Eva Carrillo Dong said she loved her 20 years teaching students in the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center.
When students at the detention center asked her how they could learn so much more while in detention, Dong told them, “because you’re sitting in that chair instead of ditching.”
Soon after that, she decided to become a school board member for Sunnyside Unified School District where she could do more to help all the students in her community.
Dong is one of several school board members who shared why serving students is so important during National School Board Recognition Month celebrated in January.
“I think it’s really important to become a school board member because that is how you’re going to make changes in your community,” Dong said.
“Do you want to make your community stronger? Then you’ve got to make sure the educational system in your community is stronger, and to do that you have to be there as a board member,” Dong said.
ASBA video: Eva Carrillo Dong
Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman issued a proclamation naming January 2022 School Board Recognition Month in Arizona, saying that “school board members are elected to sit in trust for their diverse communities, and in that capacity are charged with meeting the community’s expectations and aspirations for the public education of their students.”
Hoffman noted that school board members “are entrusted with the guardianship and wise expenditure of scarce tax dollars, and they are responsible for maintaining and preserving the building, grounds, and other areas of the school district that the community has put in their trust.”
Supt. Hoffman also noted that “the board members elected to school board positions deserve thanks and recognition for their countless hours of volunteer service to public education and the students of our state.”
What school board members do
School governing board members are elected to these nonpartisan, unpaid positions from the communities they live in to serve students in their local schools. They develop policies, budgets, help determine what students learn, who teaches them, and the facilities in the buildings where students learn.
In addition to taking part in public meetings, school board members take part in seminars, conferences, and training on research-based, best practices so they can determine what will work best for students in their school district. This local control means decisions on school programming are made by local, elected representatives who understand the community’s unique problems, values, cultures, and circumstances.
To do that, school board members focus on:
- Creating a vision for what parents and citizens want their school district to become and how to make student achievement the top priority
- Setting standards for what students must learn and be able to do
- Assessing whether schools achieve their goals, and whether students are learning
- Accounting for the outcomes of decisions and by tracking progress and reporting results
- Aligning the use of the district’s human and financial resources
- Creating a safe and orderly climate where students can learn and teachers can teach
- Collaborating to solve common problems and to support common successes
- Focusing on continuous improvement by questioning, examining, revising, refining, and revisiting issues related to student achievement.
Why representation matters
School board members come from all walks of life.
“We grew up poor, but we grew up with a lot of love in the home and so we didn’t feel that poverty,” Dong said.
“I still really enjoyed school even though a lot of my classmates were always being slapped for speaking Spanish. They didn’t allow us to speak Spanish. They made us speak only English and if that was our second language then we just had to stumble along,” Dong said.
“Most parents really valued education, and my parents were the same,” Dong said. “They wanted to make sure that we went to school, that we listened to the teachers and whatever the teacher said was the right thing.”
“There wasn’t a lot of them going to the school and fighting for us, we had to do it on our own,” Dong said.
“It’s really important for board members to be reflective of the community,” Dong said. “As students are becoming middle and high school students and they’re seeing what’s going on, they’re seeing that you’re there and you’re representing them.”
Students want to represent their community and their schools, and “I’m always telling them that you are our ambassadors for us,” Dong said.
“If I don’t look like them, then they might not believe it in themselves,” Dong said.
Linda Yazzie, vice president of the Holbrook Unified School District Governing Board, said her family moved back home to the Navajo Nation when the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school there.
When she attended that school, Yazzie said she witnessed “a lot of very atrocious things as a young girl – seeing them cut girls’ hair, shaved the boys’ heads, and see all this hair on the floor. A lot of them did not speak English and only spoke Navajo. I would try to help them, then I would get punished because of that as well as they for speaking Navajo.”
“When I ran for the board, I saw the same issues and problems that I was going through in my children and in my community’s children, so I started speaking up and saying things,” said Yazzie, a founding member of the Hispanic Native American Indian Caucus for Arizona School Boards Association and has mentored many board members on rural and native community needs and successes.
ASBA Video: Linda Yazzie
“I didn’t know there was a proper way. I didn’t know there was a school board that I could address. I started speaking up to whoever would listen. It landed me on the school board,” Yazzie said.
“Within my experiences I have learned to advocate for our kids, our parents, our community,” said Yazzie, who has served on the Holbrook Unified school board for the past 32 years. “I learned to be a voice. Some voices out there are not heard. Hopefully through my voice that they will be heard.”
“It is a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, but it is worth it to be that voice and to be that bridge where parents who do not want to come to the school, they do not want to talk to a teacher, or an administrator or the school board, they know that I will be approachable, that they can come to me and talk to me,” Yazzie said.
“I urge everyone to be that voice, because we need you,” Yazzie said.
John Sparks, a school board member for Sahuarita Unified School District, said that when he was a rambunctious, third-grader diagnosed with what was then called hyperactivity disorder, his mother made sure to keep him busy.
“I’m sure I gave my teachers and administrators through school a run for their money and made life a little harder on them,” Sparks said. “But I’m grateful because I had great principals, great teachers who cared for me, looked out for me and allowed me to be who I was, but also helped me kind of get through school.”
“When I look back on my youth, I was grateful just to graduate from high school. My mother cried at my high school graduation because I made it,” Sparks said
ASBA video: John Sparks
Sparks went on to graduate from Arizona State University, worked for a Fortune 10 company, then earn a a doctorate in nursing practice, and now is in a post-doctoral certification program for autism diagnosis and management.
When he had a family, “I went and met with superintendents in the school districts we were going to live in, because I wanted to be involved in the school district,” Sparks said. “At that time, I didn’t realize I was going to run for the board. I just wanted to be involved in my children’s life.”
Sparks said his career “allowed me to be the class Dad. I went on field trips and spent a lot of time in class,” and he’s grateful for that because “culturally, a lot of fathers don’t get that opportunity, and I feel very blessed to have done that.”
“I can remember one day I woke up in the morning and said I think I need to run for the school board,” Sparks said. “There had been some conversation in the paper about people running and talking about it.”
“I really did feel compelled to represent my community and do my part to help ensure a quality education for all children in my community whether they have ADHD like I did or they have other struggles or they don’t have any,” Sparks said.
Insight from young school board members
More young people are representing their communities on their local school boards, and some are doing that soon after graduating high school and college.
Armando Montero, a Tempe Union High School District governing board member, said his experiences as a student of color, a person who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, and a lack of students’ voices being heard are what led him to become a school board member soon after graduating from high school.
“My freshman and sophomore year of high school were fairly tough times for me – going to a new school, trying to find my place in that school,” Montero said. “I went through a lot of mental health struggles myself and ended up losing a friend of mine my sophomore year.”
“It opened my eyes to a lot of challenges that young people such as myself are facing,” Montero said. “I think that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of the mental health struggles that we’re facing.”
“It’s not just the lack of resources that are related to counselors or other mental health services on our campuses, but also the stigma around mental health and trying to foster those open and honest conversations of mental health and social emotional wellness in our schools is what first got me involved in trying to figure out what is a school board, what do they do and how do they represent us the students,” Montero said.
ASBA Video: Armando Montero
In 2018, Montero and a group of students approached the school board with a resolution asking them to call on the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to allocate more funding for school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and more to start that conversation with more than a dozen schools districts across the state.
“A good governing body has true representation from the district that it represents, and that means that when you’re overseeing close to 14,000 students, at least one of those voices should be someone that has an idea and understanding of what it means to go through high school in our current climate,” Montero said.
Freddie Villalon, a Tolleson Union High School District governing board member who has served on the board on and off since he was in his early twenties, said “I became a school board member for many reasons, but the main reason is to empower and to inspire other children to do their very best.”
ASBA Video: Freddie Villalon
Villalon, who now serves as principal at Imagine Schools Camelback, said that when he was a teenager he didn’t have parental supervision during the evenings and “I got involved with drugs, got involved with the gangs,” but former Tolleson Union Supt. Dr. Charles Landis mentored him and turned his life around.
“He goes I’m going to make a proposition for you. He goes if I give you a job, can you come back to school, can you not throw beer bottles or trash or graffiti the school? And I go, you’re going to give me a job, sir? And he did,” Villalon said.
“Since that time he started mentoring me, connecting me, he introduced me to teachers who would tutor me, because I struggled on how to read,” Villalon said.
“Dr. Landis made that connection with others so I could feel better about myself so I could connect with others,” Villalon said. “As the years went on, I would eventually graduate then I would move on to GCC and then graduate from Arizona State University. He was still here as the superintendent doing amazing things. He had a heart for our community.”
“I was 22 or 23 when I got wind the board had not renewed him as a superintendent and I was in shock. How could they do that to such an amazing man who made such a difference in my life?,” Villalon said.
“So we started a campaign – many of us in the community – to recall the three governing board members that had done that. Successfully, we were able to call out the three board members,” Villalon said. “Then at the time we had to find board members that would be willing to run. They asked Freddie, would you be willing to run? And I thought I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I have the skills or the qualifications to do it. I would run for the board and win the election.”
“I’ve been on and off the board for 20 years,” Villalon said. “That’s why I ran for the board, that’s why I’m on the governing board, because I want to make the same difference that he made with me for other individuals.”
“I truly believe with all my heart that one teacher, one educator, one individual, can shape a child, a student, and one person – one of those children – can change the world,” Villalon said.
Challenges school board members face
In the past year, many school board members in Arizona and throughout the country have experienced protests over pandemic policies and equity issues, and some board members have been the target of threats.
School board members played a key role in moving quickly to shift to online learning during the early days of the pandemic and ensuring that teachers and school staff had the resources needed to return to in-person learning as well as finding ways to support the specific needs of students and their families – through technology, meal service and more.
This year, school board members nationwide have become the target of political action committees seeking to elect conservative candidates. In Arizona, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita filed Senate Bill 1010 in December that would change the current nonpartisan school board elections into partisan primaries followed by general elections.
School board members focus on providing the best educational opportunities for all students in their communities, regardless of their political beliefs.
“I owe a lot to public education, and you really have to be in this for kids,” said Sparks, a school board member for Sahuarita Unified School District.
“If you’re in it for an agenda, or just some personal position, this is way more than just a single item,” Sparks said.
“I represent children of just about every mix of socioeconomic demographic you can think of,” Sparks said. “ I try to make decisions and be supportive, not only to our school administrators and teachers, but the communities so that we can provide that opportunity for all children in Sahuarita where I live.”