When it comes to school budgets, where does all the money go? Today’s guest, Ted Lamb, tells us about constricting federal policies that are funneling funds from the classroom and into unnecessary things. But, as a school board member, Ted has had a front-row opportunity to speak out against poor spending. Follow along with today’s episode of The State of Education & learn what it takes to be on your local school board and how you can contend with unfair policies!
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Ted Lamb Video Transcript
Interviewed by Melvin Adams
ADAMS: Why are local school boards so important and what qualities do you see as most and least important for school board members?
LAMB: That’s an excellent question. And most people don’t understand the nature of the question. We could go all the way back to 1607. Well, more specifically, 1620 to the Old Satan or Old Deluder Act of the pilgrims.
It was the first education law. Now, I want you to think about that: 1620. And I bring this up, because as we move forward with the founding fathers—it doesn’t matter: the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 all had education components.
So when we talk about why local school boards are important, they’re important because from our very beginning—from 1607 all the way up—education has been extremely important. And our founding fathers understood that and realized that. But a proper education is what’s called for as well.
So, for the local school board, I think the characteristics of what you said, that needs to be important. 1) I think a person who’s going to be on the school board needs to go into this with an open mind. And when I say an open mind, it’s not necessarily a political philosophy.
What I’m saying is an open mind of “expect anything.” because you’re going to see everything. I think a person or candidate on a school board needs to know themselves. I cannot tell you how many budget cycles where I was the lone vote—where it was an 8-to-1 vote—against that budget.
Because the priorities for me were [they] were not going to put more money into the administrative side vs. the classroom. Or [they weren’t] going to add more administrative positions vs. classroom teachers because that was what we clearly needed at that time.
So you need someone who knows who they are and their values system and is willing to be the lone voice or vote on that as well. You need someone that’s willing to take the time, that will actually—you know, politicians talk about this and they do a good job of this—they say, “Oh I’m here to listen” and so forth. But then you never see them again till the next election cycle.
You need someone who’s willing to do those things I just said but also go back to the public after they’re elected, like the day after. And at least say thank you. But then if you go and you have civic leagues or community organizations. You need to be there!
And you need to listen and you need to ask them what is important on, say, the next budget cycle. Or “What are your thoughts on this agenda item that’s coming up?” Those are important qualities.
And those are a few that I think a person needs to have. The lesser qualities, if you will, would be if you are beholden to groups. If you’re getting the endorsement of the NEA or the local version of the NEA… even though many local elections are not necessarily Republican/Democrat—but we all know.
When you listen to a candidate or whoever is endorsing whoever. If you’re more beholden to an outlook or a philosophy than you are to serving and learning, then you have no business being there. But unfortunately, that’s what’s happened. That side has gotten their folks on and they’ve done quite well with it.
If you are a person that does not have the backbone to actually be willing to vote, you have no business being there. And also too, I would say, that if you are one who tends to know that the opposition is coming to speak and you’ve already made your mind up on something or you’re looking at them as less than a constituent, or less than a person or you’re seeing them as an enemy—and that does happen—then you have no business being on a school board.
The thing is, I don’t have to agree with you 100% of the time. But at the same time, more importantly, I don’t need to be disrespectful. Also, this is very key, it’s very important—I guess, depending on those that are watching, this could be positive or a negative.
And that’s this: as Christians, running and becoming elected representatives—not officials, but representatives—Christians need to understand that we don’t wear hats, you know. Mr. Adams, nowhere in scripture does it say that I have this hat, that I have my career hat, that I have my parent hat.
I mean, the Bible does talk about the responsibilities of parents and so forth but it never talks about that we wear hats. If you’re a follower of Christ, then you’re a follower of Christ in all fields. And so as Christians, when items come up for a vote that clearly goes against our faith, we should be voting accordingly.
Because again, the Jesus-follower hats, there is no such thing. And you know, some may say civil government vs. religion—and some might actually agree with that statement. You know, it is a true statement because, if you go into it saying that you’re this and then you try to live another way, you will become feeble-minded, on the fence, and that serves no one at all.
ADAMS: Yeah. So I think what I’m hearing you say is—and you made this statement early on—you have to know who you are. And then represent yourself for who you are and your core values, your core priorities, and then let people decide whether or not they want you to represent them or not.
And then you have to be diligent in being faithful to that while at the same time being a listener, being a learner, and staying engaged with the whole community because if you don’t, I’m putting words in your mouth—now I’m not saying what you’re saying, I’m just saying from my own perspective—if you don’t listen if you’re not respectful to everybody. It’s impossible to have influence.
And at the end of the day, any position in politics, which school board members… everything becomes politics, unfortunately. But you’re an elected position or an appointed position, depending on your location, but you’re there to represent others.
And therefore having that ability to engage others and influence others is critical to getting any policy passed or any process. Let me just ask a couple more quick questions.
So you’re a numbers guy, and that’s become evident in the way you’ve been speaking, and you’ve touched on this a little bit, but maybe just give us a top two or three, in your experience, what do you believe are the most critical elements of a school’s budget? And are there areas where significant spacing takes place but perhaps brings little real value to students?
LAMB: Okay. Before I attack that question, let me add to what you had just said too. A perfect example of this was the fact that after I got on and was elected, I would go back to the different civic leagues across the city and there were two in particular but the one I’m thinking of I would go…
And clearly, I knew when I walked in there [what the] of myself and the civic league was very different. But here's what I’m getting at with what you’re saying too. Every time I’d walk in there I was welcomed and multiple people would always tell me, “Mr. Lamb, I don't agree with your vote, but the fact that you will always take the time to explain your vote and I understand how you arrived at that—I may not agree with the vote, but I understand how you arrived at it and you always keep us informed.” Clearly, that was coming from the other side.
And so you have to develop that. Now, going with what you’re saying about this question about the budget. This is good. And this is part of this learning component of what I said. So I think the highest priority of any budget needs to protect and focus on the classroom or the closest thing to that classroom.
And so you have to make sure you have enough staff, you have enough teachers, you have enough teacher assistants, enough bus drivers, are your buses in working order? Do you have enough material? Copy paper is not the responsibility of the teacher. It’s your responsibility to get it into the budget.
Do you have the materials for these teachers to do what is asked of them? [In] my opinion, if you’re not covering learning in that classroom, then other things (I know many would disagree with me on this) you should not be cutting French classes or foreign language classes before you’re cutting athletics.
I know some make it to school off of scholarships and that’s great, that’s fine, that’s not taking away from it. But if the purpose of school is education, meaning in that classroom, to become a well-rounded person as far as subjects [rather] than a basketball, a baseball, a bat, and so forth—then we need to prioritize that, as painful as that will be.
The other thing I found that was wasteful or that had a very little impact is also things that we had to fund but this is where parents, once they become aware of this, is where the pressure starts getting put in.
Say we would have to fund things that are coming down from the federal government or the state that really had little to no impact with regards to what’s happening in that classroom, let me give you an example—and I’m probably saying the name of the bill wrong, but anyone could probably look this up.
I think it was the Convento bill, which is a federal law that says that every school division—if you have homeless students that arrive in your division—you must take on the burden of the transportation costs to make sure that student gets back to the division which they came from.
I thought that was preposterous. Because looking at our budget, we were spending a quarter of a million dollars on this. I remember when I first saw this on the school board sheet, I said, “Why don’t we just enroll them into our school division? We save a quarter of a million dollars, we get more teachers, we get more bus drivers, we update some technology things that need to be updated.”
And I was told, “No we can’t do that because that’s federal law.” That's a perfect example of many, many things that come down. Another one—this will probably get me in trouble—every state has their version of state tests that they have to have at the end of the year. Especially in reading, somewhat in science, in math.
That is based on the federal mandates that you have to test every student in reading and math and science. Okay, so what have school divisions done? We go and we hire more “reading specialists” [and] “math specialists” which really are just glorified number crunchers. They’re bureaucrats.
They’re not really helping in the classroom actually helping struggling readers. What do they do? They provide professional development for teachers that don’t even have a minor in that area to say, “We'll try this, try that” and so forth. So it adds to the layers. To me, that’s unnecessary. Completely.
ADAMS: If I may just interrupt here, there again, often that whole process is just going back to our earlier conversation. It’s a means of taking a short-cut towards getting the end result of that test score that we need so that we can continue to get the funding while it’s not actually giving true guidance and instruction and helping people really know how to do math or do whatever, it’s about how we can get these kids to pass these tests. Often, that’s the short game
LAMB: Oh it is! And in the budget, too, what I love is the concept of the remediation for summer. So instead of teaching that child that’s actually on a second-grade mather level but he has to pass the 4th-grade math SOL test, so we focus on pouring money into tutoring so they can pass the tests vs. tutoring to bring their math skills up.
It’s crazy. In the school division here, I’m going to go so far as to say one thing, but then your actions showed another thing. So we had an issue with attendance. And why was attendance being a problem? Everyone talked a good game but nothing was getting done because that’s not what we’re gonna…
Well, then Virginia turned around and made attendance part of your accreditation. Oh my, we now have to hire truancy officers, we have to invest in x,y, and z. But it was like, “Okay, you’re only doing it because the state says so. You’re not doing it because actually, good attendance helps in education.
LAMB: It’s things like that that were always just irritating to me…of how the public school system will go. And, case-in-point, I don’t know where people listen to podcasts and so forth, from other states, but here’s a perfect example. Everybody talks about rigor and critical thinking skills. Oaky?
And school divisions talk about it all the time. You know, “We have a division that our kids are ready for 21st-century skills” or “they critically think.” Mmm, here’s a homework assignment for everyone, go to your state curriculum framework, look through the skills that are mandatory to learn (or knowledge that’s mandatory to learn), and be objective and ask yourself, “Is that really critical thinking? Or is it really rote memorization?”
You’re not going to find a whole lot of critical thinking anywhere. But yet, this is what divisions push because that's what the state mandates and the federal government says.
ADAMS: Yeah, yep. So true. Well, this has been very interesting and I so much appreciate you sharing with us today. As we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts for those listening? It could be to parents, it could be to teachers, or it could be folks interested in running for the school board. Just any final thoughts you want to share with our audience.
LAMB: Sure. So for parents and grandparents who are raising children, I would say that we are living in a day and time where you have decisions to make, you know, about education with regards to what’s being pushed and what’s coming down in public education.
And that’s not going away! And you have to make the difficult decision: do I keep my children there and suffer the consequences? Or do I private school? Or do I homeschool? And those are not easy decisions but you’re going to have to make those.
And it’s not going to get any better on the public school side. It doesn’t matter who you put in there, the elected official… until you start to change out the foundation and the structure, it’s not going to get any better.
To like-minded teachers… I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Mr. Adams, or not but many teachers are leaving.
ADAMS: Yep, yep.
LAMB: And it’s not because we’re retiring and it’s not because of the pay. We’re leaving because we can’t participate in this and many of those same teachers are going out and they’re starting their own micro-schools, learning pods… their own schools because they know what good quality instruction and the role of the parent is.
So those teachers, I applaud you, keep your head up. And those of us that are still in the system, do the best you can, but know yourself and don’t violate who you are with this.
Those that are running for school boards across this nation, you need to ask yourself one question, why are you doing it? And if your answer comes back with something that sounds like a one-minute sound bite, don’t do it.
Go deeper, really know why you’re doing this. You can’t say, “I’m doing this because it’s for the kids. Or I’m doing it just to get books out of the classroom.” Those are reasons, yes. But if you can come up with something along the lines of, “I’m doing this because I want to fundamentally shift where we are going” now you’ve got your why.
And then you start to learn what that fundamental shift looks like and you start to learn those three rings: how the federal, state, and the local, are all tied together. And then you start looking at how we can change this or can it be changed? Because you might actually find yourself going to the private or the homeschool option as well.
ADAMS: Ted, that’s awesome. Let me just tag onto there, particularly the last section, we do have an online school board training course that can be found on our website, which is nwef.org, and that at least will help give you a framework for some of the things that Ted talked about.
And it’ll help you determine whether or not it’s right for you. It’ll give you some talking points that can help you if you choose to go forward. And, Ted, it’s been very informative. Thank you for your time today.
We agree on one thing: we do have problems in this country with our education, but we agree too that if people will get involved and put the child first and be principles-based—I believe that we can bring about change that will make things better.
And I’m not talking exclusively about change within the public system, though I believe that can be done to a greater or lesser extent state-by-state. We’re seeing some things happening through legislation and through other means. We’re seeing that happen because parents and community leaders are getting involved and saying, “Look, we want to see fundamental changes.”
But at the end of the day, competition is the best thing we can have in our schools. It works in business, it works in every area. Competition almost always makes the quality of the product go up and drives the cost down. Because competition always has the consumer in mind.
And at the same time has to be viable and profitable. And so those same principles can apply to education. And as we promote that and allow that, and encourage that across this country, I believe we’re going to see a lot of positive changes.
So Ted, thank you again for joining us. And thank you to all of you who have joined us. And thank you to all of you who have tuned in for this session, I trust you have a great day.