Kentucky Lawmakers Redefine Power of School Boards

By Lonnie Harp — April 29, 1992 9 min read

In 1989, the struggle by a group of Kentucky school boards to overhaul the state’s school-finance system was rewarded with a landmark supreme-court decision that forced the state to throw out its entire public-education infrastructure and start over.

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But today, many board members are not sure whether to call what resulted a victory.

In crafting the reform act designed to address the court’s concerns, lawmakers found a new target: the reported nepotism, mismanagement, and political abuses of board members.

“Anyone will tell you the most intense politics that’s ever practiced in Kentucky is school-board politics,’' Senator John D. Rogers was quoted as commenting in a 1989 series of newspaper stories focusing on board abuses. “That’s where all the patronage is.’'

The series by The Herald-Leader in Lexington and other reports by The Courier-Journal in Louisville included numerous examples of board power gone awry and sharpened the focus on governance troubles before the legislature was called into session in 1990.

Powers Diminished

Partly as a result of such charges, the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 made sweeping changes in the way the state’s public schools are governed and redefined the power of school boards.

The law requires board members to have a high-school diploma or its equivalent, limits campaign contributions to $200 per donor, and bars board candidates from accepting campaign funds or services from school employees. It also prohibits any close relatives of district employees from running for school boards.

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Further, the law requires school boards to hire a superintendent based on the recommendations of a separate screening panel. And it strips boards of any direct hiring authority below the level of superintendent.

Many other decisions once reserved for school boards also are delegated to newly created councils of parents, teachers, and principals at each school. By 1996, every school in the state must have a council.

The councils are to choose the principal and other staff members, design the curriculum, assign students to classes and programs, schedule the school day and week, approve instructional practices and discipline policies, and set the requirements for participation in extracurricular activities.

The net effect of the law is to make schools--not school districts--the principal units of accountability in Kentucky.

‘Less Attractive’ Role

The massive reforms have left school-board members in a vacuum--more certain of what they cannot do than of what they should do.

“Right now, most board members would say that their jobs are less attractive than they used to be,’' says Larry D. Powers, the superintendent of the Bourbon County schools and a former official of the Kentucky School Boards Association. “But I think that if you wait two or three years, when everything settles down, they will find themselves feeling much better about the job than they do now.’'

“It’s a matter of us helping school-board members, to use a very time-worn analogy, to see the forest instead of one or two of the trees,’' agrees David Keller, the executive director of the K.S.B.A.

“Part of the increasing comfort level is that boards are finding out they are still responsible for a lot of things and not much has changed,’' he says. “We’ve got to be thinking about what contributions we can make by concentrating on budget development, local accountability, goal-setting, and really bringing together people in the community in support of education.’'

Undermining Reform?

But others still question the role of school boards and, particularly, of the ëŸóŸâŸáŸ, which fought fiercely against the reforms that were eventually adopted.

“School boards have been attempting to undermine education reform at every point and have worked to torpedo site-based management,’' says Representative Roger Noe, the chairman of the House Education Committee and the sponsor of a bill to abolish local school boards and create regional governance councils.

State school-boards officials argue that Mr. Noe targeted the boards because he did not feel they supported him enough in 1987 when he unsuccessfully ran for superintendent of public instruction, a job gutted in the 1990 reforms.

“It is obvious he has his opinion,’' Mr. Keller says. “But it is equally obvious that it is not typical of the General Assembly.’'

Mr. Noe is not, however, the only observer to allege that the state’s school-boards leaders publicly endorsed the reform law, while working behind the scenes to eviscerate it.

Such an approach has been particularly true on the issue of school-site councils. In northern Kentucky, for instance, the K.S.B.A. pledged its support for the autonomous councils in a dispute between board members and the teachers’ union. At the same time, however, it filed a brief in the court dispute that strongly challenged the law’s basic tenets.

Mr. Keller now calls the stern court brief a mistake and underscores the K.S.B.A.'s support for the reforms.

“The acceptance of the law is higher with board members than it is with teachers and school administrators,’' Mr. Keller argues. “There are still some gray areas, but a lot of boards are finding with time that they are much more comfortable with site-based decisionmaking than they were.’'

A Slow Process

But officials throughout the state see the tide of governance reforms turning slowly.

“What’s becoming obvious, and was obvious from the start, is that it is easier to legislate these things than to put them into practice,’' says Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens’ education-advocacy group.

“Right now, a lot of this has to do with what kinds of messages are being sent down through the system,’' he says. “A message that ‘We have problems with this’ can be devastating to the people in the trenches, just as a message that ‘We can do this’ can unlock a lot of potential.’'

In that regard, Mr. Sexton says, the grassroots group is seeing a wide range of school-board reaction, from strong leadership to apathy to open opposition.

“Perhaps the most common thread is still confusion and some local frustration over their role in the schools,’' he notes.

Funding a Problem

In Morgan County, one of the poor districts that backed the school-finance lawsuit, board members see themselves as neither champions nor foes of the reform law.

Board members there say they have been supportive of reform efforts, including the district’s lone school-based council as it grapples with new governance issues.

But for now, they have turned most of their attention to the state capital and the question of money. They are casting their own skeptical eye on lawmakers to make sure they come through with the funding that was promised along with the new governance roles.

“A lot of the things they are wanting to do are good, and may be for the better,’' says Paul D. Kidd, a banker and six-year board member, “but the biggest problem right now is funding. They set down these regulations, but we’re taking the heat. We’ve raised taxes, but we still don’t have the money to do what we’ve promised.’'

Officials who have agreed to full funding of the state’s Tier 1 program, which offers incentive funds to districts with high tax effort, promise that the money is on its way. Jack Howard, a farmer and coal miner and the chairman of the Morgan County board, calls the funding increases a key ingredient in the success of local reforms.

“Before, we couldn’t lay down any long-term plans because you didn’t know what kind of funding was going to be there,’' Mr. Howard says.

“It will involve a little more time because, up until a year ago, all we did was talk about keeping what we had,’' he adds. “Now, with a little more money, we can begin to look at improvement.’'

‘Very Existence’ Challenged

State officials have pushed hard for such optimism.

In his address to the annual convention of the K.S.B.A., Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen made it clear that the state’s leaders and taxpayers will be impatient about change.

“The vast majority of districts are doing an outstanding job of exercising good judgment,’' Mr. Boysen said, “but the few school boards that can’t do that need to be removed to protect the institution.’'

“I believe that in the 1990’s, the very existence of public education and of school boards is going to be challenged,’' Mr. Boysen warned. “And the way the answer will be determined is, ‘Are the schools producing?’ and ‘Is the reputation of the boards of education there?’''

State Intervention

So far, the state has proved willing to step in and remove school-board members and administrators who are acting counter to its aims.

The first state-imposed turnaround occurred in Harlan County, where charges of nepotism and abuse led to the ouster of three of five school-board members. A fourth board member resigned, as did the district’s superintendent.

While the three board members continue to fight their removal in court, the state has impaneled a screening committee and selected four replacements, only one of whom--the district’s first female board member--has been sworn in.

Meanwhile, a state-appointed interim superintendent is running the district.

In a county known for school patronage--where serious school-board candidates have routinely spent between $20,000 to $100,000 for a post that only reimburses expenses--leaders of the screening panel say they sought a clean break from the old political system.

“We tried to avoid political attachments and personal agendas,’' says Kenneth Wier, a doctor in Lynch and the chairman of the screening committee. “We wanted people who had some fire in their belly and enough commitment to get in there and fight, because this is not going to be easy.’'

The panel’s job proved the challenge. Of 35 candidates for the four openings, Dr. Wier says, only 15 remained once the panel made its first cut, based largely on political concerns.

“It was kind of ticklish,’' recalls Dr. Wier, who says that many in the community hope the process will be a new start for the board. “This cracked open the thing a little bit and let some light in.’'

‘Keepers of the Big Picture’

Other state officials continue to hope that the reform law will spark widespread changes in the composition and workings of school boards.

“We’re going to be looking at a changing breed of school-board members,’' predicts K. Penney Sanders, the director of the legislature’s Office of Education Accountability. “The role of local politician or job broker is changing. It is becoming much more important to have a knowledge of student and program issues.’'

Ms. Sanders says she sees school boards as the “grand inquisitor.’'

“They are the keepers of the big picture,’' she argues. “That’s tough to understand in a state where jobs have been the power base.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Kentucky Lawmakers Redefine Power of School Boards