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School boards' worth in doubt

Some think members are in over their heads due to complex duties

Sunday, November 30, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

First of two parts

Just a couple of generations ago, it probably seemed that there was a school board on every corner. Neighbors bumped into their board members in the grocery store, sat with them in church and debated with them about the football team across the backyard fence.

That was certainly the case in 1933, when there were about 127,000 school boards across the country.

Today, that number has shriveled to 15,000 as America has moved from having a school board for every political ward or school to electing boards that govern larger districts.

If you're Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, the disappearing school board could make you nervous. "In a democracy, school boards are the closest thing to the ground," ensuring that parents and other voters have an impact on public schools, Bryant said.


THE DISAPPEARING SCHOOL BOARD

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
When meetings get acrimonious, school board members can resemble the children they were elected to lead. Members of the Moon Area School Board had a relatively quiet meeting last week. But a session last month was marked by name-calling and shouting. From right are board members Pat Martin, Dan Radovich and Mark Scappe

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Day Two:

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But if you're renowned conservative education researcher Chester Finn, you ask: Who cares?

"School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole," said Finn, former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. "Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery."

Fertilized in ward politics a century ago, school boards were ubiquitous and had few real responsibilities. Today, the world of education has become much more complex.

While the earliest school boards generally had one duty -- finding teachers -- today's board members are asked to serve on committees that include budget and finance, buildings and construction, policy, technology, negotiations and personnel. At the same time, voters are increasingly apathetic and qualified board candidates are harder than ever to find.

That has more people asking: Do we really need school boards?

While there's disagreement on the specifics of how to govern schools, there's growing consensus that traditional school boards are often ineffective. Or worse.

Some researchers believe that school boards as they now exist too often are composed of unskilled, unprepared people elected by a tiny turnout of voters, and that they handicap the students they're supposed to help.

Bad school boards -- those in constant conflict, with members who meddle in minutiae and don't communicate well with each other -- have districts with lower test scores, fewer kids going to college and more dropouts, according to a five-state study conducted by the New England School Development Council.

Those results are supported by a groundbreaking study conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards. That research confirmed that school districts with large numbers of low-achieving students usually are led by boards with lesser skills of their own. The Iowa researchers looked at districts with high and low state test scores, and controlled for outside factors such as poverty.

They found that board members in high-achieving districts knew and understood more about crucial topics -- curriculum, testing and using data to monitor students' progress -- than did board members from low-achieving districts.

In Western Pennsylvania, the less-than-admirable antics of a few school board members recently have made interesting dinner-table talk, and, in some cases, have directly affected the students' schoolwork.

The cause-and-effect was obvious last month in South Allegheny, when school was canceled after an angry school board member hit the school district police chief with her car -- intentionally, according to police.

"What does this do to the kids? We are the models of what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate," said Berneice Brownell, education department head at Susquehanna University in Central Pennsylvania and a former New Jersey school superintendent.

She remembers board members in New Jersey who would "quit every few weeks. They'd pull the Khrushchev act with their shoe, banging on the table." Then they'd return for the next board meeting.

"I think kids pay attention to everything," Brownell said. "They may not know that board members had a fistfight at the last meeting, but they see that's the tenor of the community."

Back to the future

Before 1900, each school typically had its own board. As enrollment increased, schools became larger, districts were created, and some cities began opting for appointed boards rather than elected ones.


 
  Online Graphic:
A look at school board duties

   

 

Up through the 1970s, many urban school boards were "blue ribbon boards" often selected by judges or commissions, according to researcher Thomas E. Glass at the University of Memphis. The political climate then changed, however, and more people demanded the chance to choose their own board members.

Now, most boards are elected, but there is again growing support for appointed board members. At least 20 major cities in recent years have switched to appointed boards. Last month, a commission appointed by Mayor Tom Murphy recommended that Pittsburgh follow suit.

The reason for the change largely has been a lack of confidence in board members, their actions and their motivations.

Forty percent of Allegheny County residents said they had "not much confidence" or no confidence at all in their school board members, according to a poll conducted last month for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Washington, D.C. (Eight percent didn't know their school board members and couldn't answer the question.)

Researchers cite several reasons for the public's lack of confidence in board members, including:

Single-issue board members. These are residents who serve on the board because they have a score to settle. "We've started finding more single-issue candidates who have the attitude, 'I'm going to get elected to the board and here is who I'm going to kill,' " Glass said.

Micromanaging. "I think a lot of people who serve on school boards like to be administrators. They want to hire and fire the football coach and make decisions about textbooks. ... I'm surprised they're not on the football field calling the plays," said Douglas Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment, a Denver-based company that provides training for school leaders.

"A vision of education is not the first thing to come to mind" when people observe board members at work, University of Washington researcher Paul Hill added. Instead, board members seem to deal with endless complaints about school bus stops or hand out awards, he concluded in a recent study of city school boards.

Special interest interference. Glass said interest groups, including teachers, religious groups, taxpayer organizations and businesses, "frequently sponsor urban board candidates and expect quick payback."

"These members can polarize a board and create serious conflict both inside and outside the district," he said.

By far the most embedded interest group is the teachers union, several researchers said.

Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University, found in a recent study that school board incumbents endorsed by teachers unions win 92 percent of the time. Additionally, teachers unions are the largest outside contributors to school board candidates' campaigns and the most active campaigners.

"The unions get to pick the people they're going to bargain with. It's an unbelievable thing, isn't it?" Moe said. "What a break."

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Al Fondy disagreed. "We make endorsements [but] we're not going to decide these races."

He noted that there are plenty of other interest groups -- religious or taxpayers organizations, for instance -- playing major roles.

"That's what the nature of democracy is. There's no better way to do it," he said. "It's an imperfect process."

Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok, who now is the nation's deputy education secretary, is a former school board member himself. But he's critical of the way boards have dealt with unions.

"They're the governing boards and they need to govern," said Hickok, who served on the Carlisle Area school board in the early 1990s, "but they've given [their authority] away in contracts."

Lack of diversity. Nationwide, school board members are largely homogeneous, but in Pennsylvania even more so.

According to a Pennsylvania School Boards Association study, fewer than 1 percent of the state's board members come from a racial or ethnic minority group of any kind. Nine percent list their religion as something other than Protestant or Catholic.

And school boards usually don't include members who are low-income, said William Cunningham, a school governance researcher who teaches at Old Dominion University.

"Many don't have any idea of the needs of lower socioeconomic students," such as remedial courses or college scholarships or achievement gaps.

Over their heads?

Few disagree that being a school board member in the 21st century is tougher than it's ever been.

Bryant, of the National School Boards Association, said there was a "perfect storm" of demands on today's board -- more regulations from federal and state governments, a more diverse generation of children with more complex needs, and generally higher expectations from the community that public schools should do more, often with fewer tax dollars.


 
  Online Graphic:
What do school board members look like?

   

 

That's a tough assignment for the nation's board members, about a third of whom didn't graduate from college, and 74 percent of whom have other jobs, according to national statistics.

Board members are often "well-meaning citizens with a limited amount of knowledge" and a limited amount of time, Glass said. And in Pennsylvania alone, these board members are responsible for spending more than $14.8 billion each year to help educate more than 1.8 million students.

The pressures and responsibilities of serving on a school board probably contribute to the difficulty in finding enough qualified candidates to run for board seats. It's especially difficult in Pennsylvania's extraordinarily fragmented 501 school districts.

It's not that the criteria are restrictive; the only requirements in Pennsylvania are that a candidate must be at least 18 years old and must have lived in the district for at least a year.

But for this year's election, more than 80 school districts couldn't field enough candidates to fill their boards, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

And many others ran unopposed. In Allegheny County's 44 school board races during last month's election, 20 were completely uncontested, and most others had one extra candidate for the total number of open slots.

In a nationwide study, about half of school board members said their elections were only "occasionally competitive" or "not competitive at all." In small districts of less than 5,000, the typical Pennsylvania size, nearly 65 percent gave that response, according to the survey by Frederick Hess, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute.

"School boards have become one of the least democratic functions in America," said J.H. Snider, a former school board member in Vermont who now works at the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "Generally, the public doesn't understand this."

Snider said school boards now normally operate "like a one-party system" and when candidates land on the board "they go into PR mode" representing their own special interests.

Boards behaving badly

Lack of interest and competition in school board races means, in part, that when an incompetent candidate lands on a board, he or she can remain there for years.

Brownell recalled a New Jersey board member who missed meetings and caused "ugly incidents" when he did show up. But because the town was small and close-knit, "the other board members refused to sanction him. ... This is someone you meet in the grocery store."

Just one such board member, Brownell said, "can be obstructive enough to keep the board from doing anything meaningful."

Locally, there are plenty of examples, and not just the well-publicized bickering of the Pittsburgh school board, a long-strained relationship highlighted by incidents such as the board president threatening to dump water over another board member's head.

Anyone looking in on the Moon Area school board's meeting last month might have thought they had accidentally stumbled onto the middle school playground, with board members calling each other "jerk," "moron" and other descriptive nouns.

In the Avonworth School District last month, police were called to a board meeting after a board member and the board president got into a fistfight.

Though petty local politics may sometimes seem to be an art form in Pennsylvania, school board antics hardly are restricted to this state. In Portsmouth, Va., the cast of characters included a chairman who insisted that board members address him as "doctor" (he had a law degree), prompting another member to call him a "bully."

In Duval County, Fla., disagreeable board members forced a routine meeting about a bus contract to drag on for 11 hours; the debate ended with one member suing another.

Obviously, the victims of a dysfunctional board aren't just the grownups who get hit by a flying fist or a wayward automobile. In troubled Clayton County, Ga., for instance, where one member referred to school board politics as a "blood sport," students could lose state college scholarships because poor management could cause the district to lose its accreditation.

And talented superintendents, too, stay away from feckless boards.

"One of the major reasons I left was that I was very disenchanted with school boards," said Brownell, who served as superintendent in two New Jersey districts. "When I hit 55, I decided I didn't have enough years to fool around with that."

In a survey conducted by Glass, 68 percent of superintendents nationally said the school board leadership system needed to be "seriously restructured" or "completely replaced."

That dissatisfaction, Glass said, leads to what he calls "superintendent churn." In Cleveland, for example, there were eight superintendents in nine years, and most researchers agree that superintendents need to stay on the job from three to five years to be effective. The hemorrhaging stopped only when the mayor appointed the school board and hired the current superintendent in 1998.

In many school districts with a revolving door for the superintendent, teachers, and, subsequently, students, become demoralized.

"The teachers' attitude is, wake me up when this one's over," Old Dominion's Cunningham said. "They're basically leaderless because no one believes the superintendent is going to stay there long."

While the myriad problems have caused some to call for an end to school boards as they now exist, Bryant, of the school boards association, had a more reflective view.

"This [criticism] goes in cycles," she said, blaming some of the tension on new federal education regulations and the recent poor economy. "All institutions get questioned when there is a crisis point."

And there's no reason to abolish boards, she said. "If the state Legislature acts stupid, do we talk about doing away with state legislatures?"

But at least one group in Pennsylvania will continue discussing the fate of school boards -- whether to abolish them, change them or retrain them.

The Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg-based organization which studies education issues, has named a 20-member statewide commission to study school board quality.

Its report, due in February, also will examine whether boards should be elected or appointed.

"I believe in a representative democracy," said the group's chairman, Morton "Moe" Coleman, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and former director of the school's Institute of Politics.

But, he asked, "Is a school system a political system that demands a representative government?

"Schools are different and maybe [their] government has to be different."

Tomorrow: Fixing the system.


Post-Gazette education writer Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 9, 2003) J.H. Snider of the New America Foundation is a former school board member in Vermont. A story in the Nov. 30 editions on school board quality said incorrectly he had served on a school board in Illinois.

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