Ballot issues & school board roles: starting points for local control of schools

It’s been awhile (nearly 2 years) since I’ve composed any wonkish blog pieces on the topic of K-12 education.  I’ve blogged about a school enterprise zone proposal to facilitate opportunities for supplemental learning.  I’ve blogged about my opposition to charter schools.  But there is so much more ground to cover on the topic of education.

The public schools are the public’s schools–the people’s schools.  The people pay taxes for them.  We have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people (or, that’s the way it’s supposed to work).  So the people’s schools are the government’s schools, and vice-versa.

If the public schools are broken, it behooves us to fix them.  Us.  As in people.

Why are we letting our government leaders, including President Obama and Governor Kasich, do an end run around getting into the nuts and bolts of fixing inadequate public schools (think charter schools, think vouchers)?

Why are the federal and state governments even involved in mandating what our schools ought and ought not to do?  What do they know about the needs of your specific community and what do they know about the desires you have for your children, the students?  Does one size fit all?  I suppose they try to meddle in school affairs because the media press them to know, during the campaign season, what their education platform consists of.  Then, because they make some promises to the media about what they will do about education, they actually stick their noses into it.  But I don’t necessarily think their noses belong there.

I would like parents and members of the community to make the important decisions about their schools.  We are grown-ups, right?  Why do we need to shirk this civic responsibility?  Why do we either put it on the shoulders of the teachers to bring about positive academic outcomes or on the shoulders of Columbus and Washington DC?  Why are we absolving ourselves of our responsibilities to ensure that our, the people’s, schools achieve the standards that we, the people, set?

Maybe we, the people, have not felt empowered to fix our local schools.  If we go to a school board meeting to voice a concern, it often seems the concern doesn’t get adequately addressed.  Sometimes, even, the superintendent and/or school board members will say that their hands are tied by mandates from Columbus and Washington DC, and that’s why our concerns cannot be addressed.

It takes the wind right out of you to attempt to make a difference and then find out you are powerless to have any input about the school right down the street from your house.  If you feel powerless, then forget about it.  You don’t bother.  Apathy sets in.  The community drops out.  The parents drop out.  And then we wonder why the students drop out.

If we, the people, could feel like we could make a difference in we, the people’s, the public’s, the government’s, schools–wouldn’t it be more likely that our involvement would increase?  If our community invests themselves in education, if parents invest themselves in education, do you think the students would invest themselves in education?  I think so.

Empowerment.  Empowerment is the key.  One size DOES NOT fit all.  The power over the schools needs to be decentralized.  It needs to be wrested away from Washington DC, first, and Columbus, next.

Where do we start?  How about we transform the role of the school board?  As it stands, school administration, led by the superintendent, often sets the agenda for the school board meetings.  The school board then either decides to ratify the agenda items put forward by the superintendent, or not to ratify them.  If the school board is too often dissatisfied with the superintendent’s agenda, withholding ratification seems not to be making much difference.  The recourse, at that point, is for the school board to get a new superintendent.  They either decide not to renew the superintendent’s contract, buy out the superintendent’s contract, or sever the superintendent’s contract (which will likely result in a lawsuit initiated by the dismissed superintendent, which only goes to show that the superintendent was never really an ally to the schools, after all).

At the local level, it should be the school board who sets the agenda, not the superintendent.  At other levels of government, the legislative branch prescribes what is to be done and the executive branch carries it out.  Why should it be any different in a school district?  A role-reversal is needed.  This prescriptive legislative role is the empowering role for the school board.

And what empowering the rest of the members of the community?  How do we bring an end to the powerlessness that they feel?

Voting.  The ballot box.

As it stands, a school board can only put two kinds of issues on the ballot:  bonds and tax levies.  Whoop-de-doo.  We don’t get much say in how the schools are run, but we’re charged with the responsibility to figure out how we’ll pay for them.  That seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it?

We, the people, need to be allowed to vote on issues beyond just bonds and levies.  When a contentious issue arises in the school district and the school board is in a quandary . . . and then when very vocal proponents and very vocal proponents show up at the school board meeting and school board members don’t really know which camp is more representative of the wishes of the community . . . why can’t  either the proponents or opponents file to put the issue before the people?  I don’t think the school board, themselves, ought to have to pony up the money out of the school treasury to put the issue before the voters.  Are the proponents or opponents ready to put their money where there mouth is?  Are they ready to launch an election campaign concerning this issue?  If neither camp is, then the public should live with the school board’s decision, whatever it may be.  The public would have to absolve the school board of blame if its decision didn’t win everyone over.  But if a committee of citizens really truly felt strongly enough about an issue, why should that committee be handcuffed by state law?  Why should the issue be forbidden from appearing on the ballot?

Here’s a real-life example of an issue that citizens might have wanted on the ballot:  Oberlin High School sports teams, for decades, had been known as the Oberlin Indians.  There were two very vocal camps:  Those who had deep affection for the Oberlin Indian legacy (usually long-time residents who were alumni of the high school themselves) and wanted to retain the name; and those (usually those with ties to the college who are transplants in the Oberlin community) who took a stand against the name because of politically incorrect insensitivity toward the various Nations of the Native Americans–descendants of those who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.  Both groups were very vocal, and the school board was caught in the middle of this tug of war.  I spoke recently with a former member of the school board, a school board member who said such a vote by the school district’s electorate would have been very helpful in resolving the issue.  The school board voted in favor of the latter group, and the sports teams are now known as the Oberlin Phoenix.

Another example from Oberlin:  A group of parents thought it would be appropriate for the students to begin the day with a recitation of the pledge of allegiance.  Others thought it would be inappropriate to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools.  The school board sided with the latter group.  Would it have been so bad if those in favor of the Pledge of Allegiance had been allowed to collect signatures and to file petitions in order for the issue to appear on the ballot?

Other issues that citizens might want to put on the ballot:

  • Dress code:  The primary purpose of the schools is to educate.  If a student’s attire detracts from the learning that is to take place at school, it’s reasonable that it be addressed in the dress code.  What detracts from the learning environment and what doesn’t?  Well, community standards play a role in what’s acceptable and what’s not.  Some communities would demand more modesty than others.  One size does not fit all.  If the community were to actually vote on a dress code, then a judge wouldn’t have much difficulty in upholding the dress code if a student took the matter to court.
  • Contraceptive distribution:  There are some schools that supplied students with contraceptives with no questions asked.  It has even caught some communities by surprise, as the school administrators had quietly made their own unilateral decision on the matter without the input of the school board, let alone the community.  Would it be so wrong to have this issue on the ballot to see if the community supported the distribution of contraceptives in the school or not?
  • Sexuality:  How early in life should youngsters be introduced to concepts of sexuality by their teachers, such as the differentiation between homosexuality and heterosexuality?  Is education on sexuality even a role that the schools should undertake?  Would it be wrong to allow this issue to appear on the ballot?  Or do we let individual classroom teachers make this decision unilaterally?
  • School closures:  Dropping enrollment (an all-too-frequent phenomenon in Ohio) and saving money are the two primary causes for mothballing a school somewhere in a school district.  It’s just that no one wants the school in their neighborhood be the one that closes.  Instead of appealing a school’s closure to the courts (as sometimes happens), would it be so wrong to appeal to the electorate, instead?
  • Censorship:  When students contribute material that appears in school publications (yearbook, newspaper, etc.), should it be subject to censorship?  It’s kind of like the dress code . . . what standard should be applied?
  • Public access to the classroom:  Is it permissible for a parent or other local citizen to be a silent observer in a classroom while school is in session?
  • Cell phones:  Are students restricted during certain times and in certain places from using their cell phones?  What restrictions should apply?
  • Politicians taking the stage at student assemblies:  Should politicians be featured speakers at school assemblies?  Only if they visit in their official capacity as elected officeholders?  During election season?  Equal time for the political opponent?  Photo ops at the school to appear in the media or in campaign literature?  Or only visiting the school as a private citizen?
  • Raffles and other fundraisers:  Are raffles permitted to be used as a means of fundraising?  Or are raffles off-limits, recognized by the community as a form of gambling?  Who can raise funds on school property?  Any student group?  For any purpose?  By any means?  What about community groups?  Charities?  Political parties and candidates?  Commercial vendors?

The school board can make these decisions, but if the public wants to have a referendum, why not?  It sends a message that you can make a difference.  You can have input.  You are empowered.  You can be involved.  You care.

With the school board directing the superintendent (rather than voting to ratify the superintendents agenda), and with citizens able to put school district issues on the ballot (rather than voting to ratify bonds and levies only) we, the people, can begin to fix our, the people’s, the public’s, schools.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s