Dr. Steve Levin Offers Thanks (and a Few Observations-) After Nine Years on the School Board

Dr. Steve Levin is stepping down after nine years of service to CCUSD as a member of the Board. November 8 was his final meeting. Here are his departing remarks:

“As I leave after nine years on the Culver City Board of Education, I have a few parting words. I don’t usually give long speeches at board meetings, and I don’t usually write out in advance what I’m going to say. Please bear with me, as tonight I’m doing both.
First, here are a few things that I wish everyone in our community understood. I learned some of these on the job, and some I already knew, but serving on the board has made it clear that each of these will be news to some in our community.
School board is a very part-time, essentially volunteer activity. For the number of hours we put in, we get paid less than minimum wage, and every single person who has been on the school board, including those with whom I have vehemently disagreed, did it because they hoped to do some good, not for personal gain. There is no personal gain.
The board can only take action – any action at all – through a vote at a properly agendized public meeting. Individual board members have no authority at all. Any power they have comes from the ability to get at least 2 fellow board members to publicly vote to take a specific action at one of the roughly 20 board meetings which take place each year.
By state law, it’s quite difficult to talk with each other. The Brown Act requires that we discuss school-related matters with each other only in public, only at an official meeting, and only if it’s been advertised on the agenda in advance. There are very limited exceptions, such as specific items which may only be discussed in closed session. Closed session items have to be on the agenda for an official closed session meeting, and in general we’re not allowed to talk about them outside of closed session.
The board is legally responsible for nearly everything which happens in the district, but we cannot come close to being knowledgeable about all the details. We delegate almost all of the authority to the superintendent, who in turn delegates authority to a whole hierarchy that extends to everyone who works for CCUSD. School board members are members of the community, not experts in the field of education. So what does the board actually do? First and foremost, we hire, evaluate, and (if necessary) fire the superintendent. That is our single most important job. Beyond that, we enact policy and set broad goals for the district. We also pay attention to process, and make sure that the way things are done meets with the goals and values of our community. Our job is to make sure we have the right superintendent at the top, pay attention to the big picture, and leave the details to the professionals.
Finances: People often ask me: “Culver City is a wealthy community. Why can’t our schools afford xyz?” Being a wealthy community means that our schools get less money from the state, not more. The amount of money given to each school district is based on the number of students, with some additions to partially account for those students who are likely to need more resources. The district’s budget is roughly $100 million dollars per year, which comes out to about $14000 per student. That’s less than the average cost of private school in California, and a lot less than the average cost of private school in Los Angeles county. The budget, like the budget of nearly every organization, goes mostly to employee salaries, and most of what’s left goes to contracts which pay salaries of people who are not district employees

Remember also that the board only meets about 20 times per year, and is responsible for approving every single expenditure. We can, and should, ask questions about the budget and priorities, and so forth, but if we broke up the budget into million-dollar pieces and spent only an hour on each million dollars, we would still run out of time and the district would grind to a halt because we’d have gotten nothing else done. And of course, it generally should take a lot more than an hour to do the work and investigation before spending a million dollars. That means we have to trust the superintendent, and the people who work for the superintendent, to do the homework to make sure the money isn’t wasted. So the board’s job is mostly to make sure the right people are in place and are on top of everything, not to do the job for them.

I’m sure I could come up with more to say, but this is already long, and I’m drifting off into advice for the board. So let’s do that more directly. Here are a few things I have tried to do. If I’ve occasionally failed at them, please learn from my failures. If I’ve succeeded, please try to learn from that:

Listen to people. Even when you absolutely hate everything the person is saying, or dislike them personally, or think they’re not making any sense at all, there is always something to be learned. There have been plenty of times when people came to a board meeting to yell at us about something that felt totally unfair and misinformed, and yet I learned something important about how we could have communicated better, or about something that was important to part of our community that I didn’t know they cared about, or that I had misunderstood the issue. None of us is infallible, and everyone’s viewpoint is worth hearing.
It’s important to disagree in public. The board is not permitted to hash things out in private, and there’s no benefit to having a five-member board if everyone agrees all the time. If you accept each other’s good intentions, and learn from each other, and try to persuade each other, and allow yourselves to be persuaded by each other, the whole will be stronger than the sum of the parts.
Whatever issues caused you to run for school board, I can guarantee that at some point the big controversial issue of the day will be something you didn’t anticipate at all. So please come ready to learn. People didn’t elect a list of position statements. They elected five smart people who are willing to work, think, and act on their behalf. They hired your brain and your heart, not just your hands.

OK. I’m finally wrapping up. Just two more things to say about my time on the school board. I want to tell you all what I hated the most about my time on the board, and what I loved the most:

The thing that bothered me the most was when people came to a school board meeting with prepared speeches, and demonstrated that they were going to read their speech no matter what. Even if someone else had already said the exact same thing. Even if the problem they were addressing had just been solved. There were times when we received a bunch of emails about a mistake, and a staff member announced at the beginning of the meeting that it was a mistake, and that it had been corrected. And then half a dozen people proceeded to get up and read speeches pointing out the mistake, demanding we fix it, and totally ignoring what they had just heard. And of course, the board is prohibited from commenting on items not on the agenda, so often we could not even respond. I didn’t mind at all when people came to tell us we needed to fix a problem. I just really hated when they came only to talk without being willing to listen.

But I’m very happy to end with what I loved the most about serving on this board for nine years: I have met a great many people who care a whole lot about our students, and are doing their very best to help. We have some amazing students, teachers, custodians, secretaries, librarians, administrators, parents, employees, contractors, and interested bystanders who are willing to pitch in and help, and go above and beyond any reasonable expectation to strive for perfection in an imperfect world on behalf of our children. Whether I agreed with you or not, and whether or not I met your expectations, it has been an honor and a privilege to serve with you all. I hope I’ve contributed in my own way, but I am confident that CCUSD will get along just fine without me, and the students of Culver City will continue to accomplish amazing things.”

Culver Pride

The Actors' Gang