School & District Management

School Board Poll Finds Turmoil Isn’t Common

By Jeff Archer — May 15, 2002 6 min read
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For Tom Bennett, running for the local school board amounts to shelling out $200 for yard signs and a newspaper advertisement. In fact, the fourth-term member of the board in Coos Bay, Ore., says it’s been eight years since anyone on the panel has been ousted by a challenger. And in 35 years, the 3,700- student district has had just two superintendents.

Describing board members’ working relationships, he says: “I think most people look at our school board meetings and say, ‘Those people truly enjoy what they’re doing.’”

Not the stuff of gripping headlines.

And yet, survey results slated to be released this week suggest that the experience in Mr. Bennett’s coastal timber town is far more typical than the infighting and strife common among school board members in major metropolitan areas.

Sponsored by the National School Boards Association, the study seeks to offer an unusually comprehensive view of who serves on school boards, the challenges they face, and what they value.

Titled “School Boards at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Conditions and Challenges of District Governance,” the report is based on a nationally representative poll, conducted in the spring of last year, of board members serving in some 2,000 districts of various sizes. In all, 827 board members responded to the survey, which was carried out by Frederick M. Hess, an assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Many of the findings are unsurprising. School board members tend to come from the ranks of business professionals more than from education. They worry more than in the past about student achievement. And school funding tops their list of concerns.

The study hints at crucial distinctions between the character of governing panels of small and medium-size systems—defined as having fewer than 25,000 students— and that of their often more contentious brethren in more populous communities. Just 2 percent of the nation’s 14,890 districts enroll more than 25,000 students, the report says.

Warning to Lawmakers

Based on the findings, the school boards’ association warns against incursions on school boards’ duties by state lawmakers reacting to fractious city boards.

“What state legislatures have to recognize is that their focus may be on the one or two either troubled school districts or troubled school boards,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA, “but they shouldn’t create laws for those one or two districts that are going to impact the many other systems that are doing wonderfully.”

The new snapshot of board members comes as school boards are under increasing scrutiny. The Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a clearinghouse for state policymakers, is examining education governance with a special focus on the role of school boards.

Some experts have suggested limiting school boards to policymaking and long-term planning, leaving superintendents with clear responsibility for managing the day-to-day operations.

But the poll indicates that the fractiousness that often prompts such calls is much more prevalent in bigger school systems.

“They’re more political, their campaigns are more expensive, and they have a greater number of interest groups,” Ms. Bryant said of boards overseeing large districts.

In districts with at least 25,000 students, for example, 28 percent of respondents said board elections were very competitive, compared with just under 20 percent for systems with between 5,000 and 24,999 students, and fewer than 9 percent for even smaller districts. Similarly, board members in the largest districts indicated that groups representing parents, teachers, business leaders, and racial and ethnic minorities played a much more active role in their elections than in smaller systems.

The findings don’t surprise former Houston school board member Donald R. McAdams, who directs the Broad Institute for School Boards. The training program for new school board members is financed by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, which supports coverage of leadership issues in Education Week.

“When you look at rural and suburban America, the communities have been fairly homogeneous, so the school boards haven’t argued about fundamental value issues,” Mr. McAdams said. “What you have in urban America are very diverse communities, where the values are not necessarily agreed upon, and these values are the ones that frequently underlie what the public sees as squabbling in urban boards.”

The poll appears to confirm what some experts have seen in other recent studies: Contentious boards are out there, but are few and far between.

Thomas E. Glass, a University of Memphis education professor, has seen evidence of strife in his forthcoming examination of superintendent turnover—one indication of friction among a district’s leaders. According to Mr. Glass, just 15 percent of districts in the United States replaced a superintendent in the 2000-01 school year. Based on survey responses from board presidents in 427 of those districts, though, he found that nearly two-thirds of them had gone through three or more superintendents over the past decade.

Does Size Matter?

In other words, he found, a very small number of districts are experiencing very high turnover among their top leaders.

“There is an identifiable group of districts with superintendents that turn over continually,” he said. “And they are the districts that make the media stories, and create the impression that there is a crisis.”

When it comes to stability at the top, however, Mr. Glass found that size doesn’t seem to matter. Smaller districts were just as likely to be among the minority with high turnover as large ones.

Despite the finding that board races are more politicized in systems with more students, the National School Boards Association survey also suggests that turnover among board members varies little according to district size. About half the respondents, from districts of all sizes, said they had been on their boards for five years or less.

Across all kinds of districts, board members expressed similar worries—although those from larger systems were more anxious about teacher recruitment, while their counterparts in smaller districts focused more on improving educational technology. Balancing the needs of special education students with those of other children figured prominently among all of their concerns.

But when it came to their views of student achievement, Mr. Hess, the study’s author, noted that the respondents sent mixed messages. Nearly three-quarters said the amount of time they spent on student-achievement issues had increased during their tenures. They also cited student performance as the top area in which they wanted more training for themselves.

At the same time, none of the topics offered as possible training areas gained the interest of even 25 percent of the respondents. Strategic planning, budget allocation, and community engagement were stressed nearly as much as student achievement.

Asked on which factors they judge the performance of the superintendent, 86 percent of the respondents ranked “relationship with school board” as very important, compared with 66 percent who said “student performance.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as School Board Poll Finds Turmoil Isn’t Common

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