Merle Comfort, chair of the La Grande School Board, is in exclusive company.
Nobody can match his 18 years of service to the La Grande School Board during the past 26 years. Comfort wears a second community service hat as a member of the InterMountain Education Service District Board, which he has been on since 2011.
“Merle is the epitome of what a school board member should be. He is one of the best problem solvers I have worked with,” said IMESD Superintendent Mark
The lack of community servants like Comfort has the Oregon School Boards Association increasingly concerned.
In 2015, the most recent round of Oregon school board elections, 73 percent of the races for school board positions on school, ESD and community college boards had just one candidate, and
8 percent had no candidates.
“(The number of candidates filing) was the lowest number in at least 10 years. We are not sure why,” said Alex Pulaski, an OSBA spokesman.
The declining number of candidates spurred the OSBA to launch its “Get on Board” campaign to inspire more candidates to run this spring for positions on school, ESD and community college boards. A focal point of the campaign is getting people to appreciate how significant school boards are.
“They do not understand that this is a big deal. The future of our local communities depends on (providing for) the future of the young people in our communities,” Pulaski said.
One of the ways school board members influence the present and future lives of students is the selection of school leaders.
“Hiring a superintendent is one of the most important things a school board will do,” Pulaski said, “(because it) has a domino effect.”
The OSBA spokesman explained that a quality superintendent is more likely to select top-notch administrators who have a higher probability of hiring good teachers, many of whom are likely to stay for 15 to 30 years.
North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon welcomes the “Get on Board” campaign. Dixon said he has been blessed with excellent board members since he became North Powder’s superintendent 12 years ago, but he would like to see more people interested in serving. Dixon sometimes feels frustrated because as a superintendent, he can make general statements encouraging people to run but he can’t recruit individuals.
“I can’t say, ‘Joe, I think you should run for the school board.’ That would be trying to influence the selection of my bosses,” Dixon said.
One of the best things about serving on a school board, Dixon said, is working with people whose top concern is the welfare of the students in the school district.
“Everybody is there in the best interest of the kids,” Dixon said. “People may have different opinions, but everybody is doing it for the kids.”
Mulvihill expressed a similar sentiment when talking about the mindset of board members.
“They all want to give back,” the IMESD superintendent said. “It doesn’t get any better than serving kids.”
Wallowa School District Superintendent Bret Uptmor, like Mulvihill, is also a strong supporter of the “Get on Board” campaign.
“We definitely want people to be engaged in schools. One way to be engaged is to be part of a school board,” Uptmor said.
He noted that in 2015, the Wallowa School Board had two open positions and only one candidate. The board later filled the second position by appointing an applicant to it.
Mulvihill said there is nothing more noble than serving on a school board.
“It is the ultimate public service,” he said.
It is, however, public service that comes with a cost.
“There is a lot stress and public scrutiny,” Mulvihill said.
Another drawback is the time commitment. Many meetings are held at night, but some are in the morning and afternoon.
“You have to have a flexible work schedule,” said La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze.
There are times when board members may feel like they are on duty around the clock as community servants.
“If you are on the board, everyone assumes you have the answers, so you will get (phone) calls day and night,” Dixon said.
One of the trade-offs for such sacrifices is that board members get an inside look at how public education works.
“It is a great learning opportunity for anyone who wants to learn how the public schools operate. You will develop an understanding of the intricacies of the process,” Glaze said.
Another plus is board members always have a finger on the pulse of their school district.
“You are in touch with the school and always apprised of what is going on,” Uptmor said.
One aspect of serving on a school board, the Wallowa superintendent said, is having to make tough decisions during challenging times.
Glaze said the sacrifices required of school board members says a lot about the character of those who choose to serve.
“This is part of the reason school boards attract quality people,” Glaze said.
Few, if any, school board members have put in more time over the last three decades than Mark Wing, a member of the Union School Board for more than 30 years. Wing said the Union School Board has had to make many difficult decisions during his tenure, but the experience has been fulfilling.
“I always like being able to share ideas about education (at board meetings),” Wing said.
He speaks humbly of his work as a board member.
“I just want to help out,” Wing said.
Feb. 4 was the first day candidates could begin filing for this year’s school board races. To date, seven people have filed for 17 open school board positions in Union County and two have filed for 10 open positions in Wallowa County.
The filing deadline for the May 16 mail election is March 16.
Those who will be filing include Comfort, who will run for reelection to his IMESD Board seat. Comfort, whose La Grande term expires in 2019, believes the “Get on Board” campaign will boost the number of candidates.
“Sometimes people (just) need to be encouraged to take a step in that direction,” Comfort said.