Why Being a School Board Trustee Isn’t Like Being a City Council Rep

A city has many values to protect; a school district values one thing above all others

Why is it that I’ve advocated strongly for a less-meddling school board, and yet I love our meddling City Councilman Philip Kingston? Why does it pain me to listen to a trustee question spending on a relatively tiny three-year $1.4 million contract, yet I have no problem with councilman Scott Griggs harshly questioning our city manager for not finding more dollars for city libraries?

The answer to these questions gets to the heart of an interesting conundrum, one framed this weekend by David Lee’s speech to the Home Rule Commission. Lee suggested that anyone who advocates for DISD board governance reform is scared of the necessarily messy nature of democracy. “Have you ever seen a City Council meeting?” he asked.

On it’s surface, the argument that school boards should be just as contentious as other political bodies is attractive. Elected officials are watchdogs for our concerns. They are there to make sure that the many conflicting values of a large urban citizenry are represented. That’s what school board members should do, right?

No.

City council members, yes. Trustees, no. In fact, I’d suggest that our desire to see their roles as similar is at the root of our governance problem in Dallas ISD.

A city council is the essence of democracy. In our case, 14 single-member council persons and our at-large mayor are to be a manifestation of the values of the Dallas body politic. This is necessary because when the people who run our city day to day — the city manager and staff — are making budget/spending decisions, they’re doing so in an environment where these many values compete for limited dollars. As Philip Kingston noted recently when advocating for more arts spending, “the budget is an expression of values.”

What values trump what values is a never-ending council debate. In the area of transportation, some will value a regional approach that requires we use a lot of money for big toll roads. Other, smarter people will advocate for a walkable, smart-growth approach that will leave more dollars for other things like libraries, or cops, or road repair. If the smarter people win out, everyone’s representatives can once again fight over how to value that newfound pot of funding gold, based on the order of values. This is why there is much messy negotiation, backroom dealing, frustrated name-calling, and otherwise entertaining chicanery that occurs at City Hall. Because no one value trumps any other for everyone all the time. Is safety the most important, overriding value? It probably was in the violent-crime outbreaks of the early 1990s. What about now? Arts funding? Affordable housing programs? Sanitation? A business-friendly environment? Which ones lead to the other, or vice versa? It’s always unclear in what order a city’s citizenry places its values, because a) everyone ranks them differently, even within districts/neighborhoods/blocks, and b) they change over time.

But is that what we want of our school board — a group of people arguing about what values should drive short- and long-term decisions? I know it seems like this is exactly what a school board does, in that it spends much of its time evaluating budget decisions: whether monies should be allocated to poorer areas versus richer areas; to pre-K programs verus after-school programs; to teacher raises versus teacher evaluation systems. The difference is that school districts have one clear, overriding value that should govern every decision: effective educational outcomes for kids. Period, end of story. This trumps teacher pay, neighborhood stability, equity in minority contracting, the whole megillah.

What if trustees advocated for the values of its electorate? I spent time in North Dallas last weekend talking to middle class parents who understandably expressed frustration that their children, who make up no more than 10 percent of the district, get caught up in the machinations of teaching very poor children. They want a school system that better expresses middle class values. Is that reasonable? Of course. Is it practical for a large poor urban district to make that a priority? Of course not. Raising educational outcomes for all its students is its overriding directive. Sorry, it trumps your specific middle class concerns. If we can find solutions for both, all the better. In fact, I’d argue DISD does  a pretty good job already of that, and is trying to do better. But it can’t lose sight of its overriding value, which determines the district’s long-range vision, no matter what a trustee’s North Dallas constituents might want. That’s why when you look at the Texas Association of School Boards list of key roles and responsibilities for school board members, it puts each one in terms of advocating for that vision (which is, again, determined by your overriding value — improving educational outcomes for kids):

  • Ensure creation of a vision and goals for the district and evaluate district success.
  • Adopt policies that inform district actions.
  • Hire a superintendent to serve as the chief executive officer of the district and evaluate the superintendent’s success.
  • Approve an annual budget consistent with the district vision.
  • Communicate the district’s vision and success to the community

This is why it’s okay if Kingston and Scott Griggs “meddle” in the city manager’s day-to-day work — many competing values, expressed forcefully, in an attempt to order and express them through the budget. But it’s not okay to do that for a school board, at least not on that level, because they should be working under one value system. What’s the difference between providing oversight, so those values are adhered to, and “meddling”? I think this document gives a wonderful answer:

There is a fine line between governance and being a supporter of an institution. Members need to avoid meddling in managing daily affairs. Trustees/board members must balance their role as supporters for the institution’s success against their governance role as overseers of the institution’s management to ensure that assets are used properly, laws and regulations are followed, and the public interest is best served. The board needs to support the institution’s management but must also govern by holding the chief executive officer (CEO) accountable for the institution’s operations and service to the public.

In the governance role, trustees/board members should be concerned with protecting the public interest which they serve. Members exercise this role by hiring a CEO to manage the operation of the institution and evaluating his/her overall performance in providing services to the public.

In a supportive role, board members assist by fund-raising, liaison[ing], and networking with other community leaders, and providing expertise in specialty areas such as law, planning, accounting, and overall corporate management.

This is why we need a more civil, focused governance structure at the board level. Because we’ve defined the public interest that trumps all others. That work is done for us. It’s not unlike large public urban hospitals in this way: the overriding value is to provide the best care possible to every citizen who needs it. Period. All other values (research, jobs for the community, public education) are subservient.

But that has nothing to do with a kinder, gentler school board, you say? You can have a rowdy, contentious, cantankerous board so long as the outcomes are the best possible? Of course, in theory. It’s just that this has never been the case here, or in just about any other large urban area. For one thing, our particular form of bad trustee behavior has been to undermine our superintendent and meddle in day-to-day administration concerns. Why is this a problem? Because it’s been proven that school boards who work well with their superintendent and staff get better outcomes for kids. (See this report, which lists among its findings that effective boards are ones where “board members have crafted a working relationship with superintendents, teachers, and administrators based on mutual respect, collegiality, and a joint commitment to student success.”

I think part of the concern is our confusion about what exactly is a public school. Is it a school that is publicly financed? Well, then, that includes charters. Federal loan assistance goes to private universities. Does that make them pubic?

Do we have to elect a school board because schools are a public institution with taxing authority? They haven’t had solely elected school boards in Boston since 1992, Chicago since 1995, Cleveland since 1998, New York City since 2000, D.C. since 2007, etc. Are they less public institutions now? Of course not. For one thing, most of these boards are appointed with mayoral/Council oversight, and the mayor or city council is responsible to the electorate. It’s just that these districts — many of whom, like New York, for example example example, have shown great gains under this system — have realized they don’t need loud advocates for their values, because they share the desire for better outcomes for students. You can hold a mayor or a council member responsible for putting in place trustees who don’t reflect this value and replace them, just as trustees can hold a superintendent responsible for not hiring staff who put student outcomes first. The idea is to provide guidance, oversight, and support. And that to me looks nothing like a city council meeting.

Those who would suggest a more traditional model of school board is better are arguing for a process instead of an outcome. Frankly, I don’t care if my school system is democratic or not. Fantastic student outcomes with an appointed board is better than lousy outcomes with an elected one. Because if we get a better-educated electorate, our democracy gets better. In fact, it may be the only way our democracy gets better: a better informed electorate, better able to compete in the local/state/global marketplace, better able to articulate and refine values that put the good of the whole above the good of the self — all this takes greater educating of our poor urban students. And some asinine idea that the school district is like any other government agency makes it harder to get these results. You want to argue that our elected trustees, who have overseen unacceptable, inequitable outcomes for two decades, need to be rabble-rousers to be effective, you keep waiting. I’m sure that will be proven true any day now.

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