Trustees reflect on school board service
There were two times during his tenure as a Douglas County school board member that George Echan said he cried.
“The first was giving my son Todd a high school diploma at Whittell in 2000 and the second was Tuesday night thinking about departing from the board,” the Lake Tahoe lawyer said in an interview last week.
Echan, who served on the board since 1998, and Don Forrester, called out of retirement in 2003 to fill an unexpired term during the last legislative session, were honored at the Dec. 14 meeting. Neither trustee sought re-election in November.
“I don’t think people realize the commitment it takes,” Superintendent John Soderman said. “Being on the school board is as close as you can get to your constituents in the political process.
“You can fool with people’s roads, you can change athletic programs at the recreation department – you can even raise taxes. But if you fool with people’s kids, you’ve got war.”
Soderman remembered Forrester as someone who tried to make everybody happy.
“And George, he was like a laser beam as he got to the heart of every issue,” Soderman said.
“On the other side, we never really understood any of his motions, but they were always so eloquent, that they passed,” Soderman joked.
In reviewing his tenure, Echan quoted author Charles Dickens “that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The most challenging, he said, was implementation of the competencies and strategic plan.
“It’s impossible to overstate the degree of institutional resistance,” he said. “Skepticism was rampant; holding the course at the board level was really taxing at that time.”
Echan said teacher discontent was at its highest from 1998-2001.
“They were being asked to do more and were not being rewarded even by a cost of living salary increase,” he said. “The crankiness was fully understandable.”
That period also marked what Echan cited as board dysfunction.
“Each board member then – including myself – contributed to many instances of disrespect and in-fighting. That’s what pains me most in retrospect.”
As difficult as implementation was of the competency-based system, Echan said it pushed Douglas County ahead of the state and national curve in anticipating state standards and the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind.
“I am really proud of the teacher-administration collaboration not only in academics, but in lobbying the Legislature. I’ll never forget marching arm-in-arm with teachers picketing the Legislature. It was really a seminal moment for me,” Echan said.
Forrester cited the quality of Douglas County’s teachers and administrators.
“Before I came on the board, I always thought public employees meant one guy working and three watching. It’s not way in Douglas County. People like (Superintendent) John Soderman work at least 60 hours a week. The teachers, too. They treat the school district like it’s their own business,” he said.
Forrester said he is concerned about Douglas County’s efforts toward redevelopment and the impact it has on school funding.
“We’re selling our souls for sales tax dollars for the next 30 years that the school district won’t get. It’s corporate welfare,” he said.
“We tried to get them (the county) to bypass the school district. They can do that, but they won’t,” he said.
Redevelopment is funded through a tax increment mechanism. Property taxes in those areas – including those of other agencies such as the school board and swimming pool district – are frozen. As rates go up, agencies collect taxes at the frozen rate while the remainder of the taxes go toward redevelopment.
School officials were upset that the Sunridge Golf Course was added to the next proposed redevelopment district in north Douglas County.
“Seventy-five percent of the land in the district has to be developed, so they pulled in Sunridge,” Forrester said.
Forrester said he doesn’t believe the 2005 legislative session will present the same challenges to school funding that marked the 2003 battle.
“I don’t think there will be a push for new taxes,” he said. “The economy is in better shape in the state. No. 1 is to figure out if we’re going to grow again. We did 800 building permits last year and had hardly any new kids.”
Declining enrollment at the Douglas County’s Lake Tahoe schools has been the subject of meetings between parents and school officials as well as the turnover of principals at Whittell High School.
“Lake parents have very, very high expectations.” Echan said. “Their interest has been their passion for their kids. I never considered it petty. They had very legitimate complaints and I think those issues are moving in the right direction.”
As for consolidation of schools if the enrollment drops, Echan and Forrester said a decision is four or five years down the road, but discussion is under way.
Forrester advised the new board members to resist the urge to micromanage.
“When you first get on the board and people call you up, you feel important. You want to flex your muscles. The only person we ‘boss’ is John (Soderman). Don’t bug the administration and the principals,” he said.
Echan and Forrester urged the board members to try to avoid what Forrester called “tail-chasing.”
“The board should not be distracted by day-to-day business,” Echan said. “There is an obligation to think about what the district will look like and should be doing in five to 10 years.”
Both men said they would continue public service.
Forrester said he would be available when the Legislature convenes in February in Carson City.
Echan is a former Douglas County planning commissioner and has held leadership positions in the Tahoe-Douglas Chamber of Commerce, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority and the Rotary Club.
“I come from a family where community service is part of your responsibility. I will definitely be back in public service,” he said.
— Sheila Gardner can be reached at email@example.com or 782-5121, ext. 214.