I applied for a vacant school board position, and struck out for the 5th time

Spread the science

For the past few years, I’ve been interested in contributing to my local town’s school board. There are a lot of reasons for this. Public education is the biggest social intervention in America, so there’s an opportunity for a huge amount of impact and reach. COVID has shown us that the public education system can weather a seminal disruption, but nobody quite knows what the medium and long-term consequences will be. And finally, I consider myself a pretty principled guy, and if I truly believe what I say I believe about community participation and community action, I better step up and put some skin in the game.

Recently, a long-time director stepped down from his seat, opening up a vacancy until the end of 2023. I ran my own unsuccessful campaign back in 2021 (though some of the cool graphs didn’t move over when we migrated sites late last year). Anyway, here was an opportunity to step up once again and make my case for bringing some critical thinking into public education policy. I was one of three candidates who expressed interest and got invited for an interview.

And I got blown out of the water. It was at best a 6-1 vote, possibly even less.

So, why is this up on PubTrawlr?

I debated whether to post this up on our sister site, Dawn Chorus, or my old school board campaign website. Ultimately, and this is something that I argue in the video below, I truly believe all my work is a seamless tapestry. The goal and/or the vision is to get good things to happen in the organizations and communities in which we live.

Some of the levers are what we do here at PubTrawlr: distilling scientific information down into manageable, explorable bites. Over at Dawn Chorus, we use data and learning systems to improve how people make decisions.

To me, the school board is about applying policy to influence the wellbeing (broadly defined) of four groups: students, teachers/support staff, parents, and the community at large. It’s a super tough balancing act.

Alas, not to be this time.

The interview recap

Below is a video of my specific interview. I also had this transcribed so you could read along below if you prefer. Periodically, I offer comments about what I was thinking. My hope is that this demonstrates at least my perspective, for whatever that’s worth.

The sound quality isn’t great, because I made the tactical error of thinking I was being too loud. The transcript is edited for clarity.

Dr. Ann Hearing: Hello. thank you for coming out tonight and showing your interest on being on the board. Can you please state your name, your address, and then if there’s anything you’d like to say to the board before starting?

Jonathan: Sure. my name’s Jon Scaccia, I live at [somewhere]. So you mean in terms of like the two-minute statement? Yeah. I’ve met a lot of you before, but for a lot of you this is the first time, I’ve gotten the chance to ramble in front of you.

So really I understand this is not a job interview. What I want to do is just talk to you about the perspective I take when approaching policy and organization. So from my background, I’m a community psychologist by training, which means I’m really interested in how people help to promote change within the places in which they live. Sometimes that’s on an organizational level, sometimes that’s on a community level, but really I’m interested in finding the levers of change that will help get to the social good and how we come to an agreement on that social good

So when I approach sort of any problem, I start with, well, what, what are the needs? What do we agree on as a fundamental thing that needs to be changed? We then set our goals and try to decide on what’s the best strategy to achieve those goals.

And, and a lot of challenges happen then because we can have different ideas about what the best way to approach a problem is. But really I try to be data-informed in how we go about that. Not data-driven. The numbers are not the only source of information. Data didn’t come from anywhere. So I like to try to make as much of an informed decision whenever I approach any sort of policy decision. And I think I ran outta two minutes.

Dr. Hearing. That’s fine. Thank you. Tonight’s format will go as follows. Each board member will ask the same question to each candidate. Once all questions have been answered, we’ll ask that you leave the boardroom so we can interview the next candidate. After all candidates are interviewed, we will deliberate choose a candidate and vote. We hope to call you before this evening is over to let you know what our decision is. We’re gonna start with John.

John Fielding. Mr. Scaccia, why are you here? Why should we like you to join us on the board in your response? Tell us about your support for public education, or if you do not believe in public education as it’s now constituted, why do you support other kinds of education?

Jonathan. Sure. And I hate to do this correction right off the bat, but it’s, Dr. Scaccia. I get called Dr. so few times every year is always a thrill when I, when it happens. And so it is Doctor

Comment! This is always a stupid thing to do. In nearly every professional setting I’m in, my Ph.D. comes up once, usually during the introduction. No one ever calls my doctor. However, I made the tactical decision to bring it up here since people were using prefixes, and many members of the board had “Dr.” listed on their nameplates.

Public education is the biggest social intervention in this country. We have the opportunity to reach a huge number of people and to help create better citizens. And I like to define a citizen pretty broadly. We’re not interested in educational outcomes, like math scores. We’re interested in how can we create people who are contributors to society at large.

I’m here because that is perhaps the most noble of causes to work on. Where else do we have that much leverage and that much reach to do something? I work on plenty of projects in a lot of different places and sometimes they can be pretty large, but, there’s nothing in terms of the resources devoted to and the critical thinking put into public education.

So I am a strong, strong, strong supporter of it. I strongly believe that it can be improved. We all should always try to do better with it. And these types of things drive me again and again.

Julia Shaffer. Thanks for coming. What can you tell us about yourself that would help us get to know you better as a potential board member?

Jonathan: I’m a pretty principled and pretty passionate and energetic. I like to bring thoughtfulness into the decisions that I make. And I also try to weave all aspects of my life together into sort of a seamless tapestry so the stuff that potentially happens here in the school connects intimately with the work I do in community research. It connects with the work that I do. This is hard work for it, but it’s moving towards the same goal. It has the same flavor to me. I like to be sort of consistent with my values across all of these different quality domains. And that’s what I would hope to bring here.

Tim Walker. Hi, Dr. Scaccia how are you doing? As we move towards the superintendent interview process, what are the three most important qualities you would like to see from a candidate? And why?

Jonathan. Why? Could I just take a survey before?

Here’s the survey for Exeter Community Residents. I didn’t want to say this at the meeting (what would have been the point), but this is a really poorly designed survey. Asking people to rank order very nebulous traits isn’t going to yield very actionable information!

I think we have to go back and start with the needs of the district. We have to go back and say: “what are the needs then? What are the goals we’re trying to solve?” And then let the characteristics flow from them.

My theory of the case is that we have a big COVID hole over the last 18 months that is going to have repercussions for a fairly long time, at least 13 years until kindergartners get pushed through. So what’s the best way to address that?. And do we need someone who is sort of visionary creative to address the biggest disruption of public education, probably in the last hundred years?

And yet we also know that we’re on, you know, three superintendents in like the last four years. Is there, a little stability and more of a vanilla candidate who’s necessary to sort of bring down the temperature for example, and provide the administrative stability that’s needed to govern the district?

With any CEO you’re trying to interview you know, I’m not gonna have like a checklist (well, there are some minimal qualifications), but I’d rather begin with where is our district now? What do we need? And then given the list of things that we have to work with, who is best going to serve that particular need, who’s gonna help us reach that goal.

Is it a manager? Is it an innovator? Is it a disruptor? I can’t say yet. And one end would be talking with all of you who have been sitting on here have really been involved in that and looking at the results of the survey, and really trying to bring together what these different stakeholders believe are the needs.

Dr. Hearing. Sorry. My cell phone went off earlier. I apologize for that. There are consistently two public board meetings a month that can end by 9:00 PM, but at times end at 11:00 PM with an executive session to follow. Also, there are months where we hold several executive session meetings to adjust personnel issues aside from public board meetings that can be scheduled last minute. Is your schedule flexible enough to accommodate that unpredictable schedule?

Jonathan. Of course not. We’re all very busy people. this opportunity did not exist a couple of months ago. So certainly when I thought out, what am I trying to accomplish in 2022, I did not build in that space. My hope is that you know, I see Tim’s got a computer open, that we have the capacity to do virtual, in which case, say I’m in Louisiana, I dial in and I’m able to participate. So as much as possible I would be present in a virtual way or an in-person way. My wife would hate to hear me say that. But I think it’s really important to be here and really devote for the that’s necessary to thank you.

Allison Wilson. Hello, Dr. Scaccia. Identify a recent board decision that you feel strongly about and describe how you would balance community concerns, student needs, state and federal law staff considerations and your personal values and beliefs to determine how to vote on the issue.

Jonathan. I don’t know if there’s anything that I feel especially strongly about, because, to do that brings us into the realm of all of like the real contentious stuff. I will tell you the way that I like to consider four groups of people. There’s the community, the people are there, like Ted, and the real perspective that they bring. There are the teachers [and support staff], so we absolutely need to make sure that we are considering sort of their values, their needs, and what they need to serve large numbers of students

The third group is parents. The people who trusted, you know, a bunch of strangers to create citizens and to basically do the hard work of bringing them up to be members of society.

And we don’t wanna forget about the kids. What are the specific needs that they have? I’m aware of plenty of different participatory studies where, eight, nine year olds have contributed to having meaningful things to say about their community and what, their role is.

So I think that all four of those voices are pretty important. And in some of the contentious decisions board makes: are all of these voices being considered?

Probably not. They don’t all have equal weight at all times. That’s part of the challenge. Where do we put the needs of teachers? Where do we put the needs of children first? Where do we put the needs of the community first?

And, you know, that, that varies. This is where we need to be flexible. This is where we need to hear from the people sitting back there [the people in the seats!] hear from all of you. We need to do as much as possible to try to get it right. And if we get it wrong, you know, change it.

Jason Mell. Dr. Scaccia thank you for coming out tonight. My question is, what do you feel is the number one challenge facing our schools today?

Jonathan. COVID, COVID, COVID. again, an 18-month hole! We don’t know. Tim and I talked about this a couple of months ago. The scores aren’t great.

There were three possibilities. COVID did not change scores all. Or COVID for some reason, made scores go up. So maybe virtual learning was better for children. Or maybe scores went down and children are behind in their instructional needs.

In every one of those cases, there is a case for a fundamental redesign. Like what happens if nothing happens [score didn’t change]? I’m just tossing out an idea. Like, could we go to like a reverse classroom where children are doing homework during school and watching lectures at home? Are there different types of models that are needed?

And this is going to follow the children along until 2034. So we need to adjust for that. We absolutely need to adjust for that. II don’t know if it’s playing catch up. I don’t know if it’s being more creative in how we’re sequencing things, but it’s critical that we’re gonna make the benchmarks that we define as a successfully educated Exeter

Dr. Battler: Thank you. Do you have current conflicts of interest or prior affiliations with any group that may preclude you from taking part in voting on the new superintendent, personnel contract renewal or yearly budget?

Jonathan: I have none.

Take home message!

Not going to lie; I’m pretty discouraged!

It’s possible/ probable that policy and the small-p political realm just isn’t my strength. To date, I haven’t been able to make the case to the voters, nor to a few different configurations of the Exeter School Board. My message hasn’t fundamentally changed, mainly because it comes from a value-based perspective. And I’m not sure I’m interested in changing my message that much….the whole pragmatism vs. idealism dialectic.

PubTrawlr (and Dawn Chorus) has a lot going on. Are these better levers to promote community change? Better ways to make a dent in the world?

Again, why is this on PubTrawlr?

It’s all about getting good ideas out there. I think* I have some good ideas. I know some people have better ones. Let’s make sure we do what works.

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