Thundering Fleas


School Boards' Worth in Doubt


Some think members are in over their heads due to complex duties


By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Just a couple of generations ago, it probably seemed that there was a school board on every corner. Neighbors bumped into their board members in the grocery store, sat with them in church and debated with them about the football team across the backyard fence.

That was certainly the case in 1933, when there were about 127,000 school boards across the country.

Today, that number has shriveled to 15,000 as America has moved from having a school board for every political ward or school to electing boards that govern larger districts.

If you're Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, the disappearing school board could make you nervous. "In a democracy, school boards are the closest thing to the ground," ensuring that parents and other voters have an impact on public schools, Bryant said.

But if you're renowned conservative education researcher Chester Finn, you ask: Who cares?

"School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole," said Finn, former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. "Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery."

Fertilized in ward politics a century ago, school boards were ubiquitous and had few real responsibilities. Today, the world of education has become much more complex.

While the earliest school boards generally had one duty -- finding teachers -- today's board members are asked to serve on committees that include budget and finance, buildings and construction, policy, technology, negotiations and personnel. At the same time, voters are increasingly apathetic and qualified board candidates are harder than ever to find.

That has more people asking: Do we really need school boards?

While there's disagreement on the specifics of how to govern schools, there's growing consensus that traditional school boards are often ineffective. Or worse.

Some researchers believe that school boards as they now exist too often are composed of unskilled, unprepared people elected by a tiny turnout of voters, and that they handicap the students they're supposed to help.

Bad school boards -- those in constant conflict, with members who meddle in minutiae and don't communicate well with each other -- have districts with lower test scores, fewer kids going to college and more dropouts, according to a five-state study conducted by the New England School Development Council.

Those results are supported by a groundbreaking study conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards. That research confirmed that school districts with large numbers of low-achieving students usually are led by boards with lesser skills of their own. The Iowa researchers looked at districts with high and low state test scores, and controlled for outside factors such as poverty.

They found that board members in high-achieving districts knew and understood more about crucial topics -- curriculum, testing and using data to monitor students' progress -- than did board members from low-achieving districts.

In Western Pennsylvania, the less-than-admirable antics of a few school board members recently have made interesting dinner-table talk, and, in some cases, have directly affected the students' schoolwork.

The cause-and-effect was obvious last month in South Allegheny, when school was canceled after an angry school board member hit the school district police chief with her car -- intentionally, according to police.

"What does this do to the kids? We are the models of what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate," said Berneice Brownell, education department head at Susquehanna University in Central Pennsylvania and a former New Jersey school superintendent.

She remembers board members in New Jersey who would "quit every few weeks. They'd pull the Khrushchev act with their shoe, banging on the table." Then they'd return for the next board meeting.

"I think kids pay attention to everything," Brownell said. "They may not know that board members had a fistfight at the last meeting, but they see that's the tenor of the community."


Back to the future

Before 1900, each school typically had its own board. As enrollment increased, schools became larger, districts were created, and some cities began opting for appointed boards rather than elected ones.

Up through the 1970s, many urban school boards were "blue ribbon boards" often selected by judges or commissions, according to researcher Thomas E. Glass at the University of Memphis. The political climate then changed, however, and more people demanded the chance to choose their own board members.

Now, most boards are elected, but there is again growing support for appointed board members. At least 20 major cities in recent years have switched to appointed boards. Last month, a commission appointed by Mayor Tom Murphy recommended that Pittsburgh follow suit.

The reason for the change largely has been a lack of confidence in board members, their actions and their motivations.

Forty percent of Allegheny County residents said they had "not much confidence" or no confidence at all in their school board members, according to a poll conducted last month for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Washington, D.C. (Eight percent didn't know their school board members and couldn't answer the question.)

Researchers cite several reasons for the public's lack of confidence in board members, including:

Single-issue board members. These are residents who serve on the board because they have a score to settle. "We've started finding more single-issue candidates who have the attitude, 'I'm going to get elected to the board and here is who I'm going to kill,' " Glass said.

Micromanaging. "I think a lot of people who serve on school boards like to be administrators. They want to hire and fire the football coach and make decisions about textbooks. ... I'm surprised they're not on the football field calling the plays," said Douglas Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment, a Denver-based company that provides training for school leaders.

"A vision of education is not the first thing to come to mind" when people observe board members at work, University of Washington researcher Paul Hill added. Instead, board members seem to deal with endless complaints about school bus stops or hand out awards, he concluded in a recent study of city school boards.

Special interest interference. Glass said interest groups, including teachers, religious groups, taxpayer organizations and businesses, "frequently sponsor urban board candidates and expect quick payback."

"These members can polarize a board and create serious conflict both inside and outside the district," he said.

By far the most embedded interest group is the teachers union, several researchers said.

Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University, found in a recent study that school board incumbents endorsed by teachers unions win 92 percent of the time. Additionally, teachers unions are the largest outside contributors to school board candidates' campaigns and the most active campaigners.

"The unions get to pick the people they're going to bargain with. It's an unbelievable thing, isn't it?" Moe said. "What a break."

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Al Fondy disagreed. "We make endorsements [but] we're not going to decide these races."

He noted that there are plenty of other interest groups -- religious or taxpayers organizations, for instance -- playing major roles.

"That's what the nature of democracy is. There's no better way to do it," he said. "It's an imperfect process."

Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok, who now is the nation's deputy education secretary, is a former school board member himself. But he's critical of the way boards have dealt with unions.

"They're the governing boards and they need to govern," said Hickok, who served on the Carlisle Area school board in the early 1990s, "but they've given [their authority] away in contracts."

Lack of diversity. Nationwide, school board members are largely homogeneous, but in Pennsylvania even more so.

According to a Pennsylvania School Boards Association study, fewer than 1 percent of the state's board members come from a racial or ethnic minority group of any kind. Nine percent list their religion as something other than Protestant or Catholic.

And school boards usually don't include members who are low-income, said William Cunningham, a school governance researcher who teaches at Old Dominion University.

"Many don't have any idea of the needs of lower socioeconomic students," such as remedial courses or college scholarships or achievement gaps.


Over their heads?

Few disagree that being a school board member in the 21st century is tougher than it's ever been.

Bryant, of the National School Boards Association, said there was a "perfect storm" of demands on today's board -- more regulations from federal and state governments, a more diverse generation of children with more complex needs, and generally higher expectations from the community that public schools should do more, often with fewer tax dollars.

That's a tough assignment for the nation's board members, about a third of whom didn't graduate from college, and 74 percent of whom have other jobs, according to national statistics.

Board members are often "well-meaning citizens with a limited amount of knowledge" and a limited amount of time, Glass said. And in Pennsylvania alone, these board members are responsible for spending more than $14.8 billion each year to help educate more than 1.8 million students.

The pressures and responsibilities of serving on a school board probably contribute to the difficulty in finding enough qualified candidates to run for board seats. It's especially difficult in Pennsylvania's extraordinarily fragmented 501 school districts.

It's not that the criteria are restrictive; the only requirements in Pennsylvania are that a candidate must be at least 18 years old and must have lived in the district for at least a year.

But for this year's election, more than 80 school districts couldn't field enough candidates to fill their boards, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

And many others ran unopposed. In Allegheny County's 44 school board races during last month's election, 20 were completely uncontested, and most others had one extra candidate for the total number of open slots.

In a nationwide study, about half of school board members said their elections were only "occasionally competitive" or "not competitive at all." In small districts of less than 5,000, the typical Pennsylvania size, nearly 65 percent gave that response, according to the survey by Frederick Hess, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute.

"School boards have become one of the least democratic functions in America," said J.H. Snider, a former school board member in Vermont who now works at the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "Generally, the public doesn't understand this."

Snider said school boards now normally operate "like a one-party system" and when candidates land on the board "they go into PR mode" representing their own special interests.


Boards behaving badly

Lack of interest and competition in school board races means, in part, that when an incompetent candidate lands on a board, he or she can remain there for years.

Brownell recalled a New Jersey board member who missed meetings and caused "ugly incidents" when he did show up. But because the town was small and close-knit, "the other board members refused to sanction him. ... This is someone you meet in the grocery store."

Just one such board member, Brownell said, "can be obstructive enough to keep the board from doing anything meaningful."

Locally, there are plenty of examples, and not just the well-publicized bickering of the Pittsburgh school board, a long-strained relationship highlighted by incidents such as the board president threatening to dump water over another board member's head.

Anyone looking in on the Moon Area school board's meeting last month might have thought they had accidentally stumbled onto the middle school playground, with board members calling each other "jerk," "moron" and other descriptive nouns.

In the Avonworth School District last month, police were called to a board meeting after a board member and the board president got into a fistfight.

Though petty local politics may sometimes seem to be an art form in Pennsylvania, school board antics hardly are restricted to this state. In Portsmouth, Va., the cast of characters included a chairman who insisted that board members address him as "doctor" (he had a law degree), prompting another member to call him a "bully."

In Duval County, Fla., disagreeable board members forced a routine meeting about a bus contract to drag on for 11 hours; the debate ended with one member suing another.

Obviously, the victims of a dysfunctional board aren't just the grownups who get hit by a flying fist or a wayward automobile. In troubled Clayton County, Ga., for instance, where one member referred to school board politics as a "blood sport," students could lose state college scholarships because poor management could cause the district to lose its accreditation.

And talented superintendents, too, stay away from feckless boards.

"One of the major reasons I left was that I was very disenchanted with school boards," said Brownell, who served as superintendent in two New Jersey districts. "When I hit 55, I decided I didn't have enough years to fool around with that."

In a survey conducted by Glass, 68 percent of superintendents nationally said the school board leadership system needed to be "seriously restructured" or "completely replaced."

That dissatisfaction, Glass said, leads to what he calls "superintendent churn." In Cleveland, for example, there were eight superintendents in nine years, and most researchers agree that superintendents need to stay on the job from three to five years to be effective. The hemorrhaging stopped only when the mayor appointed the school board and hired the current superintendent in 1998.

In many school districts with a revolving door for the superintendent, teachers, and, subsequently, students, become demoralized.

"The teachers' attitude is, wake me up when this one's over," Old Dominion's Cunningham said. "They're basically leaderless because no one believes the superintendent is going to stay there long."

While the myriad problems have caused some to call for an end to school boards as they now exist, Bryant, of the school boards association, had a more reflective view.

"This [criticism] goes in cycles," she said, blaming some of the tension on new federal education regulations and the recent poor economy. "All institutions get questioned when there is a crisis point."

And there's no reason to abolish boards, she said. "If the state Legislature acts stupid, do we talk about doing away with state legislatures?"

But at least one group in Pennsylvania will continue discussing the fate of school boards -- whether to abolish them, change them or retrain them.

The Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg-based organization which studies education issues, has named a 20-member statewide commission to study school board quality.

Its report, due in February, also will examine whether boards should be elected or appointed.

"I believe in a representative democracy," said the group's chairman, Morton "Moe" Coleman, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and former director of the school's Institute of Politics.

But, he asked, "Is a school system a political system that demands a representative government?

"Schools are different and maybe [their] government has to be different."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."


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