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School & District Management Opinion

For Better Schools and for Civic Life, Boards Must Assert Power

By Peter Meyer — October 12, 2009 5 min read
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I remember sitting in my first executive session as a school board member, in 1999, and thinking to myself, “This is like getting into Fort Knox.”

I had been a general-interest journalist for some 25 years at that point, and had always had the hardest time cracking institutions that took care of children. They almost always denied journalists access, arguing that it was not in the best interests of the child.

Now, here I was, on “the inside,” on the school board, discussing intimate details about children, parents, teachers, aides, maintenance workers—and I was seeing what I had always suspected. The organization’s leaders were not so much protecting (or caring for or even educating) children as they were caught up trying to manage a bumbling and relatively incompetent bureaucracy.

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Commentary: For Better Schools and for Civic Life, Boards Must Assert Power

I am not much more than an interested student of school board history. But my sense of things, after two stints on my local school board—for six months in 1999-2000 and since 2007 to today—is that school boards have been overtaken by the “educatocracy,” by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists,textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on the deck, but they’re not really steering the boat. Ask board members anywhere what their biggest problems are and they are likely to say: state and federal regulation. Mandates.

I recall a Nigerian immigrant who had several children in our district trying to explain to someone who was complaining about a school why America was so great. “Here,” he said in halting English, “if you don’t like something, you vote no.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, in fact, a no vote on a school budget didn’t really mean no. Because of state law, if voters rejected a school budget, all that happened was the district had to operate with the same budget as the previous year, plus inflation.

And if state and federal regulation ties one hand behind your back, the unions take care of the other by protecting teachers who really should be dismissed.

Then there’s the mind-numbing minutiae. At least twice a month, just before a school board meeting, I receive a packet from the superintendent. It contains the agenda—usually three to four pages long, each item numbered, with subcategories with numbers like 13.1.7—and sometimes hundreds of pages of documentation to go with them. At any given meeting, there also can be several dozen detailed resolutions.

It’s no wonder that “experts” have to be called in to explain it to us board members. “A superintendent’s primary job,” I was once told by one of them, “is to manage the board.” And that’s the problem. School boards have been taught impotence in the face of information, a problem that causes them to act—and fight—like children. I recall one evening being called in to a special meeting to approve $25 million in construction contracts. “I’d like to see the contracts,” I said. My colleagues, so lacking in confidence in their own responsibility, voted 6-1 not to see the contracts.

One year, I had a debate with a board member in a newspaper’s letters column on the question of whether the board should have a curriculum committee. He was certain that it was the school board’s only job to hire a superintendent and then sit back and let him or her run the district. The board shouldn’t be “meddling” with curriculum. It was a view shared by the five other board members, even after someone unearthed for me Board Policy #4200, which clearly stated the “board is committed to establishing and maintaining a coordinated curriculum management process.”

Indeed, in the blizzard of paperwork that buries board members, there are many dozens of rules and regulations that are honored only in the breach. Each year, before I was on the board, I would make a pilgrimage to a board meeting and read from a section of the state-mandated code of conduct that required annual staff training on implementing the code. “Was it done?” I asked each time. And each time, I got the same answer: Of course it was. And each time, after the meeting, several members of the staff would tell me it was not done.

For all their problems, though, I believe school boards are vital institutions. It is the country’s gradual neutering of school boards that has helped cripple our education system.

Instead of seeing school boards’ apparent irrelevance as evidence of the need to hurry them out the door, we need to wonder whether such irrelevance is, like the disappearance of the frog, a sign of broader environmental stress.

We have to clean the polluted ecosystem, not kill off the frog. But we also have to recognize that, unlike the poor frog, we have multiple adaptive strategies. School boards must see themselves for what they are—the only relevant link between communities and schools—and take responsibility for their role in governing districts.

True, the abundance of federal and state regulation has complicated the life of school districts. All the more reason for boards to be proactive.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The sixth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the school board’s role in education leadership.
Click here to read the full report.

As a former economics teacher in my district once put it to me, “As teachers, one of our jobs is simply to avoid the 600-pound gorilla.” By that he meant that he and his colleagues had become expert at doing what they wanted to do, despite the multitude of federal and state rules and regulations.

School boards still have enormous power—we could have voted no to the $25 million in contracts and could easily adopt a rigorous curriculum—especially on the local level.

My own battle is to get my board to acknowledge that power, and to re-engage itself in the task of educating children, to revive a sense of the relevancy of democracy itself. It’s a win-win. Not only do we get a better education for our children, but we also get a community that begins to feel that it can deliver that education.

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as For Better Schools and for Civic Life, Boards Must Assert Power

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