This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

TCTA member transitions from teacher to school board member

Deciding to run for a seat on the school board was a lengthy process for Richard P. “Ricky” Clem. The longtime Goose Creek Consolidated School District band director said he began thinking about it 10 or 12 years before he retired from Ross S. Sterling High School in Baytown in June 2016.

“I took a greater interest in the political side of education — what was going on with the administration, with the school board,” Clem said. “Then when (my wife) Brenda and I became leaders in the Baytown CTA, I started either attending school board meetings, or at the very least making sure I knew what was on the agenda.”

Soon he found himself listening to recordings of meetings he couldn’t attend, and Clem started to say, “When I retire, I’m going to run for the school board.” What began as an off-the-cuff remark evolved into a decision to run for the Goose Creek board’s District 4 seat in February 2017. The day filing started, Clem’s phone began to ring. People wanted to know if he’d signed up yet. 

“After three or four phone calls, Brenda and I sat down and I said, ‘You know, I really want to do this,’” Clem said, knowing it would be at least a four-year commitment. “We discussed the pros and cons, and I went down to the administration building, picked up the paperwork, filled it out and turned it in.” He started campaigning a day or two later and went on to defeat incumbent Gigi Cockrell, earning about 70 percent of the vote in May 2017.

Learning curve

Since joining the school board, Clem said he’s been “amazed at how much goes on in the background and the amount of things I’ve been able to learn in a few short months.” It’s been a good experience so far, but he’s still undecided about whether he’ll seek re-election when his current term ends in May 2021.

Clem said he was surprised by how little of the board’s agenda relates directly to the classroom. “A very small percentage of what we deal with is really academic,” he said. But he hopes a recent House bill that requires school board members to receive training about student success will help shift more focus back to academics.

“I want to make sure that our board members and our upper-level administrators keep our students and our teachers the No. 1 concern of every decision we make,” Clem said. “I’ve found that it’s very easy for people to say that, but we don’t always do that. Sometimes, ‘How much does it cost?’ is asked before ‘What’s best for our children?’”

Another surprising aspect is how often he gets stopped around town. “We can hardly go to the grocery store or to Target or Walmart without having a discussion with somebody about school district business,” he said.

Managing district’s growth

Right now, the big business in Goose Creek CISD is growth. Baytown is one of the only cities in Harris County with land open for development. 

“Everywhere you look they’re building new neighborhoods and 300- and 400-unit apartment buildings. We’re going to be bursting at the seams,” Clem said.

While Goose Creek CISD’s enrollment has not increased rapidly enough to earn a “fast-growth” district designation from the Texas Education Agency, Clem said the board has already started planning for it. “If even 50 percent of what (demographers) have predicted comes true, we’re going to run out of places to build new schools,” he said. 

The junior high schools are running at 95 percent of capacity already, he said, and the high schools are getting closer. Several elementary schools have portables. 

“Because of growth we have been exploring different options,” Clem said, explaining that one idea to avoid rezoning includes consolidating the high schools and putting different grades at different campuses. Another proposal is a bond election in May that would fund new facilities, including another junior high school. Clem also would like to see the district consider a strategic plan for attendance zones so building capacity and use is regularly reviewed and adjusted to maximize space.

Adjusting to his role on the school board comes with a unique aspect for Clem, who remains active in Baytown CTA. In addition to learning all the laws and procedures board members must follow, Clem also had to learn how to balance two roles that can sometimes create conflicts of interest. He’s made it clear to Baytown CTA members, his fellow school board members and the Goose Creek CISD superintendent that he will avoid conflicts of interest. 

Get involved in your district

As a school board trustee, Clem has become an even bigger advocate for teachers and encourages them to get involved in district business. “If I could tell the average classroom teacher one thing, it’s for some reason when we’re teachers, we’re all afraid of our school board members and there’s no reason to be,” he said. “If you can get on the public agenda to speak to your school board, you should. Some of the most valuable opinions we get in public forums are from our current educators. We need that information. I know a lot of times administrators say, ‘Don’t bother your school board members,’ but I’ve told everybody I know that I want to hear from them. I can’t know what you need if you’re not telling me.”

He encourages teachers to attend school board meetings in their district. If they can’t, they should at least know what’s on the agenda for every meeting. “It may affect you as an educator,” he said. “I think every teacher should go to a school board meeting or two a year, if not more.”

He says teachers should also make the most of other opportunities, such as volunteering to serve on committees at their campus or school district. “It seems that a lot of teachers are hesitant to do that,” Clem said. “With busy lives it’s hard, I understand, but your voice is really heard when you serve on a committee, your opinions are taken into account.”