Seven Days A Week
Feb. 10 was just another ordinary day for William M. Soult, a member of the St. Vrain Valley Board of Education. He began his morning early, meeting with a group of high-school administrators for breakfast at 6:30 AM. After a full day of work at Lexmark, an affiliate of IBM, Mr. Soult attended a gathering at 7 PM to socialize with members of the district’s teachers’ union.
In between these activities, he took a call from a parent, made a phone call to a principal, and spoke with an official from a board of cooperative educational services. Mr. Soult is constantly busy with school-related activities, saying that it keeps him occupied seven days a week. To provide insight into the life of an engaged school-board member, Mr. Soult kept a weekly log of his activities for Education Week. During this six-week period, there was only one day where he had no entry.
The rest of his days were filled with early morning breakfast meetings, board meetings, work sessions, phone calls, reading educational materials, writing letters, and attending district and state basketball games. On weekends, he taught sessions on the history of American public education and the church’s involvement in it at Central Presbyterian Church. One Sunday night, at 10:45 PM during a snowy evening, he spoke with a parent who wanted to know if school was canceled the next day. He also made time to take Spanish classes being offered to the district’s teachers in order to communicate with Spanish-speaking parents and students. At the age of 53, Mr. Soult, a financial planner for Lexmark and a 24-year resident of Longmont, represents the dedicated board members found in school districts across the nation.
Mr. Soult is admittedly busier than the average board member due to his involvement in various organizations. He has been the past president of the Colorado Association of School Boards, the vice president of the National School Boards Association, a member of the executive committee of the Colorado High School Athletics Association, and the chairman of the board of the Mid Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.
During the autumn season, the local press became very interested in the district due to complaints from a group of parents. These parents claimed that a mural painted on the wall of an art classroom had Satanic elements. This led to a two-month long debate on whether or not the district should censor the students’ artwork. Eventually, the board decided to paint over the mural, which was described as an "ugly" painting in the style of the popular role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons." The district’s superintendent, Mr. Soult, expresses frustration over how much time and effort such matters consume.
Despite these occasional distractions, the board of education in this district generally receives praise from the community, administrators, and the teachers’ union. Mary White, the principal of Erie Middle/Senior High School, commends the board for their openness to new ideas and willingness to consider different perspectives. She notes that while they are cautious and require research, they are not close-minded. The board’s primary concern, according to Ms. White, is whether a decision is in the best interest of the students.
Mr. Soult, in particular, is highly regarded as a knowledgeable and conscientious board member. He is known for asking challenging questions and ensuring the district’s finances are well-managed. Before joining the board, Mr. Soult worked as a teacher, teaching physics and mathematics in Harrisburg, Pa. He has a deep interest in educational technology, which developed during his time at I.B.M. in New York State. Mr. Soult and his wife, Laura, who is a preschool teacher in the district, are devoted sports enthusiasts and actively participate in various sports-related activities.
Mr. Soult’s friends often jokingly tease him for his obsessive organization. For example, when planning an annual trip to Kansas City to watch a baseball game, Mr. Soult creates a detailed driving schedule using his computer. This schedule includes specific breaks for pie and coffee, as well as gas and restroom stops. If a driver fails to reach their destination within the designated time, they are responsible for buying a round of drinks. While Mr. Soult is known for his attention to detail, his acquaintances also recognize his ability to bring valuable perspectives at the state and national levels to his work on the board.
Duke Aschenbrenner, the principal of Longmont High School and a member of a group that goes on road trips to watch the Royals play baseball, describes Mr. Soult as a visionary who identifies what needs to be done. However, Mr. Aschenbrenner also notes that Mr. Soult can become disinterested in details such as the color of a building. In contrast to Mr. Soult’s 15 years of service, the current board president, Henri Kinson, has been on the board for 17 years. The rest of the board members have served for five years or less. Until recently, the board consisted solely of men, with some even sporting cowboy boots. One of the two women on the board once joked that it was composed of "two legs, three boots, and two fossils."
The board governs a large district sprawling over 411 square miles, which includes seven towns across three counties. The communities within the district vary widely, from the high-technology hub of Longmont to rural areas with only a few small-scale restaurants and a gas station.
"I believe that schools should not be used as a means to enforce a regional perspective," he asserts. "While there may be educational benefits, I am not in favor of forcing school consolidation. Recently, during a meeting with board members and three mayors from surrounding towns, one mayor threatened that there would be rebellion if schools were consolidated. However, the board members dismissed the threat and made it clear that the option to keep things as they are was not available. If consolidation is not the solution, then they welcome alternative suggestions."
A Hands-Off Approach
The general philosophy of the board, according to Mr. Soult, is to allow local communities and their schools to create plans that suit their specific needs. This same freedom is given to the district’s administrators. "The board allows the administration to make recommendations, and if the board is not satisfied, we do not try to fix it – we send it back for further work," says Mr. Soult. "Problems arise when boards insist on a specific way of doing things."
This approach seems to be effective. In recent years, the school district has transitioned all of its junior highs to middle schools, aiming to create a more supportive environment for adolescents. The high schools are also in the process of implementing "block scheduling," where students study a subject for a semester instead of a full year, with longer class periods that allow for more hands-on activities and group work. While making these changes can be disruptive, especially considering the battles in neighboring communities over middle schools, the St. Vrain Valley district has managed to navigate these transitions relatively smoothly. This may be attributed to the gradual nature of the changes, which aligns with the community’s preferred style. "Change has been incremental," says John Grauberger, the principal of Frederick Middle/Senior High School. "And that’s probably the most effective approach."
Mr. Soult reflects on the early difficulties he faced. In his first attempt to join the school board in 1973, he was soundly defeated. Soon after his successful election in 1977, the board voted to buy out the superintendent’s contract. In the final vote, Mr. Soult cast the deciding vote against the superintendent, as Colorado school board members are required to vote alphabetically. This decision sparked outrage among residents, leading to a recall drive against Mr. Soult in April of 1979. "The community was deeply divided, and the board itself was divided," Mr. Soult recalls. "There was a lack of direction." At one point, Mr. Soult and Mr. Kinson, who voted to retain the superintendent, found themselves at odds. However, they eventually resolved their differences with the help of the state school boards association. "We came to the agreement that it was acceptable to disagree," Mr. Kinson explains, "but we would not take our disagreements outside of board meetings."
"A Major Influence"
Mr. Pierce, the superintendent for the past two years, is commended for fostering an atmosphere that encourages extensive involvement from parents and the community in all significant decisions.
Both Mr. Kinson and Sandy Manly, who was elected to the board last year and is the parent of a school-age child, express their belief that Mr. Soult has become disconnected from the local community. Ms. Manly proudly states her intention to visit every school in the district this year. However, Mr. Soult disagrees with this approach, stating that frequent visits can lead to a superficial understanding of the true situation.
Addressing the demands of the district, the school board, along with Mr. Pierce, has established goals that include a focus on middle schools and high-school restructuring, programs to enhance students’ technological skills, and addressing the needs of at-risk students. A significant portion of the board’s time in meetings is dedicated to overseeing a $47-million bond issue for school renovations and additions.
A review of the board’s agendas from the past year reveals that approximately one-third of the items requiring action were related to the district’s building program. Decisions such as naming contractors, approving change orders, awarding contracts, and selecting architects were made during these meetings. Mr. Soult mentions that most educational discussions take place during work sessions held once a month. However, attending these sessions only occupies a small portion of his time. He regularly communicates with Mr. Pierce about upcoming board business and receives calls from parents, although he usually refers them to administrators.
In terms of meaningful work, Mr. Soult logs meetings and phone calls with the district’s director of staff development to discuss the parent-involvement program. He also attends meetings of various organizations related to education. On one occasion, he had to choose between four local meetings addressing important topics such as school consolidation, serving low-income Hispanic students, teaching about Columbus Day, and developing a new sex-education curriculum. He prioritized the consolidation meeting due to the need for strong school-board representation, the support he received from voters, and the educational questions it posed.
Despite the frustrations and limitations of his position, Mr. Soult finds his work as a school-board member meaningful. He believes that the current wave of criticism towards board members is unproductive. Drawing on his experience as a football referee, he compares the criticism to a coach disliking officials but acknowledging their importance in the game.