In Praise of Politicians
by Louis Steigerwald
The disappointing, soul-crushing cynicism about politicians and politics has left no oxygen and no apparent energy for discussion of what a good politician is and the importance of politicians in general to a healthy democracy.
If democracy is to survive, politicians are a necessary and required element of the system. The desire to serve the public good is a respectable and honorable goal which merits more credit than it receives. It is likely that there are fine examples of these type of folks in every one of our localities.
As a school district superintendent I work directly with and advise seven politicians. In the superintendent trade we say that every time a board seat changes, a new board is in place. By this measure I have worked with several different boards and many different board members. I’d tell you that its probable that none of these public servants think of themselves as politicians, in the popular sense of the word. Nearly every one of them has told me, at one time or another, that they saw a need in their community and decided they would try to serve that need.
Board members quickly learn that holding a political office is not as simple as it may look from the outside. It is very frequent that new board members find themselves being contacted by different parties with competing viewpoints and agendas. This is one instance where experienced politicians serve a different role from their freshmen peers. I have seen many an experienced member take a new member under their wing and advise them to take the time to get to learn their new role, learn the lay of the land, and not feel twisted by divergent opinions, for these come with the territory. This nurturing of the new by the experienced is one of the roles that good politicians serve.
Not once, in my experience, have a seen a board member try to use his or her position for their own personal gain or to drive school budget dollars toward a supporter, family member, or friend. This is no small observation. School districts are often among the largest employers in their localities and school funding is a major portion of state budgets. Trust me, vendors know this too as judged by the many and never-ending contacts school and district offices receive from salesmen looking to attract district dollars.
Board members also learn and fulfill the need to represent the district professionally and legally. Once assuming the role of a board member, the laws and policies that apply to schools must become the guiding light by which members and boards function. This is sometimes vastly different from what candidates imagined when they sat in board audiences and then ran for office. Here again, I have consistently experienced local citizens learning to fulfill these obligations faithfully and successfully.
This is not to say that all board members always agree with one another and the superintendent. Resolving viewpoints and determining action and direction is part of the job and among the hardest things to do in leading. For while it is the job of a board or of any legislative branch to discuss ideas and vote on action, it is also the job of the board to represent the larger community professionally. I am quite proud to say that the boards I have advised and worked with have successfully voted on issues, represented themselves and the district honorably and moved on to the next task once a vote was held. Constant public bickering and showmanship are not signs of a healthy board or (ahem Washington) a healthy governmental body.
At the state and national level it is true that love of state and of country must come before love of any political party. At our local school district level, love of the district and the community must come before personal agendas and singular points of view.
It is quite clear, in our present day, that the image of politicians needs to be elevated and that some politicians need to look for better models of behavior and function. For examples of how to accomplish both the former and the latter, it is quite useful to look at the fine examples provided by our fellow citizens in service to school districts throughout our state and nation.