I have spent a career scrutinizing and analyzing events and topics in education, writing literally millions of words about my observations in books and articles. I confess that I took school boards for granted, regarding them as appendages to the process of teaching and learning. Then, in 2008, driven by a sense of curiosity and public service, I got elected to my local school board in central New Jersey, providing me with a box-seat view that even the most informed observer cannot obtain.
No one but board members, top administrators, and legal counsel participates in the closed sessions at which we discuss personnel, lawsuits, and other confidential matters. Committee meetings are another venue in which board members carry out their work, largely out of sight. Finally, the actual board meetings—while open to the public—involve give-and-take that, like an iceberg, shows only part of the deliberation that precedes formal votes. I have many impressions of what I have seen, heard, and done. Where to start?
Board Culture. A school board is a living organism made up of the beliefs, values, and collective wisdom—and sometimes lack of such—of its members. I mentioned an iceberg. Well, like an ocean liner trying to avert disaster, school boards sometimes dodge and finesse issues that could spell disaster. We scheduled a construction-referendum vote on a religious holiday, and even though we thought the chance to cast absentee ballots would assuage critics, it did not and we had to reschedule the vote.
One joins a school board hoping to steer the ship in the best direction, but there are many helmsmen and helmswomen (four of our nine members are women). Probably each member, like a teenager on a scavenger hunt, has his or her own idea about the path to take. Unlike Congress, school boards emphasize consensus. It doesn’t always work. We had an annual budget that divided us.
I ran as a critic of a board that had ousted the superintendent in the midst of her contract, compelling residents to pay about a half-million dollars for her to stay home for the next 2½ years, not to mention the salary and benefits for an acting superintendent. Needless to say, I’ve not become an insider and I am not privy to some behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
One author, Robert W. Flinchbaugh, wrote in his 1999 book, The 21st Century Board of Education, that the prevailing culture does not readily change, even when new members join a school board. They may intend to bring change, but, he said, they may be excluded from the power source or may simply capitulate to the status quo. It is difficult, in other words, to alter board culture—and, in turn, to change the tone of a district.
Decisionmaking. From the outside, it appears that school boards have enormous power. Boards devote meetings to voting on page after page of items. The decisions involve personnel, curriculum, textbooks, special education placements, and various financial matters. Yet, this ostensible power is limited.
Consider personnel decisions. Typically, they pertain to resignations, leaves of absence, appointments, reassignments, and tenure. This sounds like heady stuff, but language in bargaining agreements sets the terms, for instance, for leaves and reassignments. All of the appointments come on recommendation of the superintendent, and the board appoints no one but the superintendent. It may only accept or reject his or her appointees. Tenure, of course, is important, but it’s automatic in our state after three years and one day. The board applies a rubber stamp.
Then, there are votes on curriculum and textbooks. Again, the board’s role is largely perfunctory. Every now and then, some school board bans a book, but this occurs about as often as a solar eclipse. The fact is that panels of educators develop curriculum guides and sort through potential textbooks long before these matters reach the board, and approval is almost guaranteed. This is not to say that it should be otherwise. How much does the average board member know about a physics curriculum or materials for teaching Hindi (which we really do offer)?
The superintendent, not the board, operates the district. The board’s greatest power stems from its ability to select a superintendent. It must then depend on his or her judgment on almost everything else. It can’t force the superintendent to hire anyone (unless the board is ethically challenged), and it can’t dictate which curricula or books to use.
Teacher Power. It was no surprise to learn that teachers can exert power over school boards. I knew and wrote about Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. But you can be awestruck to watch teacher power in its rawest form from the inside. I wrote a book titled The Empowerment of Teachers, and on a bookshelf near the computer on which I am writing this article sits an award I got from the New York State United Teachers. So, I have “street cred” in this regard, and I believe in the abiding worth of fine teachers.
Yet, the New Jersey Education Association and its local affiliates have the upper hand in almost all matters. The situation resembles President Ronald Reagan’s war against Grenada. Teachers endorse school board candidates, and woe to those who run without their backing. They invest money and time, and the votes of every member of every union they can muster in support of their endorsees. More than money is at stake. This imbalance of power affects working conditions and a host of issues.
Once upon a time, teachers received abysmal salaries. School boards compensated by boosting health coverage, benefits, and pensions. Now, about half the certificated personnel in our district make more than $80,000 a year. They don’t pay toward their health-care premiums, and their spouses, too, get this coverage no matter how much they earn, courtesy of the taxpayers. Next year, for the first time, there may be a small change if the increase in premiums exceeds 10 percent. It is school boards like ours that have negotiated such generous agreements.
Service on a school board is a largely thankless task that consumes hours of one’s time and for most of us pays zilch. The power of school boards has been ebbing for decades. New governance models are on the horizon, but for the foreseeable future, school boards will be the only game in town, and if they don’t get it right, the nation’s students will pay the consequences.
A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Meetings Are Just Tip of Iceberg