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School board reform elusive

Theories abound but impact is difficult to measure

Monday, December 01, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Second of two parts

Give a politician or a researcher a chance to design a school board and it's like giving a can of paint and a thousand bucks to Ty and Hildy on "Trading Spaces."

You'll see school "committees" and "teams." Boards appointed by mayors or governors or superintendents. Boards carefully designed to represent all the hues of the residents they represent. Boards fashioned after corporations.


Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Berneice Brownell, head of the education department at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., is a former school superintendent who has studied the characteristics of effective school boards.

Today's Installment:

School board in Massachusetts hands over controls to university

Hawaii's governor wants a makeover for state's school system

Day One:

School boards' worth in doubt

Who wants to be a board member?

Students can keep boards on track

About the author

And will the "owners" like the redesign, or is it all form over function? You'll have to stay tuned -- for a really long time.

It could take another generation to determine whether any sort of school board reform is actually helping students and communities, and that's if someone decides to take on the onerous and sometimes expensive chore of studying and testing the reform.

The Iowa Association of School Boards, which recently conducted one of the few studies of school boards and their impact on children, has begun another study of five school districts that will take five years just to collect data.

Nationwide, little research has been done on what kind of leadership works best in schools -- and what can be harmful to students.

"School board politics are like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but no social scientists study it," said David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame researcher who has studied citizen involvement in local politics.

Still, nearly all researchers and educators agree on this: Traditional school boards as we know them -- members with no training or qualification requirements, elected by too few voters -- aren't working well.

"Bad systems will beat good people every time," said Lisa Keegan, former Arizona state school superintendent and now chief executive officer of the national Education Leaders Council.

As an alternative to the traditional elected board, there are plenty of leadership structures to choose from, the most trendy being the mayor-appointed board. It's the method being proposed by Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's commission that studied city school problems.

The advantage is that board members could be carefully selected for their skills and knowledge. It also would allow district teachers and other employees to serve on the board -- something that's not permitted in Pennsylvania now. (Interestingly, however, about 30 percent of the state's school boards include at least one employee from a neighboring school district, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.)

The appointed boards can take several forms. Some cities have opted for a "hybrid" board that is partly elected, partly appointed. Some appointed boards choose the superintendent; others leave it to the mayor.

Razing the system

University of Memphis researcher Thomas Glass has proposed what even he calls "a more drastic" model -- abandoning school boards altogether and having the schools led by a superintendent who is part of the mayor's cabinet.

  Online Chart:
Top 10 clues your school board is dysfunctional



In some large cities with "huge bureaucratic structures," that model could work, said Glass, who believes school reform needs to begin at the top.

"When Chrysler was going belly-up, Lee Iacocca fixed the corporate structure first," he said.

There's some emerging evidence that appointed boards help struggling students. Recent studies have shown that test scores improve, especially among younger children, when districts are taken over by the mayor; another study shows that buildings are better maintained, there's little board turnover, more efficient management and better handling of district finances.

But the mayor's office isn't the only entity that can appoint boards.

In some states, committees made up of local judges appoint board members. In Maryland, about half of the school districts have board members who are appointed by the governor.

Robert Y. Dubel, former superintendent of Baltimore County School District, said he was satisfied with that method of board selection. Although he said he understands the desire for locally elected school boards, "I don't think it makes much sense to add a layer of elected officials," especially when boards are financially dependent on county governments, as Maryland's districts are.

But Dubel warned that governor-appointed boards can be used by politicians as a way to reward loyal supporters -- something he experienced on occasion during his 16 years in Baltimore County.

"They tried," he said. "I told them, we're just not going to operate this way" and he managed to block such appointments.

Some appointed boards use "nominating conventions" or caucuses to find candidates for school board positions. They're usually once-a-year meetings for which potential candidates pay a nominal fee to attend and explain why they want to serve on the board.

For years, private schools across the country have used a carefully designed method to select their board members. For instance, at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, where 27 members serve on the board, "we actually have a grid" to help ensure they end up with a group of leaders who bring diverse skills to the board, said school head Gary Niels.

Private school boards usually choose members with skills in education, finance, fund raising, construction and other areas. With staggered terms, Niels noted, new board members periodically can be brought on to assist the school with its current needs -- a new building program, for example.

Though they're usually public schools, charter schools can operate in much the same way. Each charter school has its own board, which usually must answer to a district school board. A few districts in the country have all charter schools and an overall board whose only duty is to vote on the charters.

  Online Chart:
Superintendents and school boards



Deborah Meier, co-principal of the Mission Hill charter school in Boston and a former school board member in New York, likes to say that her school has "an elected board, but it's elected by the constituents of the school."

The Mission Hill school board includes five parents, two students and five members of the community, currently including a mailman, a Head Start employee and a high school principal.

"They all represent different viewpoints and that's what we want to hear," said Meier.

William Cunningham, a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., has proposed a similar format -- one that would increase the number of school boards nationwide but would promote a more grass-roots democracy, he said.

His proposed "local school councils" would represent every school building. Similar to some European boards, the local school council could be elected or appointed and "would increase the number of citizens who are involved in the school," which he believes will lead to better schools and higher-achieving students.

Other repairs

Demolishing traditional school boards and starting over isn't the only way to fix them, researchers said.

Certainly an easier way would be to require training for all board members -- an idea supported by many educators, including Berneice Brownell, a former school superintendent and now an education professor at Susquehanna University.

Training for boards is essential, especially in dealing with today's education issues, she said.

"Most board members have the community in mind" when they arrive on the board, "but some don't realize the breadth of what you have to deal with," she said.

  Online Chart:
Choosing school boards: A menu of state approaches



The Pennsylvania School Boards Association holds dozens of workshops around the state for board members each year. The National School Boards Association offers a program called "The Key Work of School Boards" that contains training material for boards, and holds an annual conference with up to 350 workshops for board members.

But those programs, of course, are optional. Fewer than 45 percent of the state's board members participate in one or more sessions each year, said PSBA Executive Director Curtis Rose.

While training obviously couldn't hurt, there's no consensus on whether it should be required by law.

Some fear that skilled candidates might not be inclined to run for school board seats if it meant they had to spend even more hours in training sessions. Anne Bryant, of the National School Boards Association, doesn't believe school board training should be mandated, and if it is, it should be so for all local elected officials.

State Sen. Jim Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, a former high school principal and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has introduced legislation that would require board training. Senate Bill 500 has taken a back seat, however, to the current state budget stalemate and is stalled in committee.

While some states do have annual education requirements for school board members, University of North Carolina researcher Phil Boyle noted, "most of these are weak statutes and not enforceable."

And then there's the expense. Taxpayers or board members themselves usually must pay for conferences and training sessions -- often not an easy sell in either case.

The Broad Institute for School Boards in Houston offers an intense weeklong seminar for board members that includes, according to director Don McAdams, "not the soft, feely stuff" but studying real-life dilemmas and hearing from some of the nation's leading education experts. All expenses are paid by a foundation.

But Pennsylvania's small suburban districts and even the Pittsburgh city district aren't large enough to participate. The Broad program is open to large-city boards only. McAdams said he'd like to develop a curriculum for smaller boards but currently doesn't have the funding.

While training is a popularly cited method of improving school boards, here are some lesser-known -- and possibly less accepted -- ways to increase board quality:

Merge districts. In a recent poll conducted for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Washington, D.C., about a third of Allegheny County residents said they would support one countywide school district; 13 percent were undecided.

Currently, the state has 501 mostly tiny school districts. Old Dominion's Cunningham noted that some research suggests the ideal size for a school district is around 10,000 to 15,000 students -- about five times larger than many of Pennsylvania's school districts.

Using the ideal-size districts would mean Pennsylvania would need only about 1,300 school board members instead of the current 4,500.

Consolidating districts, as state Rep. Victor J. Lescovitz, D-Midway, proposed in a bill he introduced in September, theoretically would provide a larger pool of candidates for each district's school board elections.

While improving school board quality wasn't his goal in proposing the bill, Lescovitz said, "I'm hoping you'd have more people interested" in running for school board and "that those individuals would be more sincere in providing a quality education."

Define duties. While noted University of Washington professor and researcher Paul Hill praises programs such as the Broad Institute's, he maintains that "it does not make sense to rely solely on leadership and training."

"Those measures will only work occasionally," said Hill, who believes that "the reality that board members not only have the power to disrupt schools, but can also gain personally from doing so" can only be remedied by changing their powers.

He is among many who believe that if boards are bound by law to adhere to strict guidelines of setting broad policies and staying out of day-to-day operations, quality will improve dramatically.

A task force studying the troubled Kansas City, Mo., school district complained that the board was "focusing on minutiae, on micromanaging" instead of larger issues.

"They'll argue the color of the basketball shoes but not set broad goals," the commission's report said.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Morton "Moe" Coleman, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, is leading a study of Pennsylvania's school boards. The study is sponsored by the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center.

The lengthy, nearly incomprehensible Pennsylvania statute that's supposed to explain school board members' duties isn't helpful, many pointed out. Bryant said, "The way it's written, I don't know if I'd even run for school board."

Pay board members. About 67 percent of school board members nationwide aren't paid, including those in Pennsylvania, according to researcher Frederick Hess of the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute.

Nearly 20 percent, however, earn between $2,000 and $9,000 per year, and about 2 percent are paid more than $20,000 per year.

State Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware County, has been unsuccessful in his legislative attempts to get salaries of up to $15,000 a year for board members. He said last week, however, that he's reworking his bill and plans to continue to advocate for paid boards.

"I do absolutely believe that the quality [of board members] would improve" if boards could be paid, he said. "It's an accountability issue."

In a debate earlier this year on the House floor, state Rep. Jim Lynch, R-Warren, said, "We should pay these people a living wage." He suggested that a salary might "take away some of the vindictiveness we've seen on school boards."

Increase qualifications. To run for school boards, Pennsylvania residents don't even need high school diplomas. In fact, they must meet only two criteria: They need to be at least 18 and to have lived in their communities for at least one year.

That's not enough, said Glass.

He proposes that communities consider requiring a certain level of formal education, training, or prior leadership or management experiences.

"There aren't enough community leaders who actually understand community leadership," he said.

Decrease size, term limits. A better quality school board might be easier to find if fewer members had to be selected, and more candidates might be attracted if their terms were shorter, some experts believe.

In Pennsylvania, most boards have nine members, which Brownell compares to "having nine husbands." She prefers a smaller board and also believes that three-year terms would seem more reasonable to potential candidates. Most school board terms in Pennsylvania are four years.

Get better voters. Low voter turnout can mean boards are beholden to special interest groups rather than the general population, experts say. But civic groups have unsuccessfully struggled for years to figure out ways to get more voters to the polls.

"You won't get [better] turnout unless you've got interesting issues to talk about," said Hill, such as a controversial building proposal or reading program. "We need a broader turnout of people who are interested in broader issues."

J.H. Snider, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation, supports nominating conventions for school boards and believes they should be televised -- much like the splashy Democratic and Republican national conventions.

"That would increase voter interest and participation," he said.

Use board report card. The National School Boards Association recommends that board members assess themselves each year, but few do so. And if they do, the assessments generally are not public and certainly not binding.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Council on Public Education received a $200,000 grant that would help pay for issuing a "report card" on every Pittsburgh school board member. That idea was dropped earlier this year, however, when the Mayor's Commission on Public Education began its study of the district; the money will be used instead to make information kits for teachers and parents on the federal "No Child Left Behind" education law.

But school board members should set goals for themselves at the beginning of each year and then evaluate whether they've met them, said Douglas Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment, a Denver-based company that provides training for school leaders.

"How can you have standards for students if you don't have them for yourself?" said Reeves.

A "code of conduct" for school board members is among the proposals being studied by a commission formed earlier this year by the Education Policy and Leadership Center. The Harrisburg organization, led by former state legislator Ronald Cowell, recruited 20 education experts and leaders from around the state to make recommendations on how school boards can improve.

Their report is scheduled to be released in February, said Morton "Moe" Coleman, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and former director of the school's Institute of Politics.

"I don't know if the system is broken or not," said Coleman. "But all of us are subject to improvement."

No matter what its recommendations, the group likely will run into resistance.

"The school board is a sacred cow," said Cunningham. "You rile people up quite a bit when you start talking about changing it."

Post-Gazette education writer Jane Elizabeth can be reached at or 412-263-1510.

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