As I continue to write about home rule, people have wondered (in questions to me directly, or aloud in public meetings) what would be the ideal system of governance for our school system. It seems this home rule process has sparked a legitimate interest in governance reform as a lever to help improve our school system. This is a good thing, because this conversation was pretty limited before, even though research indicates that governance structure in general and the board of trustees in particular has a real impact on student outcomes.
Those in opposition to home rule have repeatedly told me and Home Rule Commission board members that our governance problem is not an issue, suggesting that people like me just don’t like the “messiness” of democracy. I think that’s silly, and a red herring. I’ve already addressed this by discussing how the City of Dallas and the Dallas Independent School System are similar, and how they are different. Our elected representatives at the city are there to debate the competing values of our citizens, and make sure the city’s budget and policies most represent those values. The folks in charge of the school system, by contrast, are there to make sure kids get a good education.
The City of Dallas is already a home rule city. Dallas ISD is considering becoming a home rule district. Although I think the focus of the two entities are very different, there are many things we could learn from the city charter that we would be wise to insert into the DISD charter. I wrote about one of those lessons last week. But there are more ideas to glean from the city.
Consider the City of Dallas Home Rule Charter’s Article III Section 3A: LIMITATION OF TERMS:
(a) A person who has served as a member of the city council … for four consecutive two-year terms shall not again be eligible to become a candidate for, or to serve in, any place on the city council … until at least one term has elapsed.
Term limits aren’t exactly a novel concept, but they are rare. The reason to have them is obvious: Once politicians get a taste of power, they tend to ignore rules that would put limits on that power. We should consider ourselves fortunate, then, that Dallas city council members are one of very few elected officials in Texas subject to term limits.
The home rule process for Dallas ISD is a bit different than that of the city. The 15-member DISD Home Rule Commission has already been appointed by the elected school board, and those commissioners are free to write a charter that includes any elements they think appropriate, with a few obvious accountability exceptions. If the DISD home rule process were the same as the city’s, then once the commissioners finish writing the charter, the charter would still have to be approved by the elected politicians. This is problematic, because those politicians can overrule solid recommendations that might otherwise put a check on their power. This exact scenario happened recently when city council members rejected the redistricting recommendations made by the Dallas Charter Review Commission. But with the DISD home rule charter, once the commissioners finish writing said charter, it goes directly to the voters for approval or rejection, bypassing the politicians. That allows them to adopt provisions that limit the power of incumbent trustees even if those trustees don’t want any restrictions on their own power.
Nuther side note, so that I may once again stress the following: I mentioned briefly above that I often hear how this home rule process is some sort of anti-democratic power grab. I hope by now you realize those arguments are absurd. Nobody argues that the City of Dallas isn’t a democracy, even though it’s subject to its own home rule charter, and even though that city charter has a host of restrictions on democratic process (like term limits) that don’t exist in the current school system governance structure. Besides, any changes — now and forever, in case a home rule charter is altered in the future — must be approved by voters, in an election where at least 25 percent of registered voters go the polls. The process to a school district’s home rule charter may be cumbersome, it may be lurching, it may be unnecessarily complicated, and it may be based on a poorly written law — but it’s the very definition of democracy.
Sorry: Back to the arguments for and against term limits. This is pretty well-trodden territory. Those who oppose term limits say that a) they restrict democratic freedom, since elections themselves can function as term limits, and b) they limit the ability of elected officials to use expertise just as they have spent enough time to gather that expertise.
Let’s look at the democratic freedom argument. Yes, once we no longer allow a candidate on the ballot, we are denying the voter a choice. But this ignores many other important factors that restrict real democratic freedom. Incumbent trustees get free publicity every year, as their names are plastered on DISD marquees on schools across their district thanking them for their service. The DISD Newsline is a publication, paid for with tax dollars, mailed to registered voters, that features content specific to elected trustees promoting their accomplishments. Several trustees regularly hold rallies and other events on their campuses, of course paid for entirely at taxpayer expense, giving them free publicity akin to stuff we normally see during a campaign. (I’ve even heard tales of trustees receiving gift baskets from staff at campuses in their electoral district featuring gift cards and various other monetary treasures, which isn’t so much as an electoral advantage as just under-the-table payment for influence. This is of course all independent of the 100 percent legal bribery that occurs when vendors donate to trustee’s campaign accounts, non-profits, or engage with their businesses.) All this paints a picture where being an incumbent carries real, substantial advantages over other candidates for elected office. Those advantages, all paid for with taxpayer support, mean that voters see a distorted picture of the candidates during each election. And the results pretty well speak for themselves. As I’ve noted, board trustee incumbents lost only five times in the past 63 DISD elections (with three of those losses involving candidates from one family).
How about the expertise argument? That’s reasonable: There is a big learning curve (/wink) in education policy, so the first few years someone serves on the board, they’re constantly faced with issues in areas they’ve never even considered before. But it leads me to two questions: How long does it take a trustee to develop the kind of expertise he or she needs to be good at the job? And shouldn’t we as a community of some one million-plus residents expect to see more than just nine people with the kind of expertise we need to lead a school system? As long as the term limits weren’t too short, I’d think we’d allow for plenty of time for that expertise to be built. If trustees know that they can’t occupy the office forever, they might be open to supporting efforts to help spread the expertise they develop as trustees more broadly in the community. Richardson ISD, for example, has a long-running program supported and paid for by that school district called Inside RISD that trains community members on major details of how that school system works. This helps them prepare future board members. If there were term limits in Dallas, board members might view the position a bit less as an entitlement and instead borrow a bit of the ethos from Richardson, where their district leaders work to ensure the community remains supportive long term.
As to the specifics of the limits … it strikes me that 12 years is probably the goldilocks number: not too short, to allow somebody to really learn the system, and not too long, so they don’t just end up going through the motions or spending all their time defending past decisions. This would be three terms, if you follow my suggestion of moving to even-year November elections.
After someone has served that long, he or she really needs to move on. If that trustee is really concerned about continuity of leadership, he or she should spend a fair amount of time working to ensure that a few fellow residents develop deep knowledge of the district, so they are prepared for office when they run. This kind of term limit will help prevent unchecked abuses of power. Because it really is quite easy for a trustee who likes the prestige and honor that comes with the position to use it to bark orders at staff or secure favored employment positions for friends or grease the bureaucracy to steer contracts to favored vendors. And none of that helps kids.