Changing how we select school board members and approve district budgets could address long-standing challenges of local school governance.
Whenever and wherever school superintendents congregate — whether it’s the national superintendents’ conference, state or regional meetings, or informal dinners — they spend much of their time sharing notes about the care and feeding of their board members. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Great, thanks, except for a few of my board members.”
“Tell me about it. One of my board members just . . .”
And so it goes.
To be clear, I’ve worked with some outstanding board members whose willingness to make hard decisions led to systemwide improvements, resulting in better outcomes for all kids. But I (and every other superintendent I know) also have dealt with my fair share of board members who were in it for the wrong reasons. Some put themselves on the ballot because they have a grievance to air, a score to settle, or a personal agenda to pursue. And because voter participation in board elections tends to be extremely low (a 5% or 10% voter turnout is not unusual in local elections), some members are more responsive to special interest groups than to the local community.
Again, I’ve seen many board members act with integrity, courage, and commitment, but I’ve also seen some extraordinarily bad behavior.
There was the board member who expected that if I were about to announce a snow day, I had to text her first to give her a heads-up since she liked to impress her kids, friends, and neighbors with inside information. There were two who said (despite having been warned that this would be illegal) that they would only hire an administrator of a particular race. There was the board member who showed a confidential draft of the district’s budget to his teacher friends, then shared their criticisms in a public meeting, all without checking in with me or the other board members. The list goes on and on.
How we structure local school governance tends to be problematic, attracting some people for the wrong reasons and giving them authority over matters they have no experience with and shouldn’t control.
On balance, my experience suggests that how we structure local school governance tends to be problematic, attracting some people for the wrong reasons and giving them authority over matters they have no experience with and shouldn’t control.
For example, consider how school systems are funded. Some districts, serving as their own taxing authority, are required to ask voters to approve a spending plan; some must request funding from their local municipalities. Either way, the process can be catnip for elected officials — since they don’t have day-to-day responsibility to run the schools. Since they’re rarely held accountable for school performance, they can play as many political games with the budget as they like, without worrying about the consequences.
When I was superintendent of Stamford, Conn., (a district of about 15,500 students within a city of about 125,000), I had to present my budget to a nine-member board of education, then get it approved by a 40-member board of representatives and a six-member board of finance. Many of these people were dedicated public servants, trying hard to balance the needs of multiple departments (forced to choose among “potholes, police, and pencils,” as I used to put it) and did so in a straightforward and honest way. But some delighted in making me and my staff testify for hours on end about minutiae, just so they could look tough in the local media by showing that they were holding me and my “overpaid” team accountable.
Another frequent source of tension is personnel decisions. In theory, the superintendent is the school board’s one and only employee — in turn, that superintendent has the responsibility to oversee everybody else in the system. Nevertheless, many boards empower themselves to vote on hiring principals, central office leaders, teachers, and other staff. This undermines the superintendent’s authority (and makes him or her accountable for the work of employees they never chose) and creates endless opportunities for nepotism, favoritism, hiring discrimination, union interference, and just plain bad behavior.
All of this may seem like the griping of a former superintendent forced to resign from his last job because of a dysfunctional board of education. And I invite readers to push back on anything that I’ve written here that may smack of sour grapes. But I’m hardly the only one who would offer this criticism of school boards. Superintendents in every part of the country, in districts of all types and sizes, find it impossible to do their jobs effectively in the face of local political dynamics. I understand that politics is part and parcel of the work of school district administration. However, nobody is well-served by politics that result in paralysis.
Two proposed changes
If I had a magic wand, I’d be tempted to make two specific structural changes that could significantly improve how local school districts function.
First, have local funding authorities shift from elected to appointed boards. Ideally, these would be relatively small and nimble bodies (seven members would be perfect, I think) with members appointed in nonelection years (to minimize tangling up board appointments with political campaigns), serving staggered terms (to ensure stability and keep board members from becoming beholden to a particular elected official), and limited in the number of terms they could serve (e.g., no more than two six-year terms). Most important, board members would be selected for their ability to provide capable, nonpartisan oversight to a large organization (often the biggest employer in town) under urgent pressure to get results in a complicated regulatory environment.
Appointed board members wouldn’t be immune to local politics. But without having to worry about the next election, they might at least be buffered from some of the political forces affecting most boards today. In addition, whoever appoints them (whether the mayor, city council, or some other local funding authority) would have some real accountability for the school system’s performance — having chosen the board, they would no longer be able to score easy political points by constantly pointing out the system’s failings.
Second, I would increase the standard school district budget cycle from one year to two. Instantly, this would reduce by half the opportunities that local board members, interest groups, unions, tax hawks, and local elected officials have to engage in the sorts of political machinations that always accompany funding decisions.
So, too, would it reduce the enormous amount of time that the budgetary process consumes. I remember the night, during the spring of my first year as superintendent, when I came home from yet another late-night session negotiating budget cuts, and my wife said to me, “You spend four months building and selling the budget and four months cutting it. When do you do anything else?”
Typically, school system leaders start working on their budgets in late fall, and they present them to their boards in late winter. Then, in some districts, those budgets have to go to voters for a referendum or to the municipality for a review and a decision. State numbers don’t come in until late spring or often into the summer. In the meantime, principals don’t know what their final budgets will look like so they don’t know if they can hire new teachers or will have to let some go; central office staff have no idea whether they’ll have the resources to buy new materials and provide much needed professional development; and board members, elected officials, special interest groups, unions, parents, and even kids lobby furiously for their favorite programs. It’s all over right about the time the school year ends and then begins a mad scramble to get ready for the fall. By Thanksgiving, the cycle starts all over again.
With a two-year budget, system leaders would be able to focus significantly more time and energy on school improvement — which itself is a complex and time-consuming undertaking — and school administrators and central office staff could do the long-term planning essential to the success of any organization.
An un-American idea?
I can already hear critics decrying my proposed assault on the democratic principles of American public education. And frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that these are the only changes I’d conjure up, given that magic wand. I remain torn between the ideals of community representation and the practical benefits of handing over school governance to knowledgeable and skilled people capable of monitoring the district’s performance, providing high-level oversight, and holding the superintendent accountable. Nor do I think these two changes would completely resolve the political interference in local school governance. I am convinced, though, that if we hope to get different and better results for students, then it’s time to entertain some new and dramatically different ideas about how to structure the boards that control school systems.
JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.
Originally published in February 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (5), 72-73. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.