The Absentee School Board Member in Anchorage

Pat Higgins, ASD school board member, has taken a job in the Marshall Islands, but thinks he can fulfill his duties by phone.

If you voted for someone to represent you on the school board, and after starting his term, this person decided to take a job in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, do you think the person should be allowed to conduct school board business from that new location? Anchorage School Board Member Pat Higgins thinks so.

Because of his new job in the Marshall Islands, Pat Higgins has missed most of the School Board meetings since the beginning of this year. Mr. Higgins has attended only two Board meetings in person, the regular meetings on January 23 and March 22. He missed the February 6 early meeting and phoned in to nine other regular, special, and early meetings. This is an in-person attendance rate of 17 percent.

In the ASD, if a high school student has more than 10 unexcused absences, the student is placed on attendance probation (ASD Board Policy 443.1). Of course, that is 10 absences out of about 180 school days, an attendance rate of 92 percent. Surely, Board members should be held to a higher standard when it comes to attendance.

Being a member of a school board requires one to devote a lot of time to understanding the many aspects of governing an education system. We elect people to the school board to represent all people in the district, including parents and taxpayers. School board members are charged with the responsibility of allocating limited resources to the most effective means of educating the kids. School board members are responsible to parents, students and the community. They are the Board of Directors and we are the shareholders who must ensure this board is acting in our best interests.

You may be asking if this violates some kind of rule? The Board Policy (ASD Board Policy 121.5) is not definitive when it comes to attendance at Board meetings. It states that when a Board member has unexcused absences from three consecutive regular meetings, other Board members may declare the position vacant. The Board President has the power to grant excused absences although a majority of the Board may overrule the President’s decision.

What makes an absence “excused”? Board policy does not define the criteria nor does it allow/disallow phoning in to Board meetings. However, the Board President or a majority of the Board can determine whether absences are excused or unexcused.

The real question is how can Mr. Higgins effectively represent his constituency? How can he visit schools? How can he attend graduation ceremonies? How can he be in touch with the educational needs of this community and hear their concerns?

He can’t. He is thousands of miles and many time zones away from Anchorage. Mr. Higgins cannot fulfill his responsibilities and duties to this community by phoning in to board meetings. The fact that he believes he can, demonstrates how little regard he has for the role of the school board.

Technically, Pat Higgins is supposed to represent all of Anchorage, which according to 2010 census number is more than 290 thousand people. And this is the gravity of the situation: 290 thousand people have no representative on their school board. That’s why the board needs to act immediately to declare the seat vacant if Mr. Higgins refuses to resign.