In the second of three convenings to discuss public school governance issues, a panel of scholars, former superintendents, and civic leaders delved into the roles and characteristics of effective school committees, and issues of concern within and across different governance structures.According to Brown University professor and researcher Kenneth Wong, the country has around 15,000 to 18,000 school districts, governed mostly by elected school boards. This district-level governance satisfies what he calls Americans’ longstanding, deep sentiment about local control. It’s a sentiment especially attached to schools as public education usually takes the largest single bite out of taxpayer dollars, and half of our population has experienced public school directly in some way—as a student, family member or worker. With so many local instances, there are many iterations of how school boards are formed and how successfully they perform. Mayor-appointed boards are far fewer in number so research doesn’t yield concrete answers. What Wong has found, and what the former superintendents on the panel attested to, was that the more coherent a school board’s understanding of its charge, the more likely it was to deliver what the community wanted.
There was strong agreement among the diverse panelists that any method of populating a municipal school board requires checks and balances—something like a nominating committee if appointed, something like equal access to public platforms if elected—but that equally or more important was the approach the body took to its work. School boards are traditionally responsible for three things: districtwide policymaking, hiring and supervising of superintendents, and fiduciary oversight. But if carried out without listening to the community or by micromanaging the schools, little progress will be made.
Moderator Sakeenah Chapman probed the subject with questions about what kind of system best supports superintendents, whether changing the governance model would affect equity, and whether governance models might have “natural lifespans.” The answers all seemed to reiterate that no one school board selection method was a silver bullet to resolving a school system’s challenges. High on the list of behaviors panelists named that will increase success for both superintendents and districts, however, were continual listening, considering social determinants of student opportunities and outcomes (e.g., housing, food insecurity, race or income), engaging community members on many levels, calling for input or partnership from other sectors, and putting learners first in all decisions. Former superintendent Sue Lusi said, “What enables superintendents to be most effective is when there’s alignment and consensus around understanding what needs to be done to serve students, families and teachers…. A condition that makes it more challenging is when there are too many cooks in the kitchen fighting about which recipe to use.” The theme of alignment was a recurring one, but with an emphasis on common core values rather than lockstep thinking. Said former superintendent Oscar Santos, “What’s helped me be successful: shared values and priorities. Agreement on the purpose and goals of the work drives actions even while there are still questions to explore: What does it mean when we say we care about young people, or that we’re going to work together?” Santos added, “Whether appointed or elected, working with the school committee is good for [a superintendent’s] perspective. Like a ‘team of rivals.’ It is good to have ideas challenged and work a way toward what’s best for schools and students.”
With that in mind, preserving diverse representation on school boards is essential. Pam Kocher of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau pointed to research suggesting that with an elected governance body, more diverse voices may not be heard, but rather the loudest or those with the most resources behind them. Were Boston to return to an all elected board serious attention would need to be paid to ensuring equitable platforms for all candidates.
Panelists also agreed that whatever the governance model, engaging students, families and community members was a key element for school success, and for advancing equity, but that so far creating or maintaining an infrastructure for that engagement has been sorely undervalued. Even in the poorest school systems, “families and community members don’t want to be seen as broken,” said Santos. “We’re not looking at all the amazing assets in these communities.”
Wong suggested we need to do a lot more work at the school building level. “That’s where families connect to learning, to other parents, teachers, and so on. A strong foundational structure is needed at the school level. School boards could lead on this, allocating resources to build that infrastructure. We see lots of ‘report cards’ on schools but not much on boards and mayors who may really be accountable.”
Lusi offered this summary on the many points of agreement: “Traditional rhythms of seeking community engagement fundamentally need to change. And not just when a new superintendent is named or new budget is developed. We need a back-and-forth consulting process ongoing—shaping ideas and approaches; evaluating and improving. Building trust and building quality systems that are well implemented, are more adaptive changes than how the board is formed. Infrastructure for engagement paired with shared values are crucial to building that trust. What really matters is how the board will be held accountable for elevating voices of students, the community and the educators who serve them—with respect. It also matters that the board be representative of the community and the lived experiences of its members.”
This just scrapes the surface of the 90-minute conversation with audience questions. You can catch the March 30 conversation, which explored what we could learn from the history of Boston’s school committee, and mark your calendar for May 18, 2022, at 10:00 a.m. for the third and final installment in these conversations about school board governance in Boston.