By Susan Markarian, CSBA President
American poet and journalist Carl Sandburg said, “Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.” I relate to this sentiment because the past four decades of my life as a school trustee and as a CSBA member have unfolded in a wonderfully unpredictable manner. I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to win the election when I first ran for school board 38 years ago. Now, here I am, writing the final column of my tenure at CSBA President.
It’s been a tremendous journey so far, and one I plan to continue after I hand the president’s gavel to my successor. I didn’t become a school trustee because I anticipated honor or fame — that’s not a reasonable expectation for a woman of my era who grew up in rural Fresno County. I still reside in that small farming community, about five miles from where I lived as a child, but my experiences as a school board member have taken me to every corner of this great state and formed the basis for lifelong relationships. All of our children should have similar options.
When I first ran for school board, I saw a chance to help provide the next generation of students something I didn’t receive. Living in a small community in a not very wealthy family, I had no access to a university. After graduation, I spent the next four years going to junior college whenever I could find rides. I didn’t have a vehicle, so it was extremely difficult to get there. If I could find a ride with someone that had a similar class schedule, I did, but that wasn’t guaranteed.
My mother also told me that getting me into college was not a priority. It was a different era; I was a girl with four brothers, and the priority was to send my brothers to college. So, I did not get that college experience I desperately desired. Ever since, it’s been a goal of mine to help kids in rural communities find access and develop ways to get to college. That’s what inspired me to run for school board.
Over the years, I’ve been inspired not only by the effort of school trustees, but also by what drives them to do this work. For this reason, I appreciate CSBA’s “What’s Your Why?” interview series with school board members from around the state. It’s always informative and motivating to hear what calls this diverse group of colleagues to service. Although people arrive at their school board seat in different ways, the common denominator is a desire to help children and strengthen the institution of public education that is so vital to local communities and to the nation at large.
This basic truth is easily lost in the controversy and media coverage focused on disagreements and the more sensational aspects of the job. Those are serious matters that deserve attention, but they don’t define us, nor are they reflective of the body of work performed by our governance teams across the state. The overwhelming majority of trustees whom I’ve met during my time as board member have their eyes on the prize — providing a high-quality education to all California public school students. A relentless focus on this goal will help boards weather any storms, prioritize their work and better serve their communities.
Carl Sandburg, whose words began this column, won two Pulitzer Prizes, including one for his biography of President Abraham Lincoln — a man who knew something about persevering through difficult times. Under Lincoln’s leadership, America was able to emerge from its period of greatest division as a stronger nation, imperfect but striving to be better. Although our trials pale by comparison, I hope that we can follow a similar path toward reunion and common goals and come closer to fulling the “whys” that inspired us to run for office in the first place. My “why” continues to be the pursuit of equity and access for all students, but particularly for students in small, rural local educational agencies like Pacific Union Elementary School District, which I’ve had the privilege of representing all these years.
Throughout my time as a board member, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive the counsel of Del Cederquist, who sadly passed earlier this year. Some of you may remember Del, who gained a bit of celebrity for serving on a school board longer than any other person in American history — 65 years in total. Del was an incredible mentor for me and proof of what you can accomplish when you do something for the right reasons. A few years back, when he set the record for longevity as a school board member, he was the subject of a profile in CSBA’s California Schools magazine. When asked what advice he had for new board members, Del responded that, “The biggest challenge I see today is board members coming on to boards as stepping stones to something else. My advice is that there should be one thing you are thinking of when you run for school board — and that’s helping the children.”
I don’t think I can improve on that; it’s the essence of what it means to be a school board member. So, I will leave the presidency with fond memories, extreme gratitude and one final request: Help the children.