This retired teacher had no idea what her first term on the Port Huron Areas School Board would be like, but “somebody had to do it,” she said.
PORT HURON, MI—Laurie Oldford was a teacher and school social worker her entire career. She retired a few years ago, and settled into a quieter life in Port Huron.
Port Huron is the site of one of Michigan’s international border crossings, the Blue Water Bridge, which is an icon of St. Clair County. In the shadow of that bridge is a town of just under 30,000. The town is as proud of its bridge as it is of being the hometown of Thomas Edison. From small shops on Military Street to a community college serving the entire Thumb region of Michigan to the heavy traffic to and from Canada, Port Huron is a place with a strong local identity.
So when a friend asked Oldford to run for school board, she thought about it for months. She was retired, but she loved her border town. Eventually, she settled on running.
“I really felt like somebody had to do it,” she told The ‘Gander. “I do feel that board members need to be a barometer for what’s going on and need to ask questions.”
But when she was elected two years ago, she was not at all expecting to be doing what she’s doing today.
The Rapid Evolution of a Michigan School Board
Until this year, Oldford’s job was asking the right questions of people who came before the board. It was a job with a burden to represent her community, but it wasn’t demanding on a retiree, particularly in light of the lack of pay.
“People don’t know you don’t get paid,” she laughed.
Some school board members see engaging with the media and trying to guide conversations on schools, she said, while others see the role as just approving or rejecting proposals that come before the board. Oldford is an investigator, asking questions constantly to get as much information as possible to come to the best decision she can.
But that changed dramatically when the coronavirus hit Michigan in March. Suddenly her schedule became packed, the questions she asked became more about safety than about budgets or curricula. Suddenly, a school board’s job included consulting public health experts and determining how students could safely learn during a global health emergency.
Port Huron Area School District, the board on which Oldford serves, decided to offer fully online education for families who choose it for any reason from health to preference. For all other students, Port Huron has created a hybrid model, with some students attending Monday and Wednesday and others attending on Tuesday and Thursday while each group takes an alternating Friday.
Oldford said she’s always reevaluating, trying to find the best answer with the newest information to the problem no one could’ve expected her to solve two years ago.
“The whole COVID crisis has given the school board a new job description,” she said. “That has definitely been something that any typical school board member would not anticipate. When you make the decision to run for school board you wouldn’t be thinking ‘I’m going to be dealing with schools in the middle of a pandemic.’”
School boards like Oldford’s have changed dramatically nationwide, being left to determine what course is needed to educate children safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Working as an elected volunteer, members of school boards have now become full-time, real-time troubleshooters for the unique challenges education faces during the pandemic.
“It really has been very exhausting,” Oldford admitted. “Many times it feels like I have a full-time job. Much of that was because of the pandemic. Typically I wouldn’t put as many hours in but it’s really been necessary.”
She encouraged Michiganders to get involved with their local school boards, be that by attending meetings, voting for candidates Nov. 3, or even considering running for their school board in the future.
After all, as she said, somebody has to do it.