Friday, October 24, 2008

Grand Poobahs on Bransford Avenue

Here's some truth that folks need to keep in mind from CM Randy Foster (District 27-Edmondson Pike):

Council member Randy Foster said he believes the people of Davidson County need to be more active in the school board election process, and that some school board members should be more receptive to needs of constituents.

Once elected, Foster said, board members “don’t see themselves as political figures,” and tend to “step out of the lives of their constituents and become a governing board on Bransford Avenue.”

“I do hope the citizenry will pay attention to what is going on. … We almost sleepwalk through our Board of Education elections,” Foster said. “The solution doesn’t lie at Bransford Avenue. … The solution lies in every house in Davidson County.” Nashville City Paper

Foster is right BOE members don't see themselves as the usual political figure. Part of that is by design. Part of that is because they are rarely held accountable.

My orientation session for School Board members in 2006 included an overview by Ralph Schulz about the Policy Governance way the school board was being run. I'll quote from my previous blog post here:
Board member Kathy Nevill made a clarifying point when she said that frequently people expect BOE members to act like council members and fix the ‘pot holes’ of the educational system. However, under this policy governance model that really isn’t done. That’s not to say a BOE member can’t inquire about the ‘pot hole’ but the intention is that the BOE member help the constituent work the system and when it comes time to evaluate the Director of Schools they will have to answer for repeated failures in that ‘pie wedge’ [area of responsibility]

Policy Governance discourages the BOE member from getting 'hands on' involved in any situation. That makes it easier on the central office and the BOE member who does tend to sit above it all and point out they only have three jobs:

1. Hire a director of schools,

2. Approve the budget,

3. Establish policy for the system.

It's exceptionally frustrating for anyone wanting action taken by the BOE or an individual member. By subjecting themselves to Policy Governance they've created a calmer environment but also unlinked BOE members from their districts. They no longer 'own' them and so they aren't responsible for the condition of their districts. The BOE could dump Policy Governance with a vote...but aren't likely to when they get so much benefit out of it.

Something else that could be helpful is to hold BOE elections in the fall. Having them in August when school is out of session, folks are in summer mode and/or on vacation doesn't encourage participation by any except those with all summer off to work on campaigns.

BTW Foster's website , while needing a bit of updating, is pretty good. It'd be nice to see more like this.


N.S. Allen said...

Oh, policy governance. I remember having the idea explained to me, once, when I was working with a local student group. It pretty much blew my mind.

At least at this point, the board almost seems like a vestigial organ within the school system. It's difficult to imagine that any of the functions it presently performs couldn't be handled just as effectively by a few carefully selected bureaucrats reporting to some other official. As it is, the school board basically just syphons off heat and pressure from the administration, because the average person isn't going to realize that this board of elected officials is politically impotent on a large number of educational issues.

Personally, I'm always awfully tempted, whenever talk of getting rid of the school board as a whole comes up. But, at the very least, policy governance ought to be scrapped. It's an awful idea.

I'm with you on the election date bit, too.

Kay Brooks said...

Vestal organ...great description.

However, state law requires a school board and mandates certain functions. In fact the Nashville City Council cannot conduct business without a full school board in place.

Until those laws change...we're going to have to keep that vestal organ.

N.S. Allen said...

Well, that or make it stop being vestigial.

Of course, the problem is that, as soon as one suggested that policy governance should be scrapped, the response is going to be, "Well, how would you have us govern?"

And the big advantage of policy governance seems to be its clarity and systematic nature. It achieves that clarity in a really distressing way, by taking the complex, governing entity in the organization, the board, and whittling it down to as minor a player in the organization as possible, but that doesn't make it any less simple to explain.

Any alternative, presumably, would give the board more power, more points of contact within the administration, so that, instead of just setting some end-goals and expecting the director to follow through with them, the board could have some authority over how those goals are met.

But, while I think, pragmatically, that would be a great idea, politically, it would be a painful sell. There's no way you could formulate a system in which the board has a more far-reaching role in the same, concise way that you can formulate policy governance. That's not a bad thing, but it makes policy governance a lot easier to push.

On the other hand, I think, if you look at things in real, rather than theoretical terms, policy governance could be very easy to politically castigate. The memory of Director Garcia, who was hardly loved for his far-reaching authority and the plodding way in which the board attempted to reprove him, would make for a great example of why policy governance is a bad model for what should be a responsive, democratically accountable board.

And I wouldn't be shocked if there were one or two board members who weren't wedded to policy governance.

Nashteach said...

People have talked about doing away with an elected school board; have they talked about doing away with a board altoghether?

And remember that Schulz and Neville were for Policy governance because they generally supported Garcia and wanted him left alone. And Schulz was a close advisor in David Fox's election; Fox recently reaffirmed a belief in a "hands off" board, but Fox has spoken up both by opposing administration-proposed policies (Was he against both SSA and bal cal?) and by questioning practices of the administration (charter school enrollment changes).

So there is a role for board members to play. But at times, I agree they shouldn't "fix pot holes"; maybe report them to proper authorities and follow through later. It makes me nervous when isolated incidents by stakeholders- and I'd include MNEA in this- are used to try to change board policy. Though I'm sure sometimes, at the local school, folks respond that their hands are tied by board policy. What should be discussed is what are the limitations of central office in deciding individual school matters? What rights and protections do individual schools, especially successful ones, have? The Board should be a "court of appeals" on matters that have been addressed through the chain of command. They shouldn't be put in a position of second guessing every little thing.

Kay Brooks said...

During that orientation on policy governance Ralph Schulz made it clear that it is possible for the Board to focus on bad areas, get more involved until things started working correctly, but I don't believe there's anyone on the board with enough backbone to push that. They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want any public squabbles. They certainly don't want any YouTube video even of honest disagreement or search for answers.

I did like, and still believe in, going through portions of the Superintendent's performance in pieces on a regular basis as they are currently doing. However, the only side the board ever formally heard from...was the Superintendent's. It's as if the jury only heard testimony from the defendant.

Anonymous said...

School board Cartoon.