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Class Is in Session for 18,000 Members of School Boards

March 31, 1985|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer

Thomas Devine's 71-year-old feet were sore Saturday and his white buckskin shoes already had a nasty black scuff on them only midway through the Anaheim Convention Center gathering of those who control the nation's lower-education schools.

"Some fat woman stepped on my toe. I tell you where she's from: North Carolina," said Devine, chairman of a Brockton, Mass., school committee that governs one high school. "I looked at her tag to see."

Of the 104 educational seminars offered at the 45th National School Boards Assn. convention, Devine said he was most interested in "how to hire and fire a superintendent."

"I think I'll enjoy that one."

Still, the craggy-faced Devine admitted he was learning something and enjoying himself, too, as one of an estimated 18,000 school board members from around the country who are attending the convention, which opened Friday and runs through Tuesday. And education is the intent of the gathering, organizers say.

Seminars and Speeches

The five-day event features seminars on such sweeping issues as declining enrollment, overcrowding, student drug abuse, the impact of tougher academic standards, computers in the classroom, employee discrimination and student prayer and religion in the schools.

Several of the educational clinics will address the problems and issues that are important to Orange County school board members, issues that county Supt. of Schools Robert Peterson defined as student dropouts, drug abuse and troubles caused by a declining school-age population.

Peterson, who led a seminar on academic competitions, said the average Orange County dropout rate, while less than Los Angeles County's 30% to 40%, is "horrendous . . . and we expect it will worsen." The current reform movement toward tighter standards and "academic excellence," a controversial issue among many school boards present, contributes to the dropout problem and the existing dilemma of how to motivate the "non-bookish" mediocre student, he said.

Gen. Alexander Haig, former secretary of state and White House chief of staff, was the keynote speaker at a packed arena Saturday. And although he did not talk about any of those educational issues, he received an enthusiastic response as he called for support of the Reagan Administration's foreign policy and defense spending.

The crowd gave him a lengthy applause when, near the end of his afternoon talk, the former cabinet member said that the United States needed "to keep our military power strong and credible."

Before the convention closes Tuesday, the school board members will also hear from former President Gerald Ford, Maureen Reagan and singer-actress Pearl Bailey, as well as education leaders and noted authors.

Representing some 97,000 school board members around the country, the NSBA acts as a lobbying group to push educational legislation but does not maintain political action groups or support candidates financially. However, the association does have a governing board of delegates that adopts resolutions, and on Saturday morning the delegation approved several of these, including one opposing mandatory prayer in schools.

Restaurants, Bars Busy

Hotels surrounding the convention center had been booked months in advance for the NSBA convention, and hundreds of school board members made a family vacation out of the long weekend. Name-tagged NSBA attendants filled the miniature boats in Disneyland Hotel's man-made lagoon and restaurants and bars spilled over with business.

"We don't go to all of (the seminars) but we've gone to some," said Jean Litts, who is attending the convention with her husband, Charles, a school board member and farmer in Vernon, Iowa. They brought their teen-age son, Brian, along too.

"We've spent most of our time trying to find our luggage," Brian Litts joked. "No, we've been eating and looking and enjoying the sun," his mother said.

The buckskin-shod Devine, manager of a private golf course and father of two children, heads the Southeastern Regional Committee, which governs a high school where vocational training rather than college preparation is stressed and where 96% of the students land jobs upon graduation, he said.

Visit to the 'Doctor'

And so it was not surprising that he and another board member, Ralph Armstead, 50, a muffler shop owner and father of five, took time out from the clinics to chat with "Dr. Fluid Power" in the convention's exhibition hall. The "doctor," decked out in white medical coat and stethoscope, was peddling computer programs for teaching high school students how to be auto mechanics and "fluid power specialists."

For the chance to influence the people who decide how to spend billions in school dollars, exhibitors filled the cavernous convention center arena with displays ranging from a $40,000 state-of-the-art school bus to schoolyard maintenance vehicles to aids for handicapped students to playground equipment.

Among the exhibitors were representatives of the Girl Scouts of America, which is seeking active participation from schools throughout the nation in a new after-school program for "latchkey children." Scout members between the ages of 5 and 14 are eligible for the budding program, which "won't be a baby-sitter service," said Toby Wolfson, the youth organization's national and international consultant on educational programs.

Some Boards Stay Home

New Englanders Armstead and Devine, who were enjoying the balmy Southern California weather Saturday, said it was unfortunate that many school boards--thankfully not theirs--refuse to send their members to the yearly convention, for which registration alone costs about $300.

"They think its a country-club affair, with people sitting out by the pool," Armstead said. "But when you're at home, all you know (as a board member) is what your superintendent wants you to know."

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