Friday, March 03, 2006

The Problem With School Boards

The recent controversy over the Upper St. Clair School Board's decision to terminate the International Baccalaureate program is just the latest in a string of news stories about school boards behaving in ways that anger or embarass their constituents. The rancor that existed several years ago with the Pittsburgh School Board, the name-calling by the Moon Area School Board in its battle over whether to build a new high school, and the police coming to break up a fistfight between Avonworth School Board members are the kinds of incidents that make headlines, but there is a much more insidious and widespread problem with school board members making poor decisions about hiring and firing of teachers and other staff, about the selection and termination of academic curricula, and about other day-to-day management issues that they are not qualified to make.

Imagine if you were asked to invest money in a business, but you found out that the company is not managed by the CEO, but by the full Board of Directors. The Board makes all hiring and firing decisions in the entire company, and individual Directors sometimes divide up new vacancies among themselves to fill. The Board has to approve all contracts with vendors, ranging from office supplies to advanced technology. A minority group of shareholders elects the Board members without regard to their qualifications or experience in the industry, and as many as half of the Board members change every two years. Why in your right mind would you invest your money in such a company?

Southwestern Pennsylvania has 126 of these businesses, and every property owner in the region is required to invest their hard-earned money in one of them. These companies are called school districts. Collectively, they spend $4 billion of the taxpayers' money every year. And most significantly, they are responsible for the education of over 370,000 children - children who represent the region's future workforce.

Just like the hypothetical business described earlier, the school districts in the region are managed, not by 126 superintendents, but by 1,134 school board members, because under Pennsylvania state law, school boards have the legal responsibility to make all decisions regarding curriculum, personnel, expenses, etc. in school distrcts. Some school boards delegate most or all management responsibilities to the superintendent, but most do not. School District solicitors tell them that under state law, they are required to micromanage.

A small minority of the shareholders in these companies - the voters - show up at the polls every two years to decide who will fill half of the seats on the School Board. And the only qualifications are that a school board member must be 18 years old, a resident of the school district for at least one year, and of “good moral character.” No training is required either before or after a school board member is elected.

What's needed to fix this? The State School Code needs to be amended to make it clear that School Boards are policy-making bodies, and that School Superintendents are the CEOs responsible for day-to-day management. Like good corporate boards, the Board should hire the Superintendent, establish proficiency goals, and monitor performance on those goals, but not directly manage the school district. A statutory requirement that School Board members receive training would also be desirable, but unless the responsibilities of School Board members are re-focused on governance, it is unrealistic to expect that training will qualify them to make the kinds of day-to-day management decisions they are making today.

It is likely that these changes will attract more and better candidates for school board elections. As it stands now, serving on a school board is tantamount to taking on a full-time job without pay. Those who already have a full-time job will often be unable to do that. However, serving in a more limited governance role is feasible for community volunteers. And there is no loss of protection for voters -- boards would still retain authority to approve or reject tax changes, to establish key policies, and to hire, fire, and discipline the superintendent.

It is also likely that these changes will attract and keep better school superintendents. Many good school superintendents have left school districts - or left education altogether - because of the challenges of dealing with school boards that micromanage their districts.

And most importantly, it is likely that these changes will improve the quality of education in the region. Although research is limited, studies have shown that students perform more poorly in school districts with less capable school boards. School boards that are not trying to manage day-to-day operations can focus more on the bottom line - the educational proficiency of the children for whom they are responsible.

For more detail on local school board problems and national trends, see the 2003 series in the Post-Gazette. For a detailed review of the problems with Pennsylvania's requirements for school boards, see the Education Policy and Leadership Center's 2004 report, Strengthening the Work of School Boards in Pennsylvania. For a summary of the legislative changes needed to improve school boards, see the Education Strategy for Pittsburgh's Future.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are School Boards any worse than non-profit and business boards. How many non-profit boards hold anybody accountable or have meaningful performance measures? What about Enron and Worldcom's boards? We need to make changes in PA's public education system at the state level. Local boards have limited power.

9:46 PM  

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