Jim Zellmer, proprietor of the School Information System blog, sent an email to School Board members last week asking our views on our roles. The email stated in part, “I recall a BOE discussion where Ed argued that there are things that should be left to the Administration (inferring limits on the BOE’s oversight and ability to ask questions). I am writing to obtain your thoughts on this, particularly in light of: a) ongoing budget and accounting issues (how many years has this been discussed?), and b) the lack of substantive program review to date (is 6 years really appropriate, given reading and math requirements of many Madison students?). I’d like to post your responses, particularly in light of the proposed Administrative re-org and how that may or may not address these and other matters.”
I didn’t quite know what Jim was requesting, and asked him if he could clarify a little. He responded: “I am looking for your views on BOE responsibilities vis a vis the Administration, staff and the community. Two timely specifics, certainly are: a) ongoing budget problems, such as the maintenance referendum spending, and b) curricular matters such as reading programs, which, despite decades of annual multi-million dollar expenditures have failed to “move the needle”. The Seattle District’s “problems managing its money” matter apparently prompted more Board involvement. Finally, I do recall a BOE discussion where you argued in favor of limits on Administrative oversight. Does my memory serve?”
In response to Jim’s request, here are some thoughts on the role and responsibilities of a member of the Madison School Board. I don’t know what Jim is referring to when he mentions that I argued in favor of limits on Administrative oversight, but whatever I said, I hope it’s consistent with the following paragraphs.
There are no qualifications to be a School Board member, beyond living in the district and getting elected. Wis. Stat. §120.06(2). (Those who run unopposed, like me, essentially establish their qualifications by getting 100 people to sign their nomination papers.) But once elected, an MMSD School Board member – regardless of his or her background, knowledge base, or skill set – possesses one of the four votes required to commit the District to expenditures that will total well over a billion dollars during a School Board member’s three-year term, to employment decisions affecting thousands of employees, and to curricular and other academic choices that help shape the education of about 25,000 students.
It seems to me that this way of selecting the leadership to run a huge and hugely important organization should inspire a sense of humility and responsibility on the part of a School Board member. Humility in that we shouldn’t pretend to possess expertise or qualifications that we lack. Responsibility in that we need to work hard to discharge our duties in ways that are best for our schools, our students and our community and that foster systems and practices that make School Board members partners rather than obstacles in achieving District goals.
With respect to the budget, our primary responsibility is to determine where to draw the line between imposing an excessive tax burden on our property owners and ensuring that our schools have the resources they need to provide the quality of education that our community wants and expects. There are a lot of ways to go about this. As a Board member, I think I need to examine carefully whatever budget cuts are proposed and investigate additional cuts that make sense to me. I also think I have an obligation to have a reasonable understanding of the consequences of whatever it is I propose before I propose it. The same goes for proposals to increase spending in particular areas.
I believe that another of my responsibilities as a Board member is to do what I can to dispel misinformation in the community about school issues. School maintenance referendum spending is an obvious example. The degree of misunderstanding that currently exists in the community regarding past maintenance spending is unfortunate. We Board members should be trying to correct the record. For example, it simply is not the case that we don’t know what maintenance projects were funded by referendum money. We do. More detail would be good, but I assume we can dig out the details on specific projects to the extent we need to.
In my view, the primary problem with maintenance spending in recent years is that the administration did not make regular reports to the Board to explain and defend the list of maintenance projects that were scheduled for the upcoming year. I assume that the projects that were undertaken were necessary, but they weren’t necessarily the ones that the district was talking about when the referendum was passed and a number of those projects were never completed. Going forward, we have to do a much better job of providing ongoing big-picture information on maintenance projects and spending.
As to curricular matters, Board members should look to see that there are sound procedures in place for regularly reviewing curriculum and adopting appropriate materials. When we have a process in place, we need to respect the process. When you’ve got a School Board picking the curriculum, you’ve got a mess.
For critics of the Board’s curricular oversight, Reading Recovery is usually held out as Exhibit A for a district program that just seem to continue on and on despite high costs and mixed results. Last December we received what I thought was a well-done study on the effectiveness of Reading Recovery. It raised significant questions about the program. After much discussion, the Board decided to authorize an evaluation of our entire literacy program, rather than acting on Reading Recovery alone. That evaluation is due in February. Once we receive it, it will be up to the Board to make intelligent decisions based on what we learn. To my mind, it would have short-circuited the process we established to eliminate Reading Recovery as part of our recent budget deliberations, as had been proposed.
The Board should focus on policy matters, particularly those that affect student achievement, and resist the temptation to get involved in matters of day-to-day administration of the district, or in other issues that can divert us, and others, from our principal focus.
In order for the Board to do its job properly, we need timely, reliable and cogent information from the administration, like the Reading Recovery study. I think we have significant room for improvement in the areas of data analyses and program evaluations, and I also think we are understaffed in these areas. We’ve got to do better. I think the administration recognizes these shortcomings as well. I might well be willing to increase our budget to add additional resources in this area.
School Board members should respond to questions and concerns about our schools that are directed our way, and do our best to ensure that all voices are heard. I also believe that Board members should be ambassadors for our schools to the community at large, consistently talking up the benefits that our students derive from the education that our schools provide.
Finally, Board members should not be adversarial to the superintendent or the administration. We’re all on the same team, trying to accomplish the same goals. We should strive to work in partnership, with a high level of trust on both sides, and to develop productive and collaborative working relationships. I know from my previous service on other Boards that things go a lot more smoothly that way.