Friday, May 6, 2011

The Challenges of Local School Boards

(I am reprinting this opinion piece, with permission from The Education Gadfly, a Bulletin of Weekly News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. I will provide subscription information at the end of the article. While I don't always agree with the positions taken by the Fordham Institute, the weekly email newsletter provides valuable information about national issues and trends, local initiatives that are working and more.)

Several weeks ago, the Fordham Foundation sponsored an event called Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? I have embedded the video from the event.

The shortcomings of elected local school boards are only the most obvious of the many problems of education governance in the United States in 2011. To be sure, those boards are a fundamental part, maybe the largest part, of our customary governance arrangements, but my discontent with them is just part of my larger dissatisfaction with all traditional governance and structural arrangements for K-12 education on these shores.
     These arrangements, though they differ some from place to place, generally display four characteristics that make them obsolete at best and dysfunctional at their all-too-common worst:
     First, while formal constitutional responsibility for educating kids belongs to the states, the actual delivery of that education falls squarely on local education agencies, typically called districts, which are geographically defined, most often by the boundaries of a city, town, county, or other municipality. Kids are generally educated in public schools operated by these districts.
     Second, though states have shouldered some responsibility for financing public education, usually by decreeing a minimum or “foundation” level of per-pupil spending, sizable portions of education revenue are locally generated through property taxes, bond levies, and such. Those amounts differ enormously from place to place within the same state and are uncommonly vulnerable to interest group manipulation and local politics.
     Third, at both the state and local levels, public education usually operates under governance arrangements that are separated from the rest of state and municipal governments, most commonly by being answerable to a separate board of education, most often elected, sometimes appointed, rather than directly to the governor, mayor, county commission, city council, or whatever. Historically, this was intended to buffer education from conventional politics and patronage.
     Fourth, overall education governance has multiple layers, always at least three, often four and sometimes more. At minimum, these layers represent decisions made in, and funding arising from, Washington, the state level, and the local level. Besides all that, governance-type decisions may be made at the building level—and frequently at intermediate levels within a big district or region of a state.
     I’ve come to believe that, whatever sense this set-up may have made fifty or a hundred years ago, it doesn’t make much today. Indeed, none of those four elements makes sense.
Too often, imaginative, energized, and forward-looking superintendents are undermined, shackled, and distracted by seven or nine member boards, each consisting of seven or nine separate agendas.
     The multi-layer decision-making structure, while faithful in its way to American federalism, mainly serves nowadays to pull schools apart in response to funding and regulatory streams emanating from different levels of government, to foster bureaucracy, confusion, and tension and, maybe most importantly, to give every level a functional veto over reforms initiated at any other level. It doesn’t matter how much a state may want to participate in Race to the Top, for example, when each district in that state decides for itself whether to join in. Conversely, a district may yearn to bring Teach For America to town but the alternative certification rules for that district are set by the state.  And these examples don’t even touch upon NCLB or the myriad other ways that Uncle Sam confounds and complicates how states and districts run their schools.
     Separate governance for education doesn’t make much sense, either, not when we recognize that developing kids doesn’t just involve their cognition but also their physical health, social development, character, and much else. Why is education governance divorced from health, welfare, recreation, and the rest? Observe how often we burden the schools with obligations to prevent drug abuse, make kids fit, teach them character, get them inoculated, keep them off the streets, and on and on. How much more sensible it would be to place the same folks in charge of schools, juvenile justice, nutrition, public health, family services, etc.?
     We now live in a highly mobile society and one that’s highly metropolitanized: over 80 percent of Americans live in urban locales and nearly 15 percent change residences in any given year. We’re no longer a land of small towns with geographically rooted, multi-generation families. There’s no reason for primary-secondary education to be different, or differently governed, or differently financed, from Anne Arundel County to Prince George’s County, MD, or from Arlington to Alexandria to Fairfax, VA. The same goes for Brookline to Newton in MA and Evanston to Winnetka in IL. In fact, these boundaries often impede student learning, restrict choice, and confound budgets. Think about kids attending schools across district lines, charter schools, or virtual schools that may operate statewide or in multiple states. Why are we jamming these educational realities and funding flows onto the traditional municipal system? If a kid who lives in Dayton attends the Ohio Virtual Academy, or Oakwood or Kettering High School (in nearby suburbs), or splits his time between the Ponitz Career Technology Center and Sinclair Community College, who exactly is responsible for that kid’s education? And who is paying for it? As the system is currently defined, that burden is mainly owned by the Dayton Public School district, just because that kid’s parents happen to live within the city limits of Dayton this month.
     As for school boards, I’ll concede that in some suburbs, small towns, and rural communities, the elected board may still consist of selfless community leaders who want only the best for kids. In our cities, however, and in plenty of other places large and small, I challenge you to point me to more than a handful of examples of local districts that, over a prolonged period (e.g. a decade), have been able to devise, execute, and stick to a kid-focused, quality-driven reform agenda for their schools. Too often, imaginative, energized, and forward-looking superintendents are undermined, shackled, and distracted by seven or nine member boards, each consisting of seven or nine separate agendas. And far too often for the good of the kids in their community, those seven or nine people fit into three types. There’s the aspiring politician for whom the school board is a step toward the legislature, county council, or wherever. Then there’s the single-issue zealot, bent on a particular curriculum, neighborhood, patronage arrangement, weird cause, or adult interest, often tugged and manipulated by outside constituencies, including teacher unions. And, third, there’s the vengeful former employee of that very district, bent on getting the superintendent or someone else fired and replaced.
     This is no good way to run a railroad, much less our children’s educations. We need to find a better one. I’m not yet ready to spell out some possible solutions, but I’m sure ready to declare that we have an enormous problem in need of fresh alternatives, not more of the same.

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Passionate... said...

Thanks for reposting this article. I agree that a few areas still have selfless board members. I could only imagine what a new DCSS superintendent with selfless DCSS board members could accomplish on behalf of the students in DeKalb. Selflessness instead of separate agendas. I can only imagine...

sharon said...

I often think the same thing that the only thing holding US education back is school boards. That too often democracy is the tyranny of the immediate-but on the other hand I think I prefer it. We could have schools run by a professional bureaucracy insulated from popular sentiment and the trains might run on time. But as Elliot said "between the thought and the action lies the shadow".
I do not want to vest the power in some elected politician that represents the whole state who might decide that abstinence only education is right for my child. Professional educators might work on a state wide level- they do it that way in some of the countries in Europe. Whether it is an elected board or a state wide board there is always the threat of getting a bad apple. It's more work but we just will have to be vigilant either way.

Anon said...

I think we need to develop something better... maybe it's what City of Decatur is doing... school boards that don't get paid...

Dekalbparent said...

To me, it keeps coming back to the size of the district. Decatur's school board works as well as it does partly because the school system is as small as it is - it is possible to consider the needs of all the children because the number is within the capability of a human mind to think about.
In turn, because they can thnk about al the children and all the schools and keep them in their minds, the issues become manageable to think about (not to deal with, but to think about).
The fact that they have volunteered for the job goes a long way, too.

sharon said...

The pay for school board is nominal. It is hard to believe anyone would do it for the money unless it was the only way they could be employed. I think the reason has more to do with who we elect than the number of the pay. My suggestion is that no one gets to run until they pass the high school graduation test.
And perhaps every time there is a convenient leak to the paper we ask that they sign a statement saying that they did not do it. I wonder what would happen if during the public comments a speaker passed out such affidavits and asked for signatures. Would Channel 2 out someone if they knew that had falsely sworn to be innocent?

Cerebration said...

unless it was the only way they could be employed

Sadly, I think we happen to have a few of those on our board.

gapeach920 said...

Sharon--May 6, 2011 2:56 PM

...."My suggestion is that no one gets to run until they pass the high school graduation test."

I'm with Sharon on this one! Since the Board is the "boss" of the superintendent (who usually has at least a Master's degree or higher), it doesn't make sense that someone with less education be the superintendent's superior (generally speaking).

themommy said...


We have had and do have some board members who do it for the money.

In the midst of the Clayton County mess a few years ago, there were two board members who told the Governor's representatives that they could only resign if someone would find them a part time job with equivalent pay. (At least one of these, I believe, was a city of Atlanta school teacher.)

So, yes for some people the salary seems to be meaningful.

fedupindcss said...

Not just salary, but travel expenses, free dinners, getting high paying jobs for family members. There is more money in it than just the salary. Plus, there is a lot of power to throw around. That is attractive to people, too.

Open+Transparent said...

Sharon, the pay is not nominal. They receive a stipend, thousands for travel to conferences and meetings, etc., etc.

I knew a BOE member very well who pretty much lived off the 53 cents per mile reimbursement. She had a number of various lunch meetings, attended every school function possible, county gov't meetings, etc., to accumulate as much reimbursed mileage as possible.

Plus, we have a Human Resources Dept. that for decades has hired friends and family before more qualified candidates. The Guillory's, Callaway's, Freeman's, etc. have made DCSS into Nepotism Central.

Sagamore 7 said...

I still feel the BOE should have to pass an annual credit check and criminal background check also!


Fred said...

Sagamore 7, do you feel that every elected official should have to pass an annual credit check and criminal background check?

SHS said...

@Fred 9:28 PM, May 7, 2011

I am in agreement with Sagamore 7 that all BOE members must pass an annual credit check and criminal background check.

It is pretty clear that, even though Crawford Lewis and Pat Pope have been indicted on RICO charges, there is still an active criminal ring inside of DCSS dealing in stolen property.

Further, yes, I think that all elected officials must pass an annual credit check and criminal background check.

An elected official with financial problems is more likely to engage in criminal activity, internally justifying such activity as personally necessary just for the short term -- just until he/she gets out from under financial problems.

"White collar" theft from within a large organization, such as DCSS, is seen by the financially troubled elected official as a "victimless" crime. They may also justify such theft as "well-deserved payment" for the amount of uncompensated time the elected official spends in his/her elected capacity.

Also, an elected official with a criminal background is likely to have the contacts necessary to carry out theft, especially property theft of quickly and easily disposed of goods.

Ultimately, the elected official becomes a victim of blackmail. And the thefts continue.

Sagamore 7 said...


One of our Dekalb Delegation asked me the same question this year down at the Capital.
I suggested to Rep. Billy Mitchell that the BOE should have to pass the credit and criminal check and he asked, "If they have to pass one then why shouldn't ALL elected officials pass one?"

I said, "Rep. Mitchell, NOW YOU"RE TALKING!"

So to answer your question, YES, I think if a person who is financial services in the State of Georgia
has to pass that test then our ELECTED officials should pass the test also!

They are in charge of our tax dollars!

Fred, let me ask you a question,
"Who would you trust your financial matters to?"

Someone who has a good credit report and clean criminal record or someone who has an extensive "RAP" sheet of criminal wrong doing and a terrible credit score with liens and collections?"

That is the reason that the LAW was created.
To get rid of the people who do NOT have your best interests first!

I am utterly appalled that we have state legislators, county commissioners and school board members that we have elected to manage our taxes, yet they can't manage their own financials!

We have elected stewards of our money/taxes that should NOT be there.

Please let me know your thoughts,
Do you have the same or different feelings?


themommy said...

First, I have been told recently that the corruption in our state legislature makes the stuff in the school systems look like child's play.

Here is why the legislature will never impose credit checks on board of ed members or other elected officials...

Nearly 50 legislators owe Georgia money

This is twenty percent of the state legislature. And this is just one category of a myriad of possibilities where the state legislators could owe money.

pscexb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Open+Transparent said...

Way to represent DeKalb, Pam Stephenson. We haven't forgotten how you parlayed being chair of Grady into the CEO gig, screwing things up even more, and scoring a $700,000 buyout from it, all while serving as a state representative.

Pam is good friends with current DeKalb commissioner Stan Watson. Stan had a shady contract with DCSS supplying staff to work home sporting events for the system, Most systems just have a teacher or staff to supervise JV soccer games and such. But no, DCSS was paying Stan to supply staff, even if there were only 15 people in the stands.

Stan dropped the contract after bloggers brought it to attention when he ran for county CEO.

Pam and Stan are tight with some of our BOE members. Pam and Stan have never met a property tax increase they didn't like. Both have spent their lives living off the public's dime.


Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Lithonia, tops the list of lawmakers the commission says owes fees for not filing disclosures or filing them late. Stephenson, who was being paid $50,000 a month while serving as interim CEO of Grady Memorial Hospital in 2008, owes $1,575 in late fees, the commission said. Stephenson could not be reached for comment.