Ky. School-Based Power Shift Seen Off to Slow Start

By Lonnie Harp — May 01, 1991 7 min read

Faced with a state mandate to designate at least one school by the end of June to be run by a teacher- and parent-controlled council, officials of the Fort Thomas, Ky., district waited this year for one of their schools to volunteer.

When none had done so by spring, district officials drafted an elementary school to serve as their portion of Kentucky’s experiment in school-based decisionmaking.

Even then, though, only three teachers at the school could be found to fill the three teacher slots on the six-member governing panel. A dozen parents, by contrast, signed up as candidates to fill the two seats for parents.

Teachers were concerned about how much time the school-based decisionmaking would take, according to Superintendent Fred D. Williams, and basically were content with the current school-governance structure.

While some might dispute Mr. Williams’s analysis of the situation in Fort Thomas, the slow and difficult progress of transferring power in the Cincinnati suburb is not uncommon throughout the state.

A year after Kentucky lawmakers built a landmark school-reform act largely around the concept of local empowerment, educators and policymakers are not sure whether local school officials’ reluctance to begin school-based decisionmaking reflects apathy, covert resistance, or a prudent hesitation about rushing ahead with a still-unproven idea.

The reform law requires each of the state’s 177 districts to have at least one school operating under the local-control scheme, which grants the councils power to set school budgets, hire new teachers and the principal, adopt curricula and textbooks, and set the school’s schedule.

As of the beginning of April, 93 districts had selected at least one school.

A survey by the Kentucky Education Association also found 182 schools across the state opting for the new management style. In addition, 133 schools in the Louisville area have already implemented a similar participatory-management system as part of a previous collective-bargaining agreement.

In addition to suggestions of reluctance on the part of some teachers, observers have reported intimidation by superintendents and school boards that do not relish the thought of giving up power. Principals, who would serve as the chairmen and most visible members of the councils, have been seen in some cases as apprehensive about assuming the new authority.

Such reports, coupled with the fact that nearly half of the state’s districts have yet to sign on to the reform, have spawned worry among some reform advocates.

“The gaps are discouraging, and in some of the larger districts, there has been slower movement than what we would have expected,” said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy group. “If you have reluctant volunteers, the chances for mischief and foot-dragging are pretty severe.”

Representative Roger Noe, chairman of the House Education Committee, said that while Kentucky lawmakers remain optimistic about the reform law’s acceptance, many have been disappointed by educators’ approach to site-based decisionmaking.

“The local districts are still fear8ful, and sometimes they are just plain lazy,” he said. “Teachers just don’t want to do the work, and you’ve got administrators saying, ‘We’d better not get into it at this point. We want to see what happens with some of the others.”’

David Allen, president of the kea, discounted claims that teachers have been apathetic. Instead, he contended that many administrators have worked to douse educators’ interest.

“There is a great deal of intimidation out there,” Mr. Allen added. “And there are places where teachers have been told not to do this.’'

The kea has already taken issue in court with two local school boards’ school-based decisionmaking policies. The union has filed suit against the Boone County district, which wants to require most decisions by the council to receive school-board approval, and Johnson County, where the board altered the council’s composition by adding a classified employee.

But some superintendents who have been working to meet the state mandate said that while they are sold on the promise of the empowerment plan, it is teachers--who must adopt school-based decisionmaking by a two-thirds vote in order to implement it--who have yet to find its appeal.

“My original anticipation was that all of our schools would go to it,” said Larry Allen, superintendent of the Paducah Independent School District in western Kentucky. “But our teachers did not rush out to vote for it. The reaction I’ve heard is that we’re already doing what is required by the law, and they don’t feel the need to formalize it.’'

Mr. Allen said the Paducah board will have to designate one of the system’s eight schools to pioneer the plan.

In any case, district teachers already have been involved in budgeting, staffing, and curriculum decisions for some time, he said. The real change, he suggested, is that the school councils will open a new forum for parents.

Mr. Williams of Fort Thomas offered a similar perspective. “In view of the fact that we’ve been involving teachers in the budgeting process and recruiting and choosing instructional supplies,” he said, “they do not see the value of implementing the school-based decisionmaking model.”

Mr. Allen of Paducah added that he is optimistic that the initial hesitation is not a bad omen for the reforms. “I think the reluctance will be allayed very quickly once they have a chance to make it work,” he said.

Some observers said the slow start for school-based decisionmaking, which must be implemented in all schools by 1995, may not be all bad.

“The skittishness is not a fault; it’s a sign of wisdom,” said Janice F. Weaver, dean of the college of education at Murray State University and chairman of the state’s new professional-standards board. “I think teachers are wise in waiting until some of the policy issues are straightened out.”

Mr. Allen of the kea added that, aside from some troubles with overbearing administrators and stubborn school boards, the number of schools that have come forward is not bad. Counting the Louisville-area districts, which are operating a slightly different school-decisionmaking program, the statewide participation rate for all schools is more than 20 percent, which, he said, signals good first-year progress for a five-year program.

“It’s a slow process,” observed John A. Rose, president pro tem of the Senate. “That’s one of the reasons we tried to phase these things in. I expect we’ll do all right in the long term.”

In rural Henry County, the process of teacher involvement is already well under way, having been introduced in 1988 due largely to prodding from the superintendent’s office. This year, all five of the county’s schools voted for school-based decisionmaking, with only one individual “no” vote systemwide.

“I think we’ve gained a great deal of confidence and trust between each other,” said Bob Lumsden, the district’s superintendent, who argued that much of the early enthusiasm for the school councils must be generated by top administrators.

“You have to express confidence in the system,” he said. “It would be really naive for anyone to think you can take a group of people who have not been involved in management and budgeting and then suddenly involve them in 13 different management areas. It’s too much in scope to be undertaken at one time.”

Under Mr. Lumsden’s guidance, the Henry County councils have eased into school-based decisionmaking, gradually increasing the reach of their management.

He said an extensive management-training program has helped ease the fears of many teachers and demonstrate that the school board and superintendent are behind the effort.

“The superintendent’s and board’s attitude--their personal belief in the validity of this new management system--has a tremendous influence on its acceptance in school districts. We set up a system where they could phase into this,” Mr. Lumsden said.

Without such attention and support, however, the Henry County superintendent said he fears that teachers left on their own will see the new management system as “overwhelming and unacceptable.”

Observers said that, for now, the results of the early rounds of the empowerment struggle are mixed.

“The jury is still out on whether it’s going to meet the first-year expectations,” said David W. Hornbeck, the former Maryland state school chief who served as the leading consultant on the Kentucky plan.

“We have too many districts where no one has moved, and more than I would like to see where the board is going to have to recruit a school,” added Mr. Sexton of the Prichard Committee. “There have been all kinds of signals going out that are discouraging even though there are logical arguments on why you might like to wait.”

“We knew from the start that it was going to be the toughest part” of the reforms, Mr. Sexton said. “And it has been.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Education Week as Ky. School-Based Power Shift Seen Off to Slow Start