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The Problem With Our School Boards
By John Mannes
In February, members of the Montgomery County, Md., board of education—representing the 17th-largest school district in the United States, one located in the backyard of the nation's capital—approved a departure agreement for the system's prominent, one-term superintendent, Joshua P. Starr.
Starr had been a highly sought administrator. He was a candidate, in late 2013, for the chancellorship of the New York City public schools. While in Montgomery County, he increased the prevalence of technology and the use of project-based learning, and worked to identify key indicators for potentially at-risk students. Moreover, he had championed new programs to build pathways between high schools and local colleges.
Yet despite his successes, and his stated desire to remain in what he calls one of the "best jobs in public education," Starr agreed to part ways with the school system after extended, closed-door negotiations.
So how does this happen? And more importantly, what does it say about the state of school board governance in the United States?
American taxpayers entrust more than $550 billion in spending to public education every year. And while national education reform dominates media coverage, local school boards wield significant influence over student performance. Board members are tasked with solving such large-scale problems as achievement gaps, budget shortfalls, and aging facilities. However, the discrepancy between effective and ineffective school system governance is clear among the more than 14,000 public school districts nationwide.
Ineffective governance is often the byproduct of what has been called "school board dysfunction," the situation in which board members lacking in organization, leadership, and an understanding of their role diminish a board's capacity for good decisionmaking and strong educational leadership. The inherent difference between managing a campaign for the school board and actually leading a school system is one of the key drivers of this dysfunction.
Board members spend considerable time campaigning for their posts. In a large district, this can mean fundraising for thousands of dollars, speaking to tens of thousands of constituents, completing dozens of interviews, and networking with countless other politicians. Campaigning, at its heart, is an entrepreneurial experience. The difference is, instead of pitching a product, candidates are selling their ideas, and often more importantly, marketing themselves. A politician seeking office must inspire his or her staff to work insane hours for a shockingly low amount of money on a project with a high potential for failure. The problem lies when a board member moves from tinkering in the garage to elected office.
While candidates are kings and queens of their own campaigns, they do not hold that level of power in a legislative board position. There is room for a board member to work on policy, establish direction, and ensure continuous improvement, but in reality, he or she is merely one of many in the decisionmaking process. While a board member independently calls the shots in the campaign, the job itself demands collaboration, a willing exchange of ideas, and acceptance of the school system's framework for advocating change. When these practices of good governance are not upheld early on, relationships within the board and with administrators become strained.
This is the inception of dysfunction. This is the moment in which things go awry. This is why the Franklin Township public schools in New Jersey hired four superintendents in the span of one year. This is why bickering and backstabbing and a power struggle between board members have reportedly consumed the Seattle school board. This is why a board member is said to have used personal attacks as leverage to attempt to change a vote on the Richmond, Va., school board. Most of all, this is why a successful superintendent with a national reputation for positive change and vision was made unwelcome to continue his work by board members in Montgomery County, Md., some with only a few weeks of experience.
Students suffer when politics becomes a priority. School boards become the target of voters not because of poor platforms, insufficient creativity, or lack of effort, but because of naiveté and unprofessional conduct. Our national conversation on education should include more discussion of effective school system leadership, and not just of increasing test scores and global competitiveness.
Voters should consider behavior in addition to statistics when choosing their local school boards. Sometimes the only way to fix a toxic relationship is to end it. A dysfunctional board can mean years of stalled progress on improving schools. Allowing the campaign mentality to tarnish relationships at a cost to students, teachers, and parents is never good governance. This is the fault in our school boards.
John Mannes served on the school board in Montgomery County, Md., from 2012 to 2013, during Joshua P. Starr's tenure as superintendent. He runs a blog called MoCo Student, aimed at informing students about the education decisions being made around them.