The Home Rule Commission is scheduled to meet today at 6 p.m. In case you missed it on FrontBurner, the Support Our Public Schools group recently presented its proposed charter to the commission. I’m working on a post that looks at the major differences between what that organization presented and the 10 suggestions I put here on Learning Curve. I realized that I should probably put all these proposals in one place where not only you but also the home rule commissioners can find them easily. Here then are the 10 proposals I’ve discussed, each with a small excerpt. Enjoy.
But after researching this, and after slogging through a few months of board meetings/briefings, I think this could be a very good thing for our district, for one major reason I didn’t cite above. Imma highlight one quote in particular from a policy brief prepared by the Education Commission of the States:
“In some cases the dynamic within a policymaking body may be changed for the better by the presence of students, since members may feel obliged to be less confrontational, to articulate their arguments about the issues more clearly, and to come to agreement through honest deliberation.”
We talk a lot about holding our elected officials accountable. What does that mean, especially in a public school context? What are we holding them accountable for? This gets to a truly fundamental question that we don’t often ask: What is the goal of the school board?
The answer seems obvious: The school board exists primarily to make sure our kids get a good education. We want students to achieve at high levels. All of them. Whatever that level is today, it should be higher in the future.
The problem is that the answer really isn’t that simple, not in day-to-day practice. Even though you can’t go eight minutes of any DISD school board meeting without a trustee saying that we must do more “for the children,” that’s not always their first concern. Not really.
[WARNING: PRESIENCE ALERT!]
So what happens if a board member goes to an employee and tells that employee he or she must … I dunno, do something, anything. In legal terms, that would be “assigning duties” to that employee. What could that something be? Ohhhhhh, I dunnoooooo. Let me totally make up some stuff at random, and not at all suggest that people tell me (off the record) that these things happen all the time. It could be ordering staff to do something like the following:
- Tell me when the status of that RFP changes.
- Reassign or fire this employee who I think is doing a bad job (be it a principal, somebody in HR, or any of DISD’s 20,000 employees).
- Run special reports for me about attendance at all my schools each month.
- Reschedule that event you’re planning because of conflicts.
In strict legal terms, this is against the law. Now, I don’t know if this is the “you go to jail” kind of against the law or the “you’ll be sorry” kind of against the law. But it’s pretty clearly spelled out that this authority doesn’t rest with the school board. It is delegated to the superintendent.
How does one solve this problem? Well, if we started school three or four weeks earlier, we could end school that much earlier, and our school calendar would make a lot more sense. The semesters would be far more balanced – so each of my six weeks in the fall would be an actual six weeks, allowing for sensibly paced teacher lesson planning. Bonus: It could help campuses focus their lessons in the final month of school, much more so than the free-for-all that happens currently.
There are nine trustees on the Dallas school board. Three of them are elected every year in May, to three year terms. This seems like a perfectly logical approach. May elections are automatically non-partisan, just like the school board. Three a year means there’s no major upheaval at any one time, allowing for institutional continuity. But the logic falls apart like a Jenga pile after that, as this setup has several major problems. For example: a) Nobody votes b) Parents don’t vote c) It’s unnecessarily expensive.
I say we take a page out of the City of Dallas Home Rule Charter. You can’t run for city council in Dallas unless you file a petition signed by at least 5 percent of the number of people who voted for Mayor in that district (with a minimum being 25). Basing the school district’s petition requirement solely on the votes for Dallas mayor would be a problem in places like Addison or Wilmer which are also included in Dallas ISD, so we would need to tweak it a bit. We could look at the requirements for pretty much every other type of elected official in the state. For independent candidates, it’s 5 percent of the turnout in the most recent gubernatorial election within that district, or a minimum of 500 voters. For candidates on a party’s ballot, they can simply pay a fee (starting around $750 and going up from there).
Think about that: To run for Dallas County Commissioner, you have to file a petition signed by 500 people. The county commissioners control a budget that is a bit under $500 million per year. Dallas ISD trustees control a budget that is almost $1.7 billion per year, and they sometimes get fewer than 500 votes in their campaign, much less require 500 signatures to obtain a spot on the ballot. To run for the school board, all you have to do is fill out a form. No petition. No fee. Put pen to paper and you’re ready to run.
Well, consider this. Since 1994, Dallas ISD has had 10 superintendents. In that same time period, the City of Dallas has had four city managers. In fact, to get to 10 city managers, you have to go back to 1966. Average tenure? For DISD: two years. For the city: five. Two and a half times longer. Two and half times more continuity of leadership at the top of the city than the school district.
We sometimes see information relating to teacher longevity and its impact on students – with most everyone agreeing that a teacher’s effectiveness grows tremendously during the first three to five years. But for the position at the top of the school system – forget about it. They won’t make it that long.
8. Term 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.
Every political entity that has geographic districts suffers from this problem, and our school district is no exception. Electoral maps in Dallas ISD are pretty terrible. District 5 looks like a spaghetti noodle from Wilmer to West Dallas. District 8 looks like an anime creature (non-NSFW kind).
But Dallas ISD’s map mania is worse than the City of Dallas. Because in Dallas ISD, the trustees themselves do all the redistricting work. They do it behind closed doors, in private consultation with their attorneys. They design districts that they want to run in. And they try to settle old scores.
Let’s start with a quick discussion of the research. The left-leaning Center for American Progress has published a pretty definitive study on the issue of involving mayors in the governance of school systems. The study’s summary contains perhaps the best argument for school system governance reform I’ve seen:
“Governance constitutes a structural barrier to academic and management improvement in too many large urban districts, where turf battles and political squabbles involving school leaders and an array of stakeholders have for too long taken energy and focus away from the core mission of education. Many urban districts are exceedingly ungovernable, with fragmented centers of power tend¬ing to look after the interests of their own specific constituencies. Consequently, the independently elected school board has limited leverage to advance collective priorities….” As Robert Downey Jr. says in Wonder Boys, “Does that sound like anyone we know?”
Also from the report: What happens when the mayor gets involved?
“In analyzing multiple, longitudinal databases on student achievement and financial management, this report found that mayoral governance has improved urban school districts.”
Improved how? Resources get allocated more effectively. Students get better outcomes.
While we’re at it, here are a few other posts that would be helpful to those thinking about school reform in Dallas: