Zen and the Art of School Board Maintenance

We were about half-way through our four-hour school board “Governance Team Retreat” when I saw an opening.   The facilitator, sent to us by the New York State School Boards Association (for a nice fee), had handed out a 27-page document that covered the standard “roles and responsibilities” of…

  • school board members (four major roles: representative, leader, steward, advocate),
  • school boards (“four macro responsibilities:  set the district’s direction…, ensure alignment of strategies, resources, policies, programs, and processes with district goals, assess and account for progress…, continuously improve the district,“),
  • board president (“leader of leaders,” “presider,” “communicator”)
  • superintendent (advisor, executive, leader, manager, advocate, communicator)

…. but in the nitty gritty world where we lived, as the governance discussion proceeded, the big issues were “chain of command,” “being part of the team,” “being negative,” and one of the major themes of that first hour and a half was, as our facilitator reminded us, the board’s role as “overseer, not micromanager.” The board “should not second-guess” the administration’s recommendations “except in extreme circumstances,” we were told. It should “trust the professionals.”

That was my opening. “That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for ten years,” I blurted, “trusting the professionals. We were 83rd out of 86 districts in the region ten years ago and we are 83 out of 86 today – by letting the professionals do their work.”

There was a slight silence, but not a heavy one. In fact, our facilitator rather quickly replied, “That’s the board’s fault.”

It was a revelatory, if head-spinning, moment.  And very briefly a light shone on the heart of one of the major challenges of school governance: getting a school board to do its job, which, as the hand-out rightly said, was to improve the district.  Easier said than done. To do its job it has to be able to sift through acres of dust stirred up by federal and state mandates and piles of policies, politics, herds of wildebeest unions, experts, professionals, rivers of “model” policies from our school board associations, and a chain-link fence of interlocking economic interests defined by major corporations, rich lobbyists, and willing legislators.  Anyone who has ever tried skiing — even walking — in a whiteout can appreciate what it’s like walking into a school board meeting.  Take charge?   Continuously improve the district?  You gotta be kidding.  Improving requires changing, which disrupts.  The system is set up to encourage the opposite: to not rock the boat, to continue on whatever road you’re on — or, the safe path, to do nothing.  Every once in a while we glimpse the truth: After suffering through endless lectures about leaving it to the professionals, we are told it’s all our fault.  Ouch.  But it is.

I have argued before (here) that school boards’ irrelevance – defined as their failure to improve education outcomes, whether they try or not — is a symptom of a disease, not the disease itself.  Our nation’s 14,000 semi-impotent school boards are an indicator species, their malignancies caused by environmental toxicities not of their making.  New York State alone had 10,000 school districts in 1900 – we need ask ourselves if the disappearance of 9,250 districts over the ensuing 50 years (there are about 750 school districts in the Empire State today) has been good or bad for education.

The problem is that we — local school boards — can’t wait around for the folks who have caused our cancers to cure them.

Last year in Education Week I argued that “School boards still have enormous power…, especially on the local level”; and that “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.”

This rosy view, of course, must be tempered by the fact that school systems (per the blizzard described above) don’t do right by the kids, as far education opportunity goes.  And on this question it is fortuitous that Mark Osgood has a new post at Education Next calling out those who believe that the education gap is “the civil rights issue of our time” to demand that the courts step up to the plate on these education issues as they did in the last civil rights era. I would go a step further and send in the National Guard – which is why I remain a steadfast defender of NCLB (minus the warts), the educational equivalent thereof.)  As long as we have a public school system, school boards, in my experience, remain the last – if  increasingly tenuous – link to the democratic ideal: the peoples’ schools. But it remains a federal responsibility to ensure that local majorities don’t block the school house door to racial, demographic or socio-economic minorities.

At the heart of my school board’s recent governance retreat – Webster’s definition number 1 is appropriate here:  “an act or process of withdrawing esp. from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable” — was this mixed message: you’re responsible, but don’t get too involved.  In school districts that have all the gears running smoothly, that is the kind of creative tension that can work to keep the train on the tracks moving forward; in districts where the train has been off the tracks for years, it is a recipe for continued disaster.  I have seen the enemy and it is us.  Bring in the AYP!

Is that the answer?  What’s the question?  I recall walking with Tom Carroll,  founder of the successful charter school network in Albany (see my Education Next profile), after a couple of weeks of reporting on his Brighter Choice schools, which were knocking the socks off the traditional school competitors on test scores, and asking, “So, why are you able to do it and they aren’t?”

“Will,” said Carroll without hesitation. “Political will.”

If only, I thought. If only….  Whispering in my ear was the voice of the school board overlord, “Yeah, but….”

–Peter Meyer

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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