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A school board meeting at the Southwest Detroit Community School.

A school board meeting at the Southwest Detroit Community School.

Two charter authorizers want to strengthen school boards in Detroit by training their own members

Charter school boards are run by volunteers — any Michigan resident 18 or older may apply — who spend their spare time making critical decisions about student discipline and curriculum, and how to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

It’s one of the most consequential jobs in education, but recruiting people to fill all the available slots in Detroit, which has roughly 60 separate charter boards, isn’t always easy.

That’s why two of the city’s largest charter authorizers are teaming up with the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce to train businesspeople to serve on school boards, then connect them with charter schools. Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University developed the program in hopes of relieving individual schools of the burden of finding qualified board members.

“These individuals play a vital role in addressing educational inequities and making key decisions that will determine educational outcomes for thousands of children,” said Corey Northrop, interim executive director for Central Michigan’s charter school office, in a statement.

“When a vacancy occurs, that particular school and board are serving with one less leader, so the cultivation process and development of a direct channel to have potential board members ready, and waiting to serve, is a real game-changer,” he added.

School boards have the last word on a host of complex school-related decisions, from student learning, to safety, legal compliance, and finance.

The charter board initiative, called the Detroit Board Leadership Program, is meant to help prepare would-be board members through classes on governance, community relations, and the relationships between charter boards and charter authorizers.

Those who finish the training will be connected with schools that have vacancies on their boards.

They’ll join a minority of board members in traditional and charter schools who’ve received any training at all. Many states require all board members to attend training, but Michigan does not.

“We have districts out there that probably have seven board members that have never taken a class,” said Don Wotruba, president of the Michigan School Board Association, which offers voluntary training to school board members.

Fewer than half of the 4,000 current board members — traditional and charter — have taken any training at all with the school board association. Only 20 percent have earned a basic certification from the organization by taking 24 hours of training in labor relations, curriculum, and education law.

James Schelberg, a podiatrist, knew he had a lot of catching up to do in 2012, when he became president of the board of the Michigan Educational Choice Center, a network of charter schools in Detroit. He was disappointed to learn that he wouldn’t get much help.

“There was no training,” he recalled. “None. We just kind of jumped into it.”

He said he had to play catch-up on questions about governance and compliance.

Schelberg says he’s a beneficiary of Central Michigan’s focus on training. His charter district shifted over to the university this year from another authorizer. He’s already attended one training and expects to attend at least one more before the end of the school year.

“And they push us to take more,” he said. “Which is a good.”