December 19, 1997
In the mid-1980's, a situation developed in Toledo, Ohio, which spread unrest through the ranks of Ohio's professional educators. Frank Dick, then Superintendent in Toledo, was elected President of the American Association of School Administrators. At the time, he experienced a number of conflicts with the nation's major teacher union - the National Education Association (NEA). The union's response was to "pack his board" with teachers who lived in the City of Toledo, but worked in suburban school systems. The situation was further complicated by the fact Toledo was bargaining with the rival union - affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). As one could imagine, the resulting in-fighting and conflicts seriously compromised the Toledo board's ability to function in the best interests of children and taxpayers.
Regrettably, in the 1990s, a more far-reaching threat to the concept of a "lay school board" has occurred. School personnel who retire or otherwise find themselves out of office are successfully capitalizing on their name recognition and running for school boards. The result often puts self interest above the needs of students and constituents.
Last spring, SchoolMatch conducted an Audit of Educational Effectiveness, similar to the one we performed for The Dispatch, in the massive (126,000 student) Duval County Public School District in Jacksonville, Florida. The situation there shocked SchoolMatch auditors. On the Board of Education sat three administrators who, for one reason or another, had left the employ of the school district. In addition, there was even a teacher on leave of absence. Opportunities for conflicts of interest and for placing self-interest above student welfare were plentiful. One board member made it clear he ran for the school board to "punish" the superintendent. He won, and has continually created severe roadblocks to progress. He is in and out of the central office nearly every day expressing his opinions, whether solicited or not, on personnel matters, curriculum redesign, facility enhancements, and even staff development.
In one suburban Columbus district, a former superintendent who attempted unsuccessfully to regain his superintendency serves on the board of education. He used his high visibility in the community as a springboard to board election, and is now fond of telling everyone how things have "always been." That district now has an outstanding superintendent who, in the opinion of residents, is being hamstrung by a reawakened dinosaur. People in the community tend to defer to him out of respect for his previous position rather than because of his understanding of issues at hand and the future. As of January 1, in this particular school district, the board will include four educators and one lay person.
Of all the cases on record, the situation with a former superintendent returning to the policy team of a district he or she once served seems to be the worst. A public policy board is not a good place for a person with a crushed ego to vent his or her frustration, or to attempt to regain control of the district by commandeering the school board.
Lay boards of education were designed to represent the interests of the public, not those of professional educators. A look at examples in the private sector demonstrates the value of lay boards. Just a few years ago colossal IBM - the world's largest information processing firm - had an inbred board comprised of IBMers and others from the computer industry. Through the leadership of Jim Burke, former Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical chairman, the board was transformed to include successful business people from a wide range of industries. In the years since, IBM has flourished with lay board members under the leadership of a new chairman, Louis Gerstner. Successful universities, banks, utilities, hospitals and manufacturing firms profit from the perspective of board members outside of their professions.
The public needs to be educated. Generally, former school administrators are not good school board material because they bring their personal notion of educational management to a policy-making role. This can cause enmity in meetings and frustrations for people who are trying to lead the system in a forward direction. Citizens need to understand that experience in the superintendency does not necessarily lend itself to the lay citizen role necessary for formulating good school policy. Numerous cases across the country of school teachers and administrators with axes to grind being elected to school boards and creating turmoil justify a serious look at this issue.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data