Boards of Contention: Introduction

By Lynn Olson & Ann Bradley — April 29, 1992 19 min read

Last July, Massachusetts abolished the nation’s first elected school board.

Boards of Contention
Boards of Contention: Introduction
Historians Cite ‘Steady Erosion’ in Local Control
In Cash-Strapped Districts, Spending Gets New Scrutiny
Tales of Two Boards: Under State Order, Dallas Tries To Clean Up Its Act
Tales of Two Boards: In ‘Good’ N.J. District, Board Tries to Find Its Way
Unions Strive to Elect Friendly Board Members
‘Minimal’ Training May Not Fit Boards’ Needs
Seven Days a Week
Up for Discussion
In Promoting Change, Board Support Is Essential
Kentucky Lawmakers Redefine Power of School Boards
After 52 Years, ‘Hard Worker’ Is Ousted From Office

After more than 200 years, Gov. William F. Weld replaced the popularly elected Boston School Committee with one appointed by the mayor.

“The citizens of Boston will be disenfranchised by this legislation,’' Governor Weld acknowledged at the time. But, he said, Boston’s schools are “in desperate need of fundamental change.’'

Rarely in American history have school boards been under such attack.

Today, a combination of forces--ranging from ever-increasing state mandates to fast-changing demographics--has come together to threaten an institution once considered synonymous with public education in the United States.

In districts throughout the country, radical governance ideas are taking hold. Parents can now choose from among public schools; schools have been empowered to decide whom to hire and how to spend their money; and the operation of entire school districts has been delegated to private management firms.

As the educational landscape shifts, most agree that the roles and responsibilities of school boards cannot possibly remain static.

While some think the existing system of local lay governance of education is still viable, increasingly vocal critics are calling for major changes. Some would even scrap it for an entirely revamped infrastructure.

‘Superfluous Institutions’?

“Local school boards are not just superfluous; they are also dysfunctional,’' Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, has written, expressing one of the strongest views on the subject.

“At a time when radical alterations are needed throughout elementary-secondary education,’' he argues, “school boards have become defenders of the status quo.’'

Far from contributing to education reform, adherents to Mr. Finn’s line of reasoning contend, school boards have become part of the problem: mired in minutiae, prone to meddling, resistant to change, and victims of public apathy toward elected government in general.

“I think a lot of school boards are taken in by the bureaucracy and fed the kind of information that would please them,’' says Herbert J. Walberg, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who recently edited a book on school boards. “And since many of them are essentially amateurs and only stay on the board for two or three years, it’s a way that the education establishment maintains the status quo.’'

Mandates From Above

Whether one shares such critics’ views or not, school boards clearly are caught in the crossfire of rapidly changing ideas about who should control public education in America.

The 1980’s witnessed an unprecedented growth in state control of education, as one state after another passed comprehensive reform laws dealing with everything from who should teach to the content of the curriculum.

State financing for public education is also approaching local expenditures for the first time in history. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the state share of K-12 schooling is now 46.4 percent; the local share is 47.6 percent.

In the midst of such changes, local school boards have been largely left out of the debate.

“Local boards never, ever caught the big picture of what needs to be done in public education,’' says Howard M. O’Cull, the executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, “and because they haven’t, states simply moved the policy arena to the state capital.’'

By 1986, a national poll of school-board members revealed high levels of anxiety about the intrusiveness of state policymaking into local affairs.

The potential creation of national standards and assessments in education could undermine local control still further.

Threats From Below

Hemmed in by mandates from above, boards have also found themselves challenged from below.

If schools are empowered to make decisions about everything from budgets to curricula--as many reformers now advocate--then boards of education cannot continue to exercise the same kind of direct management they have in the past.

The rapid growth of parental-choice plans that enable youngsters to attend schools outside the district in which they live has also threatened the sovereignty of school boards.

Finally, the competing demands on boards from a host of special-interest groups have resulted in what some observers describe as “policy gridlock,’' in which boards cannot possibly satisfy all parties.

Today, argues Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, education is being pushed and pulled by a “fragmented, elevated oligopoly’’ in which no one group has central control of the schools.

Although every state but Hawaii delegates substantial authority to local boards of education, critics charge that their role is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

‘Vast Wasteland’

Worse yet is the sense that school boards have lost their internal compass: that clarity of vision and purpose needed to steer an organization.

John Carver, an expert on private and nonprofit boards, describes local lay governance of education as a “vast wasteland.’'

Even if board members received the best training and acquired the discipline to fulfill their roles as defined by conventional wisdom, he argues, “they would simply have learned to do the wrong things better than before.’'

As most currently operate, Mr. Carver and others assert, school boards are collections of misguided talent that have the potential to accomplish far more for children than they do.

“It’s not that many people see school boards as being damaging to the system,’' says Sharon Brumbaugh, a former board member in Pennsylvania, “but that they are not using the powers they have to bring about change in the system.’'

Amazing Diversity

With 97,000 members on more than 15,000 public-school boards in the United States, it is hard to generalize about their functioning. The diversity is astounding.

They range from the seven-member New York City Board of Education, whose system has more students than there are residents in the state of Rhode Island, to the five-member school board in Big Cabin, Okla., whose entire 58-student population could fit into a few New York City classrooms.

In 1990-91, 54 percent of the nation’s school districts enrolled fewer than 1,000 students each. But 4 percent had enrollments exceeding 10,000--accounting for nearly half of all students nationwide.

“The danger,’' Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University, cautions, “would be for policymakers to generalize about anything as diverse as school boards and, on the basis of that generalization, suggest policy.’'

The Urban Crisis

Most of the national media attention paid to school boards in the past couple of years has focused on the turmoil and dissension on big-city boards of education.

In 1990, 20 of the 25 superintendencies in the largest urban districts were vacant. And media accounts blamed the problem, at least in part, on the personal agendas, daily meddling, and inappropriate behavior of board members.

“Constructive board-superintendent relationships have collapsed almost entirely in many large cities,’' contends a report on school boards released this month by the Twentieth Century Fund and the Danforth Foundation. (“Redefine Role, Duties of School Boards To Focus on Policy,” April 8, 1992.)

Most big-city superintendents now last less than three years on the job.

Others attribute the turnover to the dwindling size and quality of the selection pool from which urban executives are chosen. They argue that some tension between school boards and their chief executive officers is inevitable, since lay boards must rely on these professionals for most of their information. When board members show any inclination to pursue data on their own, they are quickly accused of meddling. And the lack of trust on both sides can become explosive.

‘Impossible’ Task

In some cities, evidence of patronage and the sheer inability of school boards to deliver a solid education to their charges has led to unprecedented measures.

The Jersey City and Paterson districts were taken over by the state of New Jersey, and their existing school boards were disbanded. Boston University assumed operation of the Chelsea, Mass., schools.

And in Chicago, a coalition of advocacy groups pushed through a reform law that created popularly elected councils of citizens, parents, and teachers at each school, gave them the authority to choose principals and spend discretionary funds, and significantly curtailed the powers of the central board.

The vast size of many urban school systems--combined with the daunting social problems they face--has led some scholars to suggest they are simply ungovernable.

“It’s not that board members are malevolent,’' says John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s that they’re responsible for a task that is basically impossible.’'

A Common Problem

But the problems with school boards are not limited to urban areas.

Governance changes in the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 were directed primarily at the nepotism and political agendas that characterized the state’s overwhelmingly rural boards of education.

And many of the nation’s suburban school boards are struggling with the same societal dilemmas as their urban neighbors: a growing population of students from racial, ethnic, and language minorities; a rising incidence of drug, alcohol, and sexual abuse; and a split and fractious community.

In many parts of rural and small-town America, however, the perception remains that school boards still work. In these relatively homogeneous communities, where most people know their board members personally, the sense of crisis is far removed.

“I’m just as happy as I can be when I go back to the Dakotas that the school board is as it’s always been,’' says William H. Kolberg, the president of the National Alliance of Business and a vocal critic of urban boards of education.

Complacency an Issue

But it is precisely the self-satisfaction of some of these suburban, rural, and small-town school boards that worries other observers.

“The biggest problem in some of [these] districts is the complacency about the quality of the educational policies they have,’' Mr. Kirst of Stanford says.

In a 1989 survey of 1,217 school-board presidents across the United States, the vast majority gave low marks to American public education as a whole. But four out of five awarded grades of A or B to the public schools in their own communities.

Presidents in small districts and rural areas gave lower ratings to a variety of reform proposals than did their peers in urban and suburban areas.

“If our criteria are a need for risk-taking, moving away from the status quo, educating the public to understand that reform does not mean going back to what we think worked yesterday,’' says Jacqueline P. Danzberger, an expert on school boards at the Institute for Educational Leadership, “then I think that you find the problem in a lot of kinds of communities.’'

‘No Substantiation’

Despite such charges, there have been few systemic studies of school boards.

Thomas A. Shannon, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, says “there is absolutely no substantiation’’ that public-school boards have stood in the way of reform. “That sort of statement is ‘scapegoatism’ at its ultimate.’'

And Susan Fuhrman, the director of the Center for Policy Research at Rutgers University, says, “I think there are many boards, maybe even a majority of boards, that function the way one would advise them to function, and that is to set general policy and delegate a great deal to the central administration.’'

‘Staff Member’ Once Removed

But if school boards are supposed to focus on broad educational issues, they devote a surprising amount of time to detail.

Critics charge that many boards have become so hopelessly enmeshed in the minutiae of running their districts that they fail to see the forest for the trees.

A study of board minutes from all 55 school systems in West Virginia between 1985 and 1990 found that boards spent only 3 percent of their time on decisions related to policy development and oversight.

At least 54 percent was spent on administrative matters, according to Mr. Carver, who has been advising the state’s legislature on governance issues. At most, 42 percent was spent on decisions that could legitimately be called “governance.’'

“There is no reason to expect the West Virginia data to differ substantially from that which would be obtained elsewhere in the country,’' Mr. Carver writes. “Recent articles in the literature suggest that the same disease afflicts all.’'

Mr. Carver argues that boards have become a “staff member one step removed,’' rather than the policymakers they claim to be. “The fact that you can’t hire a janitor or a teacher without a board taking action is ludicrous,’' he says.

‘Micro-Management’ a Problem

The report by the Twentieth Century Fund cites the “tendency for most boards to ‘micro-manage’'' as the biggest problem they face.

A curriculum audit of the District of Columbia schools last fall found that board members made 181 written requests for information in 1991--many of them “frivolous.’'

Another indication of how bogged down boards can become in trivia is the number of times they meet. The Tucson, Ariz., school board met 172 times in one year. In such instances, superintendents spend most of their time servicing the board.

“If boards continue to involve themselves in some of the day-to-day things that should be left to the administration,’' warns Edward Garner, the former president of the Denver Board of Education, “I don’t think boards as we know them today will exist in the future.’'

‘Serious Trouble’

The tendency of boards to become immersed in fine print has also blurred the distinction between policy and administration and led to repeated charges of “meddling.’'

In Seattle, recalls Reese Lindquist, the president of the local teachers’ union, one board member decided to take the school system’s budget home and analyze it in detail.

“It was so large, she had to get a custodian to help carry it to her car,’' he laughs. “Any school-board member who thinks that’s their responsibility is in serious trouble.’'

Other observers charge that the focus on minutiae discourages corporate executives, university presidents, and other prominent citizens from serving on school boards.

“If a body is legally responsible for everything that goes on in a school district, and if the majority of people who come on a board do not have strong, broad, and deep leadership backgrounds,’' Ms. Danzberger of the I.E.L. says, “then the tendency is to get into everything.’'

‘Dictated by the State’

In fairness to boards of education, much of the trivia on their agendas derives from state mandates.

West Virginia requires local boards to approve all student field trips. The California education code requires them to approve all student expulsions.

“My own experience is that our board meetings are dictated almost entirely by the state,’' says Ms. Fuhrman, who recently completed a term as a public-school board member in New Jersey.

Such dictates, she adds, take time away from discussions about education and prevent boards from focusing on long-range planning.

“We don’t have the freedom to spend as much time discussing education issues as I would like to,’' laments Leslie Q. Giering, an 18-year board member in the 1,100-student Bloomfield Central School District in New York State.

“When I was first elected, we met once a month,’' she says. “Then we began having two meetings a month, with the idea of discussing education at the second. But we find that other things take up our time.’'

A Contradiction

In fact, if most citizens attended an average school-board meeting, they would probably be underwhelmed by its content. But few bother.

Turnouts in school-board elections typically hover between 10 percent and 15 percent of registered voters. And most board meetings are sparsely attended.

Such visible citizen apathy about a purportedly valued institution bodes ill for the future.

If school boards “embody everything that everybody says they love and want in citizen-based control of a major institution,’' notes Neil R. Peirce, a political writer, “why is it that scarcely any of us bother to vote for any of the people who sit on these committees?’'

Board watchers also describe a steady decline in the number and quality of people willing to run for election. According to Ms. Danzberger, about one-third of board members turn over each year. And it is getting harder and harder to replace them.

The most noticeable drop has been among corporate executives willing to devote energy to board business.

Ward Politics

In large cities, the practice of electing board members from discrete electoral districts--rather than from the city as a whole--has helped increase the representation of minority populations.

But it has also encouraged board members to focus on neighborhood constituencies and on narrow interests, rather than on the system as a whole. In some instances, critics charge, boards function more as neighborhood employment agencies than as service providers.

A 1986 study by the Institute for Educational Leadership found that board members elected by subdistrict were subjected to greater constituent pressure and voted more frequently in response to specific interest groups than did members who were elected at large.

‘No Satisfactory Answer’

The rise of special-interest politics and the number of socially explosive issues that boards face have further impaired their functioning.

“School boards face a whole set of controversial decisions for which there is no satisfactory answer for at least half of the citizens,’' says Denis P. Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. “Abortion and drugs and condom distribution and AIDS and alcohol and sex abuse and poor academic standards--the list is daunting. And school boards, understandably, feel some compulsion to try to step up to the plate and hit the ball. But it has produced a really dysfunctional system in many large cities.’'

In essence, critics assert, some boards have confused representation of the public with the public interest.

“What we’ve really created,’' says Phillip C. Schlechty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., “is a situation in which the board thinks its job is to be responsive to the community.’'

“Its job,’' he continues, “is to be accountable to the community and responsive to parents and kids.’'

Structurally Isolated

Historically, school boards were made independent from local government to insulate education from the corrupting influence of politics. But critics argue that school boards in many instances have become conduits for political influence.

And in contemporary society, the separation is often a disadvantage.

Today, many families have health, social, and emotional problems that cannot be solved by the schools alone. Yet, the continued structural isolation of school boards has made it difficult to coordinate activities on behalf of youngsters and their families.

“School boards were not set up to deal with social services and linkages to outside agencies,’' notes Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the director of education studies at the Committee for Economic Development. “And, frankly, a lot of them just feel overwhelmed.’'

When school boards do try to meet their students’ nonacademic needs, they can get burned.

Sue Cummings, the former chairman of the Roseville, Minn., school board, was turned out of office by voters in the conservative, heavily Catholic community outside the Twin Cities after she supported spending $10,000 of the district’s money to help a health clinic locate in the town.

“It is so hard for me to describe the tenor of the community during that time,’' she says. “They went wild, they were so emotional. People who were my avid supporters called me and said the Catholic priest had condemned me to hell from the pulpit by name.’'

The reaction also stemmed, she says, from the community’s refusal to acknowledge the circumstances of its children’s lives, such as teenage pregnancy.

“People kept saying, ‘No, no, no, this doesn’t happen here,’'' she recalls. “The statistics clearly show that these are not inner-city problems, that small towns in Minnesota have every bit the same problems.’'

The ability of 92 percent of public-school boards to raise taxes and spend money as they see fit has further strained the relationship between local boards of education and their municipalities.

Some mayors and town-council members charge that this fiscal independence has produced waste and inefficiency and decreased school boards’ accountability to the public.

‘Arm of the Community’

Despite such criticisms, few think that Americans will do away with school boards entirely.

The notion that local schools are the public’s to run is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

“The board really is the arm of the community,’' says Margaret Myers, a member of the Muscatine, Iowa, school board. “I truly believe, the longer I have been involved in this, that there is real value in this kind of openness, doing business in open meetings, so that everyone in the community has the opportunity, whether they take it or not, of knowing and understanding what is going on in their school district--which is funded by their tax dollars.’'

Without the help of school boards and their communities, adds Mr. Shannon of the N.S.B.A., real reform will not occur.

“School-board members are the gatekeepers of reality,’' he argues. “It’s one thing to have a good idea. It’s quite another to take it and put it in a form that works and that can be paid for.’'

The strain of meshing this view with recent ideas about reforming educational governance is what this Education Week special report is all about.

It is based on interviews with nearly 160 people across the United States, including almost four dozen public-school-board members.

To help zero in on the problems and realities confronting lay governance of public education in America, it tells a tale of two school boards--one urban, one suburban--in different parts of the country.

Dallas was selected because it epitomizes many of the criticisms heaped on urban boards of education. Last year, the state appointed a special “monitor’’ to help improve the board’s functioning.

Parsippany-Troy Hills, N.J., was selected to examine the governance of education in a moderately sized, moderately well-functioning school district that is struggling with many of the same problems as school boards nationwide.

A third piece is based on the daily logs kept by a veteran board member in Longmont, Colo., to illuminate how board members actually spend their time.

Finally, the report explores the wide array of alternatives being proposed to revamp the existing system of lay governance: from minor modifications to massive restructuring.

The intent is less to apportion blame than to shed light on what one observer describes as the most “understudied, underdeveloped link’’ in educational governance.

This special report was underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

This special report was underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: Introduction