School-Chief Woes Spur Call for Change In Big-City Boards

By Lynn Olson — January 30, 1991 10 min read
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The question of why big-city school systems are having such a hard time finding superintendents may be attributable, at least in part, to the fractious and increasingly politicized nature of many of the school boards that employ them.

But how to address the dilemma remains far from certain, with proposals ranging from limiting the frequency of board meetings to placing superintendents under the direct control of city hall.

At least 18 urban school districts are currently in the market for chief executives, including those in Boston, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, and Washington. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990.)

And even when such districts find educational leaders, they are unlikely to stay long. The average tenure for urban superintendents is now less than three years, down from about five years in the 1970’s.

Big-city superintendents are subject to a number of back-breaking pressures, ranging from impoverished student populations to deteriorating facilities and tight budgets.

But at least part of the problem, according to many observers, is that urban boards of education have become much more political than they were in the past.

One reason is that many board members today are elected to represent specific wards of their cities, instead of the school system at large. A 1989 survey of 41 big-city school systems by the Council of Urban Boards of Education found that nearly half had at least some board members elected to represent distinct geographic areas.

Critics maintain that such individuals may pay more attention to the needs of their particular ethnic group or constituency--and to the provision of local jobs and contracts--than to the school system as a whole.

What school districts end up with, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, is “groups of individuals with individual agendas,” who are “not able to bring about coherent policy.”

William Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business agreed: “School boards are such narrow, constituent-oriented bodies that it is difficult for them to fasten on to a 10-year program.”

According to a 1986 report from the Institute for Educational Leadership, the movement away from at-large elections has increased the representation of minority and neighborhood leaders on urban school boards. But it has also raised a host of new problems.

In particular, the study found, grassroots leaders do not come from the traditional power structure within the community and lack easy and influential access to civic, political, and economic decisionmakers.

“In many cases,” said Jacqueline P. Danzberger, one of the study’s authors, “they simply don’t understand or don’t see their role as working to resolve conflict. And they don’t know how.”

“A lot of school boards hire a superintendent and say, ‘We want change,”’ she added, “but the board has not played out the political fallout, and the superintendent is left out there hanging.”

Others decry the tendency of board members to intervene in management affairs best left to their superintendents.

“You end up in some cases with three or four superintendents, rather than several policymakers and one chief executive,” said John Dow, superintendent of the New Haven, Conn., public schools. “It really creates problems with respect to governance.”

“Who could function as the chief executive officer of a major business that always had 7 or 9 or 12 people calling them and meeting with them and pushing them one way or another?” asked Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s just impossible. There are too many cooks.”

“I know the theory is that school boards are supposed to deal with policy,” he added, “but that’s a fiction, because school-board members really cannot resist voters and citizens who are running to them every day” with specific requests for action.

For example, the Tucson, Ariz., board of education met 172 times last year, approving everything from student field trips to faculty travel.

“I think there should be some limitations as to what a board’s role is,” said Paul Houston, the outgoing superintendent there, who has chosen to leave the district for a job in Riverside, Calif.

Yet another problem is the high turnover rate among board members themselves.

Mr. Houston noted that only one board member of the five who hired him in Tucson is still serving.

According to Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, the turnover rate for board members nationwide is now approaching 25 percent, with many members serving only one term.

Such “musical chairs,” he said, makes it difficult for members to get the experience and training they need or to pursue consistent policies.

But exactly what to do about such problems is far from certain.

“We’ve reached a point of drastically needing to change school governance,” said Mr. Kirst of Stanford, “but exactly what the blueprint would be, I don’t have the hubris to prescribe.”

One idea he suggests is to revive at-large elections for all school boards. But such a move would be sure to arouse opposition in minority communities, which have been struggling for greater representation on elected boards.

In addition, many school districts--particularly in the South--would have to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department or the courts to change their voting schemes, as required by the Voting Rights Act. Others would require the approval of their state legislatures.

Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, argues that the current predicament in many urban districts stems more from the history of individual communities than from any general pattern of friction between school boards and superintendents. And he cautions against returning to at-large elections of board members.

“If you look at the urban school systems of the 1950’s and early 60’s, they were static and unchanging,” he said. “They were more concerned about getting African-American children into vocational-education programs than they were in providing them with a sound academic education.”

“You had ‘blue ribbon’ boards of education that rubber-stamped everything that the school administration did,” he continued. “You had very little parent involvement. That, to me, is not the best in American education.”

Most political-science studies have also found little connection between how school boards are elected and their effectiveness. But Mr. Kirst said a forthcoming study from the IEL documents the problematic nature of ward-based elections, in particular.

Another notion is to sharply limit the number of times that boards of education can meet. Mr. Shanker has recommended that boards meet as infrequently as once a year, instead of several times a month.

“This would free them from pressure to exercise the minute surveillance that is now too common, and both corporations and universities operate effectively with boards like these,” he asserted.

Still others advocate doing away with boards of education entirely and running urban schools out of the mayor’s office or the county government.

The Boston City Council decided to do just that in December, when it voted to abolish the city’s 13-member school committee and place the schools under the direct control of the mayor. The proposal still must be approved by the state legislature.

“I think we’re going to see more and more mayors doing what the mayor and the city council in Boston are doing,” predicted Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University.

According to Mr. Finn, the current municipal approach to school governance is “antiquated” and ought to be abolished. “Local school boards are not just superfluous, they are also dysfunctional,” he maintained, arguing that they have become too much a part of the education establishment they were designed to oversee.

“Why cling to an arrangement that isn’t getting the job done?” he asked.

Particularly in districts where the schools are funded totally by city government, said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Maryland Board of Education, having freestanding school boards “just confuses questions of responsibility. Is the mayor responsible? Is the school board responsible? Is the superintendent responsible?”

“As a general principle,” added Mr. Embry, who once served as president of the Baltimore school board, “communities ought to think about whether a school board helps or hurts matters. ... Nobody ever seems to discuss the merit of a school board versus no school board.”

A little-known feature of Ohio law would enable Cleveland voters to put the issue of their school board’s continued existence to a citywide vote, according to J. Timothy McCormack, county auditor for Cuyahoga County.

“It is an option we’re considering,” he said, after years of internal dissension that have stymied the board’s effective functioning. Since 1986, the city’s school board has spent more than $600,000 to buy out the contracts of two superintendents with whom it was dissatisfied.

But turning the schools over to a separate department within city hall may not improve the staying power of superintendents. In Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt Schmoke handpicked the superintendent in 1988, he recently ordered his firing after only two years in office.

Others have suggested removing the monopoly that local school boards now have on providing education in urban areas by allowing other public-sector agencies, such as universities and social-welfare organizations, to sponsor public schools.

Such competition could increase the diversity within urban school systems and pressure ineffective ones to change, according to John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Although it would not make the jobs of superintendents or school boards any easier, he acknowledged, it could make urban districts more effective.

Yet another solution is to drastically diminish the role of big-city school boards through the kind of radical decentralization now being tried in Chicago. There, the powers of the board of education have been cut back and supplemented by those of local school councils that operate at each school. Parents, who compose the majority of council members, have the authority to hire and fire the principal, set school goals, and oversee the school budget.

Similar legislation introduced recently in the Ohio legislature would affect cities with populations over 175,000.

But some observers caution that pointing a finger at boards of education may be no more justified than blaming superintendents for the problems of urban schools. In the past few years, they note, both groups have become equally overwhelmed by the issues confronting them.

R. David Hall, president of the District of Columbia school board, said school boards are like “shock absorbers” that are expected to respond to all of the problems facing urban communities, ranging from violence to drug abuse.

What is needed, he suggested, is a new “managerial partnership” between boards of education and urban superintendents “so that the superintendent doesn’t become the fall guy, nor do board members become your scapegoats.”

A 1989 report by the rand Corporation found that urban districts that were making progress on education reform--such as those in Miami; Rochester, N.Y.; and Louisville, Ky.--were all characterized by a strong, positive relationship between the school board and the superintendent.

Politically, added Mr. Usdan of the IEL, it would be nearly impossible to eliminate boards of education. Despite all the complaints, he asserted, the public still trusts them more than it does state lawmakers or professional educators.

In addition, he and others warned, simply shifting the governance structure in urban school districts will not solve most of their troubles.

Drugs, homelessness, poverty, AIDS, and other social ailments that routinely show up at the schoolhouse door cannot be solved by the schools alone. Rather, other social-service agencies must be involved.

“The inability of school boards to collaborate with these other agencies--public and private--is now a big problem,” Mr. Kirst said. How to strengthen the relationship between schools and the larger municipality remains a central governance issue, he suggested, that extends far beyond school boards alone.

In fact, asserted Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, any attempt to blame school boards for the rapid turnover among urban superintendents is “nonsense.”

“School boards did not invent controversy,” he said. “The controversy in urban education is in the grassroots part of the community. The issue is how it can be met.”

“Whenever businesses have problems,” he added, “it’s always the chief executives who have to take a hike. And that’s natural. Schools aren’t any different.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as School-Chief Woes Spur Call for Change In Big-City Boards


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