School Boards – Weakest Link in the School System?

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Education may be THE most important consideration for our Children’s and Grandchildren’s future.  It is through education that they will prepare themselves to make a living and deal with many of the world’s challenges.

My brother and I were discussing politics and how to fix the world in general (a frequent pastime for us) over the Fourth of July holiday.  He observed/proposed the following: school boards are the ultimate “know little to nothing about the business they run” Board of Directors.  He went on to expand: most school board members run for office based on, or at least initiated by, a single current event.  My home town’s school board race will be an excellent example.  A single controversial book, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, ( see comments by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the WSJ) on the high school (9th grade) “reading list” has generated enough energy to prompt two challengers to run in this fall’s election.  I haven’t read the book itself, so I have no opinion on it.  The book has since been pulled from the “reading list.” The two board members who will face those challengers in the fall both voted against keeping the book on the reading least. The vote was 3 – remove; 2- keep, and per the Tri-City Herald, June 19, 2011, none of the board members had read the book. However, the book will likely be a major issue for the candidates and maybe more importantly, for some (many?) of the voters.  This is my brother’s point.  Oversight of the operation of the fifteen-school-district, annual budget $100 million, may turn on the opinion (without review) people have of a single book.

This is scary because running a school district, like any large operation, is extremely complex.  I would propose that running a school district is more complex than a business with a similar sized operating budget.  Students are not widgets; teachers are not factory workers (or shouldn’t be even if they sometimes act as if they are); few businesses have so many off-hours activities; or bus systems; etc. etc.  Two points: 1) What criteria are required to run for the school board, residency in the district? And 2) What criteria do we use to chose our school board members?  How much do they know about operating a school and/or educating our children?  One additional thought, why are five people who oversee a $100 million budget concerned about a single book.  Why didn’t they leave that decision to the Instructional Materials Committee (see TCH link above)?

Perhaps the most important task of the school board is hiring a Chief Operating Officer (Superintendent) who is generally an educational professional to run much of the day-to-day operation.  In turn the superintendent hires principals to run the schools.  BUT, what criteria does the school board use to choose a superintendent?  How do they know when the principals are doing a good job?  When I was an engineering manager I could ask prospective candidates technical questions and get a good feel for their expertise.  What questions can school board members ask candidates for superintendent, and be able to evaluate the answers?  Do we need some national criteria or certification for school superintendent?  What about for school board member?

Our discussion was resurrected after dinner and my daughter, an educational consultant, offered the following perspective and bit of good news.  Most candidates for school board run because they want good things for our children. They aren’t running for glory, fame, or money, and they end up investing a lot more time than they expected.  A few simply want lower taxes, and sound fiscal practices are good too, as long as we don’t short-change our children.  So here’s a question, how do we help these well-meaning public servants do a better job?   How do we assure ourselves that superintendents, principals, and teachers are doing a good job? Any suggestions?

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