Board Blunders: A Systemic Problem

Ohio’s cities are rife with people pushing forward education reforms. As education leaders look outwards to new ways to improve education they are also beginning to turn inwards to see what components of the “education machine” are failing the system. In the wake of a very public data scandal, Columbus mayor Michael B. Coleman spurred the creation of the Columbus Education Commission to hold discussions on how to improve the governance of Columbus City Schools and increase the supply of high-quality schools. Amid the discussions, the Commission brought in experts to discuss alternative forms of school leadership which would involve the mayor’s office appointing people to the board or having a hybrid elected and appointed board.

While complete mayoral control of the school board is not likely to come to Columbus, the discussion did open an important policy discussion— what are the impediments to the current structure of school boards in Ohio and how can we work to improve them? In a scathing review of local governance structure in the United States, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy Marc Tucker states that “it is our system of local control that, more than any other feature of our education system, stands between us and the prospect of matching the performance of the countries with the most successful education systems.”

School boards are a part of the issue in Ohio and elsewhere in the nation, and it is systemic problems that do not allow them to effectively govern their local districts. These problems include:

  • A fluctuating role in governance

School boards exist in a structure that assumes that all policy stakeholders have aligned goals and conceptions on how to accomplish objectives. But, the reality is that there just ends up being too many cooks in the kitchen. Governance is hindered when the board and superintendents are out of sync on their policy agendas. Understanding this, the Columbus Board of the Education adopted a “policy governance model” in 2006. This transferred policy and decision making powers to the superintendent giving the board the responsibility to give recommendations for the CEO to improve organization performance, but in doing so it removed all of the teeth the school board had in governance. During this time, Superintendent Gene Harris was allowed to enact policies and push forward budgets without sufficient oversight. This lack of accountability measures surfaced as more information came out about the district’s data scandal. Boards are faced with trying to determine what their roles are in governance- are they the group of elected officials who set a policy agenda or are they primarily focused on being an accountability measure for performance of the district?

  • Poor election turnout leads to them being hardly democratic

Voter turnout for school board elections is abysmal. An Education Next article by Terry M Moe reported voter turnout from 1997- 1999 in Los Angeles County school board elections at just 9 percent of registered voters. Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute reaffirms this notion in a report stating “it is not unusual for school board elections to report turnouts of 20 percent or less.” This encourages a system where candidates are appealing to a limited number of voters who may already be embedded into the education structure. Marc Tucker recounts his own decades of experiences in education governance, “I have met many board members whose route to public office was paved by doing favors for school staffers who in turn provided support in local elections and these board members, because of these quid pro quo arrangements, spent a great deal of their time protecting poor performers, and making it impossible for superintendents to hire competent staff.

  • There are not many incentives to participate in a district school board

The people who sit on school boards work hard to contribute to their community in the best possible way. But, frankly, the school boards of traditional districts—especially large urban districts—tend not to attract people with highest caliber human capital. Consider alternative options like the KIPP Central Ohio Board of Directors which is filled with people who are leaders in the Columbus community. These heavy hitters are judges, executive directors, and business owners who are the type of people you want advocating for children, leveraging their experience and relationships to improve public education. Ultimately, working for these less high profile school boards is much more appealing because they are only beholden to their CEO and students, avoiding competition with other governance structures or pandering to interest groups.

In the report, Tucker suggests significantly decreasing the responsibilities of school boards. I am inclined to agree but I do see a value in having democratically elected officials represent the interest of their communities. Along with this, the failure in the “policy governance model” in Columbus enforces the need of responsible people to hold governing bodies.

In their final report the Columbus Education Commission edges towards striking a balance between dealing with these challenges and giving the school board targeted authority through the recommendations they have outlined. The commission suggests that the school board let go of their “policy governance model” and seek to adopt a new model that is organized around committee assessing and advising on critical needs in their neighborhoods. The commission has also recommended including a non-elected official recommended by the mayor’s office to join the Columbus City School’s Board of Education to continuously engage the board in discussion in order to align the agenda of the city with the district.

Time will tell if these recommendations will be successfully adopted by the board and whether it is enough to improve governance in Columbus.  One thing is for sure, it is necessary for every district and the community it serves to look inwards to determine if their board is accomplishing their objectives or if it is just mired in politics and bureaucracy.

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