Next Stop, Walla Walla

April 24, 1995

What would happen if the National School Boards Association held its annual conference in Altoona, Poughkeepsie, Des Moines or Walla Walla? No disrespect to those towns. They just aren't tourist havens like the cities that host the NSBA convention on a rotating basis -- San Francisco, New Orleans, Orlando and Anaheim.

Indeed, San Francisco's many charms might explain why several Baltimore-area school boards recently sent most or all of their members to the city of cable cars for the NSBA convention. To be exact, nine of Baltimore County's 12 board members, plus Superintendent Stuart Berger and a school system lawyer, attended; three of five from Carroll County, plus Superintendent Brian Lockard; all eight from Harford County, plus Superintendent Ray Keech, and all five from Howard County. (Baltimore City sent one board member. No one from Anne Arundel County went to San Francisco.)

School officials and other advocates of these trips point out that the cost to each school system is a fraction of its yearly spending plan. In Baltimore County, for example, the total of $17,000 for the San Francisco excursion is a drop in a half-billion dollar bucket. The drop appears even smaller given the fact that Baltimore County board members reimburse the system for part of the cost.

Proponents also argue that the annual conference is beneficial as both a source of valuable information on education trends and a "team-building experience" for board members.

While these positions have some validity, they miss larger points.

Yes, the trips are relatively inexpensive; and not only do they impart information, they also serve as a way to reward volunteer school board members for performing a thankless yet crucial service.

But the school systems send the wrong signal when they send all or most of their board members. The resulting cost, however "low," still carries negative symbolism at a time when everyone from parents to educators bemoans the impact of streamlined government budgets on school spending. And when so many board members attend, this symbolism is made all the more obvious. Just as the convention site rotates annually, up to a few members of each board could take turns going to the conference and, later, brief their colleagues.

We'd still like to see the association hold its convention in Walla Walla someday. If school board members lined up for that one, that would prove just how dedicated these folks are.

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