Opinion
School & District Management Letter to the Editor

Report on School Boards Elicits Opposing Views

November 03, 2009 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Re: the 2009 edition of your annual “Leading for Learning” special report, and the article “An Overlooked Institution Struggles to Remain Relevant,” in particular (Oct. 14, 2009):

May I commend you for giving attention to the role of school boards in the high-stakes, high-accountability, and diminishing-resources environment of public school districts. I have attended the American Educational Research Association’s annual meetings for almost 40 years, and am continually amazed that such an influential part of the educational enterprise gets so little attention. This is especially surprising when one considers that it is so easy to do research on school boards, since their work is done in public.

As a former superintendent and assistant superintendent, I have spent many hours preparing for and attending board meetings. If there is a story missing in your special report, it is the amount of time that superintendents and their administrative teams devote to this effort, including in committee meetings and in maintaining relationships with individual board members. Unlike corporate boards, school boards generally meet at least twice each month, and may have a number of working committees that hold additional meetings. It is not unusual for the superintendent to spend 20 percent to 50 percent of his or her time on board-related matters.

Because boards have the authority to approve every expenditure, contract, and personnel appointment, they are legally empowered to micromanage. Only the rare board delegates this authority to the superintendent and restricts its role to setting policy and reviewing performance.

Since a superintendent’s employment depends on maintaining the support of a majority of the board, the conditions for political bargaining are also inherent in the job. When the rapid turnover of board members and superintendents is factored in, the instability of district leadership means that the conditions for sustained improvement simply don’t exist. Only the rare board commits itself to learning the complexities presented by governing a large, nonprofit organization.

If the purpose of public schools is to provide a standards-driven, high-quality instructional program, then in the 21st century, school boards might rightly be considered anachronisms.

James J. Lytle

Practice Professor

Graduate School of Education

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pa.

To the Editor:

The 2009 “Leading for Learning” report does a disservice to American education. It is one-sided and unfair, and does not accurately represent the state of school boards in the United States or my experience as a board member.

To a large extent, the report provides examples of fringe school boards and Commentaries by fringe school board members. Couldn’t you have given equal space to balanced opinion by board members who, unlike Commentary author and board member Peter Meyer (“For Better Schools and for Civic Life, Boards Must Assert Power”), believe that school boards are relevant? When I attend national school board conferences, I see passionate and highly trained education advocates—not the petty, bumbling fools depicted in the report’s articles.

The overview piece, “An Overlooked Institution Struggles to Remain Relevant,” is all about proving the premise that lack of attention to school boards “has led to a governance system that is too often ineffective, if not dysfunctional.” I’m sorry, but my experience is very different, and if your reporters had bothered to ask, I’m sure they could have found tens of thousands of American school board members whose experience is the same as mine.

Fred Deutsch

School Board Member

Watertown, S.D.

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Report on School Boards Elicits Opposing Views

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