caamal Canul said. “We worked with them, and they worked with focus groups from around the community as well as internal focus groups in our own school district. They helped us put together a really viable strategic plan that we’ve been using for the last five years.”

In addition to their work with the district’s strategic plan, MASB was contracted to work on a series of videos about aspects of the Lansing School District, including one with voices from alumni and another about dreaming big. The most recent video project memorializes Eastern High School as it moves out of its 92-year-old building. 

MASB also assists in facilitating the superintendent’s evaluation with the Board of Education — one example of how the association provides members with support and knowledge. With new legislation passed frequently and new members being elected to boards across the state, MASB works diligently to offer the most current information and certification programs. It is something Caamal Canul supports and advocates in the Lansing School District. 

“All of our school board members are encouraged to participate in School Boardsmanship 101 in order to maintain a current, up-to-date understanding of what the role of a board member is,” she said. “They’re very helpful in helping school boards and superintendents to understand the dividing line and what the lanes are for school board members and superintendents. Between administration and governance, they’re excellent in helping them.”

Caamal Canul sees school board members as representatives of the community-at-large, noting that running for school board is a great first step for those interested in public service. 

“These are all entire-community positions, so they represent all. If a person is interested in running for the Senate, this is a very good way to get a handle on what it means to be a member of a voting constituency that wants to get a program or proposal to move forward. It’s a very important role in every community.” 

John Tramontana, CEO of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, is the former director of communications, PR and marketing for MASB and currently serves on the DeWitt School Board. He says working at MASB helped him understand the value of board service and compelled him to step up. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to encourage others to run for a school board seat, I should be willing to do so myself,’” he said.

While the state does not require participation in MASB’s certification programs for all school board members, Tramontana thinks there should be mandatory training. 

“Legislators have orientation and training, as do police officers and firefighters, and just about every other type of government-related job,” he said. “Yet we trust people with our most precious resource, our kids, and we do nothing to help them to understand the job or set expectations. That needs to change. That’s why MASB is such an important organization.”

Tramontana encourages anyone who has ever considered board service to get involved. “Now, more than ever is the time when we need good people to step up and lead,” he said. Those who are interested can get started by attending their local school board meetings and finding out the key issues in their communities. For more detailed information on board service, Tramontana points to MASB’s Get on Board campaign.

Launched in April 2016, the Get on Board campaign was focused on recruiting new school board members, in turn reducing the percentage of board seats unfiled for across the state of Michigan. In 2014’s school board election, nearly 10% of the available seats had no candidates at the deadline. For the 2016 election cycle, that percentage was cut in half, with 5.4% of the seats not filed for in the state. Wotruba says the Get on Board campaign played a role in that, thanks to radio ads, toolkits, a standalone website and connecting with districts. MASB aims to continue its focus on recruiting the next wave of school board members.

For Wotruba, a school district and its community are inextricably linked, and that’s why community interest and involvement in school boards is so crucial to their overall success. He says it’s not just the school district that should be engaged in who runs for a board, but the business community, too. 

“If you went back to the ‘70s and looked at who was on a local school board, the local bank president sat on the board, maybe the hardware shop owner, maybe a farmer, some parents,” Wotruba said. “It was a mix of people, but definitely leaders in their communities. If a business wants to be successful, that community around them has to be successful, and part of that is about giving back.”

With school districts at the heart of their communities, Wotruba and MASB are dedicated to keeping them going with a steady beat, strong connections and fresh blood. 

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