Are School Boards Toast? The Conflict between the Power of the Governor versus Local Home Rule, Who Knows Best?

On Tuesday, May 15th voters around New York State will trek to polling places in an example of grassroots democracy: school budget and school board elections.

The 700 school districts (exceptions: NYC and the “Big Five”) are one of the last vestiges of the citizen voice. School boards and superintendents craft budgets addressing the range of choices: class size, special programs, after school activities, busing, new construction, all the decisions that add up to the brick and mortar of a school district.

School boards are your next door neighbors, parent activists, local businessman, tea party supporters, whomever voters elect.

The choices voters face varies widely across the state.

There is a wide disparity in school budgets; school districts with multi-million dollar homes or commercial taxpayers, rural school districts with a limited bases and decaying cities with high unemployment.

According to an Education Trust Report,

“When revenues were adjusted only for regional cost differences and the additional cost of educating students with disabilities, New York showed the greatest disparity between revenues available per student in the highest- and lowest-poverty districts NYS has a glaring disparity.”

Wealthy suburban districts with glittering school buildings, a wide range of classes and activities versus upstate rural districts that must slash budgets each year and are on the verge of default.

Who is at fault?

The school boards or the Governor and the legislature that sets the funding formulas?

Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM points to school boards as the source of our educational ills .

I believe the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.

Therefore, I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation’s governors and seek agreement to the following:

– Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

Diane Ravitch challenges Gerstner,

School boards play an important role as defenders of the public interest in education. They are part of the democratic process of decision-making. School boards might slow down decision making, but that is part of their job. They offer a forum where the public may be heard, where problems may be raised, where executive decisions may be challenged. At hearings, school officials must explain and defend their decisions and budget proposals. Listening to the public about how its children will be educated and how its money will be spent does slow down the decision-making process. No question about it.

The tension between taxpayers wanting lower property taxes and school boards wanting to create the best schools possible was exacerbated last year when Governor Cuomo forced the state to adopt a 2% Property Tax cap.

The process of budget-setting across the state is commonly a series of community meetings as the public voice their opinions. In the Springs School District, a typical district (one K-8 770 student school) the process has been extraordinarily painful. (read detailed description here)

The fifth budget work session of the Springs School Board, on April 4, made clear a few pertinent points; that the school board was going to make some cuts, and that the decisions were going to be emotionally charged for both the board and the community.

Audible gasps, sighs, and groans issued from the crowd, which was not invited to comment since it was a board work session, and at one point a Springs School teacher raced from the auditorium in tears as her position was eliminated.

Governor Cuomo has taken another major step, coming down on the Gerstner side, in setting the charge for his newly appointed education reform Commission.

New York’s education system is organized into 700 school districts, more than half of which educate fewer than 2,000 students. Each of the 700 school districts has its own administration and back office functions, creating duplication, waste, and inefficiencies in the way school districts deliver education. The Commission will examine potential strategies to reorganize the state’s education system including district consolidation and/or shared services; … maximizing informed participation in local elections; and facilitating shared services, consolidation and regional governance.

The Governor is challenging a central tenet of our democracy: the local voice of the citizen versus the power of the executive.

In the Wisdom of Crowds, “New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.”

By capping property tax increases and beginning the process to sharply limit the power of school boards is the Governor speaking for the “people” or imposing the position of the “elites”?

Should decisions about school programs be made as close to the children as possible, by local school boards, or in Albany, by a Regents selected by politicians and who are mostly not educators?

Should the goal of New York State education be directed by Washington initiatives, i. e., Obama-Duncan, or, respond to the desires of their constituents?

Should the goal of mandate relief be spending fewer dollars on children with disabilities or spending the dollars smarter?

If English language learners are not progressing and graduating at rates far below general ed students should we change the regulations? And, if so, who should drive the changes?

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill told us, “All Politics is Local.” The average guy and gal are suspicious of change and unless convinced of the quality of the change will resist – and resist vigorously.

In the halls of the Assembly and the Senate the electeds fear their constituents more than the Governor and their own party leaders.

While the Governor has effectively cowed the legislative bodies – Tier 6, the property tax cap and two massive on-time budgets passed in spite of the whining of the legislature; he dangled tasty fruit – a favorable redistricting – and the legislators voted for their own self- interest.

Perhaps he can dangle a decade-delayed legislative salary increase, or, perhaps the anger and hostility of the voters will prevail.

To quote an average voter, “consolidate my school district; do away with our football team – no way!!”

Will the local voice prevail or are we entering a post-local politics age?

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