- Education is vitally important.
- I support public schools.
- I want to serve our community by serving on its school board.
- The school board exists to provide oversight and support.
- I have education and experience to offer to the school board.
- I will bring positive values to the school board.
1. Education is vitally important.
Education is a systematic way of passing on knowledge, values, and skills from one generation to the next. We educate our children to give them what they will need to survive and thrive in the world. We hope that learning will be fulfilling for them personally and will make them whole people in a healthy community.
Our children should all learn to read and write and use math and science. They should all learn the essentials of our history. They should learn the core democratic values on which our nation is based. They should learn critical thinking skills so that they can tell the difference between truth and falsehood, so that they will not be easily misled. They should also learn to value honesty, integrity, diligence, empathy, and generosity so that they will not take advantage of others.
That is to say: they need to learn both quantitative-analytical intelligence and social-cultural intelligence, because we live not only with numbers, materials, and machines but also and especially with people. They need physical education, so that they learn to exercise and care for their bodies, and education in the arts, so that they learn to exercise and care for their souls. And by the time they finish high school, they should be helped to discover whether they will want to advance into vocational education in the skilled trades or in commerce, or whether they will want to pursue higher education in the humanities or the sciences.
We want to equip our children to succeed us but also to surpass us, because in our fast-changing world they face not just the same challenges that we have faced but also new challenges. So we don’t want to just pass along to them what we already know. We want to equip them to discover new knowledge. We need to help them learn curiosity and creativity.
We want our young people to be educated in all these ways not only for their own good but also for the good of their families, their communities, their nation, and the world.
2. I support public schools.
I believe in public education. Public education does not form isolated individuals. It does not divide our community into mutually uncomprehending and suspicious blocs. Nor does it homogenize our community. It educates in a setting that fosters unity amid diversity.
My parents resisted a certain amount of social pressure in sending me and my sister to public schools rather than to a private school sponsored by their church. I am glad they did. When we send our children to public schools, we teach them to get along with all kinds of people in our communities, and we create life-long bonds between people of different economic, social, racial, and religious backgrounds. We should honor and preserve our distinctive cultural traditions. Our schools should neither promote and privilege nor demean and erode each family’s particular religious or cultural heritage; they should honor particularities and differences while grounding our children in our shared civic culture.
Some people support measures that divert funding from the public school system to support competing private systems. I do not. Public education is more necessary now than ever and must be available to all and financially supported by the community as a whole.
3. I want to serve our community by serving on school board.
Through the tumults of recent months and years in the USA, the firm conviction formed in me that I must participate not in tearing down our community but in building it up. I must find a way to serve locally. I concluded that for me the best avenue of service is on the school board.
When my wife and I were preparing to move from New Hampshire to Michigan in 2003, we researched the school systems in the Grand Rapids area. My wife found school districts with good ratings and reputations that would be a reasonable drive from my workplace. She looked for a school system filled with ordinary people, not a social elite. We liked Caledonia’s blend of people connected with jobs in town and people who farmed and kept livestock. And—having children who were interested in music—we discovered an outstanding music educator who was involved both with the elementary school that our son would attend immediately and in the high school that both children would eventually graduate from.
So we were parents of children who attended Caledonia Community Schools from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2011. We were pleased with and grateful for the education that they received. Their Caledonia education has served them well. They have gone on to earn degrees from internationally ranked universities.
In several ways, those were simpler days. More recent years have brought heightened cultural stresses and strains. The stresses and divisions that afflict our nation as a whole have filtered down to the local level and threaten to disrupt the positive educational culture that we valued for our children. I think it is important to maintain that middle word in the name of our school district: community. We have positive values here in Caledonia (see my section on values), and we need to uphold them, and we need to fend off forces that would twist those positive values into negatives and set us at odds with each other. We need to make sure that our children learn not only reading, writing, and arithmetic but also the habits and disciplines that make for constructive life together in community with people who are alike in some ways and different in other ways.
Our current political environment in the USA and in Michigan is polarized and turbulent. A couple of years ago I asked myself: how I can I stop just worrying about it and do something to help? I figured: it has to be local, and it has to be something I know something about and care deeply about. After that, the answer came quickly. I can help by serving on the school board.
4. The school board exists to provide oversight and support.
School board members are called trustees. Not mascots, not managers, and certainly not meddlers or quibblers. Trustees. They are entrusted by the community with oversight and support of the school district.
Public schools operate in the space between expertise and accountability. Teachers and administrators have expertise. They are also accountable to their communities. Public schools are in some respects accountable to national and statewide standards, but they are fundamentally local institutions. The school board must oversee the relationship between these legitimate but sometimes competing influences.
Over against excessive national or state attempts to control content or methods in education, the school board is there to say: our local values—the values of parents in this community—will be respected here. At the same time, over against attempts by individual parents to assert individual or factional pressure on content or methods in education, the school board is there to say: legitimate knowledge in the various disciplines, and the interests of diverse elements in our society, will be respected here.
The school board exists to offer not only oversight but also support. The school board is the team the community has elected to keep an eye on what resources the schools and its hard-working teachers need and to make sure the community provides those resources.
The schools must be respected as a sacred space into which partisan political interests, or any other factional or ideological interests, will not be permitted to extend their divisive campaigns. School board meetings are not best seen as an opportunity to open a new front in the culture wars. The school board carves out and maintains the space within which school administrators have the responsibility and the freedom to teach our children well. The school board has to find the balance between keeping the school system accountable and guaranteeing administrators and teachers the freedom and the resources to do their work well.
5. I have education and experience to offer to the school board.
My education and my work experience equip me well to serve as a school board trustee. I do not ask to be called “Dr. Ernest”—“James” is fine—but I am an educated educator and a seasoned leader. I don’t have all the answers (one of the main benefits of higher education is that you learn that you don’t know everything!), but I can help people of good will think through problems and find answers.
I was a student in public schools from first grade through high school graduation in Hopewell VA. I served as a substitute teacher in the public high schools of Boston MA for a couple of years while I was a graduate student. Our children attended Caledonia Community Schools from the time we moved to Michigan in 2003 through their graduation.
My education extended well beyond high school. I majored in philosophy and ancient language studies at Wheaton College in Illinois. I studied theology as an MDiv student at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts. The MDiv is a degree program designed to train pastors. In addition to academic subjects (biblical, historical, and theological studies) it includes intensive leadership training of various kinds (public speaking, managing relational dynamics, etc.). Along with the coursework for the MDiv, I served internships in churches and underwent a summer of intensive chaplaincy training in an acute-care hospital (which is where I met my wife, Beth). After the MDiv I completed the process for ordination as a Presbyterian pastor; but my path led me instead into further education: first an MA in Greek and Latin classics at Boston University, then a PhD in the history of Christian life and thought at Boston College.
The public schools are not places for Christian formation or for theological education, but in an area like Caledonia, my theological education equips me to understand values that are important to many parents and students and to moderate conversations between faith, reason, and culture. And the leadership training that I received in seminary is transferrable to non-church settings. Schools and school boards, like churches, can be places where some core values are shared but conflict nevertheless arises over particular controversial points. Steady leadership is needed in such circumstances.
As for work experience: after receiving the education of a pastor, and then the education of a professor, I gained some experience in both roles without ever becoming either full-time and permanently. Rather, I found my life’s work in academic theological book publishing. I worked for a couple of years for an educational publisher in Cambridge MA, then for seven years for a book publisher in the north suburbs of Boston. In 2003 we moved here when I went to work as an editor for Baker Publishing Group. For several years I also taught courses for doctoral students at Calvin Seminary. In 2015 I moved to Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing as vice president and editor-in-chief. Many of our books are destined for use by university and seminary students. Universities and seminaries are not the same as K–12 schools; but education is education. Much of my life has been spent in and around educational institutions, educators, and students. But I have learned much from my work in the business world that I never learned in school. I think all this has helped prepare me for service on the school board.
I gained valuable additional experience by serving for six years as a member of the council of elders at a fair-sized local church. I served as secretary, as vice chair, and as chair of that council. I learned much about how a healthy board works from doing that.
6. I will bring positive values to the school board.
I have some definite ideas about virtues and values that are needed on the school board, especially in our current troubled climate. I believe that many Caledonians share these values. These include positivity, respect, harmony, and love.
I want my presence and my words and actions on the school board to be marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, humility, and self-control. A leader must be a servant, and I regard these not as qualities to be cultivated privately and dropped when stepping out into a public space but as essential qualities for a public servant. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are needed. Courage is needed. I have paid enough attention to the news, and have attended enough school board meetings, to know that stepping into public service these days without these qualities would be unwise.
I value harmony and unity. In our national politics we have seen too much polarization. Every issue is simplified into two opposed and mutually exclusive positions, and then the opposed positions are connected with two opposed camps in an ongoing culture war. The goal then becomes to get your own side’s way on every point, using any available tactic. There is an old saying that there are two sides to every argument. But most important questions don’t have just two sides; they have many facets. Reducing important questions to two opposed sides is usually an oversimplification and always produces a situation in which the only possible outcomes are: I win and you lose; you win and I lose; or we stalemate and progress grinds to a halt. This is how national politics now usually works, or rather, doesn’t work. We must not let this disease spread to our school board. Our goal must always be “getting to yes”; i.e., delving into the complexities, acknowledging all the truths, finding what everyone really needs, and finding solutions that let everyone—especially our students—win.
I value respect. Name-calling, caricaturing, exaggerating, catastrophizing, and outright lying—these are corrosive habits that fuel negative emotionality and create strife and chaos. We must not let such habits invade our school board meetings. Our school board must be a zone in which respect is required and habitually given.
I value good process. This is a term I learned from a wise fellow elder in the church setting mentioned above. Good process is respect in action. There can be differences of opinion about important issues. We can be tempted to use shortcuts and power plays to get our way on those issues. But maintaining the fabric of our life together means following good process. School board members are not lone rangers, licensed to intervene and interfere randomly in all kinds of matters in the schools. The role of school board members is to provide for good leadership by hiring and staying in touch with a superintendent and top-level administrators in the various schools, and then to hold them accountable for doing their jobs well. It is not to step in and try to take over their jobs when this or that decision does not suit our personal preference or the personal preference of one of the people who elected us. The school board sets direction and establishes a tone but does not take over the day-to-day tasks of individual teachers or administrators. Anyone who has worked in a healthy, well-functioning company knows this. If core values are not being upheld, if injustice is becoming systemic, you intervene to adjust policies, and, if necessary, personnel. You don’t micromanage. You provide an environment in which everyone can do, and is expected to do, their best work.
I value expertise. We are awash in strongly held opinions grounded in prejudice, partial information, and misinformation rather than in knowledge. People spend many years becoming expert electricians, welders, dentists, systems analysts, surgeons, hair stylists, physicians and historians. We can tell the hair stylist how we want to look, and we can tell the software engineer what we need the program to accomplish, and we can tell the civil engineer that we don’t want the bridge to collapse three years after it’s built. But we don’t pretend to know how to do their jobs. Our schools are staffed with trained professional educators, and we need to recognize their expertise and dedication.
My stance is positive and constructive. In general more is gained by finding what is good and right and promoting more of it than by carping on the negatives. Appreciation is a stronger force for good than denigration.
I believe that the schools, the administrators, and the teachers are there to serve students. In my work in publishing, I constantly remind my colleagues that we are there to serve readers. In the school system, everyone is there to serve the students. That doesn’t mean doing whatever this or that student or parent wants you to do in every moment; even if that were possible, it would be unwise. Rather, it means persisting in doing what is best to equip students for life.
In my list of values above, the first word was “love.” Love is not a wispy sentiment; it is a resolute disposition. It implies giving oneself for another. Parents love their children, or should. So must teachers (in my experience, most of them do!). So must administrators. And so must school board members. Not only the students who are easy to love because they are just like me. But also and especially the ones who are harder to love because they are different from me. Diversity is not an ideological goal or fabrication. It is a reality. Love means not forcing conformity in order to manage one’s own anxiety in the presence of difference. Every individual is different. Some are more different than others. The ones who are more different are not to be feared, despised, shunned, or scapegoated. They are to be loved and served—and educated. A community—or a school system—in which the prime directive is love is a community that will be marked also by joy and peace. In such a community, everyone will be heard, everyone respected, everyone encouraged to do their best. In a community like that, learning and flourishing will happen.
UPDATE 8/7/2022: Now see https://ernest4calschools.org/.
UPDATE 11/13/2022: See https://www.facebook.com/Ernest4CalSchools/posts/pfbid0TtndW2nF1ngkRqETsSJqKuBVTxt8SS7KmiCyGmoPyHJgmJmDJRoMYqFJsyxmNLDKl