That's often the way it seems when examining the task of a school board member -- a volunteer position that involves hundreds of hours a year debating, analyzing and setting policy.
This year, Colorado Springs School District 11's board will get a major overhaul, retaining only three of its seven members -- Karen Teja, Mary Wierman and David Linebaugh. Term-limited out are veterans Bruce Doyle and Lyman Kaiser, and up for re-election are Delia Armstrong-Busby and board president Waynette Rand, at a time when the area's largest school district faces many difficult challenges.
District schools in the northeast part of the city are huge and overcrowded, while many older schools on the West Side are "underutilized." Funding is tight and voters rejected the district's last bid for a mill levy increase. CSAP scores show a broad disparity between academic achievement in schools that serve poorer families and those in more affluent neighborhoods, and the high school attrition rate (accounted for by dropouts, students moving out of state and students moving to other districts) is a whopping 39 percent, according to figures from the Colorado Children's Campaign.
But none of that dampens the interest of 11 candidates running a vigorous race for the board's four open seats.
Vouching for vouchers
Sparking the interest of many candidates is the state's new pilot program for school vouchers, voted into law in last year's legislative session and set to be implemented in the 2004-05 school year. District 11 is one of the districts in the state mandated to make vouchers available to families, who may take as much as 85 percent of the per pupil money from the state (currently $5,200) and use it to pay tuition at a private school, including religious and church-run schools.
Candidates Willie Breazell, Eric Christen, Michael Kessler, Craig Cox and Sandy Shakes have expressed support for vouchers, while candidates Wendy Chiado and Albert Gonzales openly oppose them.
"I'm not sure a school board member has a lot to do with it, except to make sure the law is followed," said Gonzales. "But I'm against them. After all, private and parochial schools can discriminate in their admission processes. They don't have to open their doors for everybody. If a kid has been labeled disruptive, the private schools won't take them. It doesn't make for a level playing field."
Sandy Shakes minimizes the impact vouchers might have on the district, pointing out that only 1 percent or a little over 300 students will be eligible to opt out of D-11 schools under House Bill 1160.
"The board has to make sure the law is being followed, that it is implemented smoothly and legally and without a glitch in the student's education," said Shakes. "Only 318 students will have the option to use vouchers to go elsewhere, and not all of those will leave."
The bottom line, says Shakes, is to improve the schools and the number of options available to all students, so that parents will want to keep their students in District 11 schools.
Candidate Craig Cox agrees.
"All you have to do is look at the Milwaukee model," said Cox, indicating that although vouchers have been made widely available in Milwaukee, public schools haven't seen an exodus of students from the system. "With a $200 million budget like we have in District 11, there's not a private school out there that we should be afraid of. You'll see people swarming back to our schools once we fix them."
Back to school
Not all candidates agree, however, that the schools are broken.
Wendy Chiado, a retired Navy officer from New York who's now a contractor for the Department of Defense, says she retired in Colorado Springs not because of the mountains, but because she wanted to send her son to District 11 schools.
"The school district is doing a terrific job," said Chiado. "There are so many choices in our high schools right now that I want to go back to school. We have a pre-engineering program, a construction technology program, performing arts programs. It's all out there."
Communicating the strengths of the schools to the surrounding communities and building partnerships is what she will do as a board member, says Chiado, who also expresses strong support for the D-11 administration and superintendent Norman Ridder.
"They're accessible; they don't hide anything," she said. "There's no slack in the budget."
But while Chiado and incumbents Armstrong-Busby and Rand strongly support the central administration, citing expertise among the ranks of administrators and strong leadership for schools, candidates Shakes, Christen and Cox advocate a fundamental change in the district toward site-based management -- taking dollars, curriculum choices and decision-making away from the administration building and giving it to individual schools.
"We need to devolve as much power as possible away from the administration building to individual schools," said Christen, a former teacher who envisions a system where "each individual school is basically a charter school."
"Individual schools should be able to say what staff they need," said Shakes, a 27-year District 11 veteran who grew frustrated with mandates handed down from the administration that she felt often didn't do anything to improve individual schools.
"A cookie-cutter approach to education just isn't doing the job," she said. "We need different options available to students and schools need decision-making power in order to improve.
"I think it's doable. It takes a board that has the leadership, that says this is the direction we're going to take."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Colorado Springs School District 11 school board candidates:
* Delia Armstrong-Busby former principal, educational consultant
Willie H. Breazell systems analyst
Wendy Chiado retired Navy officer, Dept. of Defense contractor
Eric Christen business consultant
Craig W. Cox private investigator
Albert Gonzales retired Qwest employee, community activist
Michael Kessler marketing director
* Waynette Rand real estate broker
Randy J. Rickards systems analyst
Sandra S. Shakes retired teacher, educational consultant
Cynthia (Cindy) Sorensen hair stylist