A spirited school board race is under way in my community. I am always amazed at the quality candidates who want these difficult jobs.
The jobs are thankless and stressful and lack the perceived status of the state Senate or the state House. Yet, people not only want to serve on school boards, once elected they never want to leave.
On Thursday, I watched Education Week’s online chat on whether school boards were obsolete. Among the participants was Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools. Her independent community group advocates for improvement in public education in Pittsburgh.
Harris stressed the need for community scrutiny of school boards:
“I can’t ensure that a program like Board Watch will be a success in your community. But I think that public pressure and engagement can be a powerful force for improvement. Things that have contributed to our success are that we have been as transparent, honest, and deliberate as we’ve asked the school board to be. We’ve also been fair and respectful of the work the board does and the fact that the members are elected officials. We’ve grounded our work in governance research and in the facts.
The volunteers are key. Having 6-10 members of the public at each board meeting evaluating the proceedings puts a lot more public focus on what is happening. The volunteers scores are regularly released to the public which also contributes to the visibility and importance of the work the board does.
Finally I think the community/public should have clear and high expectations for the board.”
In response to this question — Some would say that locally elected school boards are antiquated. What purpose do such school boards serve?– Anne Bryant, executive director at the National School Boards Association, responded:
In New Brunswick, Canada, the province eradicated school boards about 10 years ago. Within four years, the community was so frustrated with the autocratic provincial leadership that they demanded the school board’s return. And, in fact, gave the board more power than they had previously!
Carey Harris responded:
I am agnostic about the “right” structure for school governance. In Pittsburgh we have a school board and that’s what we’re working with. Its purpose is policy leadership of the school district. It has the power to levy and collect taxes. At issue is how to do this work well in an increasingly dynamic, complex and high-stakes environment. I am optimistic that it can be done well if there is the will to do so.
That requires school board members that understand their role as collaborators with the superintendent – not a check or balance. And it requires a superintendent that considers her board collaborators and works to enable their success.
Then, there was this question: How long should school board members serve? Bryant responded:
There is good evidence that continuity for board members and superintendents alike results in higher student achievement. When there is too much turnover in the leadership, the careful goals and implementation strategies that have been set forward by the leadership team often come under fire.
It takes at least three years, school board members tell me, to learn the ropes. It is also important that board members understand the role of the board vs. their individual opinions. It is the work of the board that matters and it takes time to pull a consensus together.
After covering school boards in three states, I have mixed feelings. I have seen people elected to boards for all the wrong reasons. One of the best board members in the state eventually stepped down because he felt like his colleagues, some of whom had not sent their kids to the local schools, only ran for the seats to keep down taxes and had no interest in school improvement.
I am not sure of a better alternative, but I am certain that bad boards can damage good districts.