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Lessons? Small districts?

Posted By: Allen Lambert on July 4, 2009
I know quite a bit about small school district boards (I have been doing a large scale comparative study of school board operations and decision-making), including small cities; but I know little about large urban districts. And there seems to be very little research on how the two types differ.
So I wonder whether there are lessons to transfer from small to larger, or vice versa.

I do not know why in theory mayoral control would be better than an elected board. It is certainly the case that in smaller districts (say less than 10,000 students which includes more than 90% of school districts in the US) mayoral control would not be better. In many cases, like my own district (6,000 students) where I served on the school board (BoE), mayoral control would not only have been less effective, but a disaster (knowing the particular people involved). In my district and city the BoE has been more diverse and smarter (in doing its job) than the city council.

One thing that puzzles me is why school boards are held to different standards and evaluated differently compared to other local legislative bodies. In my experience and research they are at least as capable and effective as city councils and county boards. School board members in small cities and communities are just as elected, serve as long, care as much, are often less politicized and partisan and politically ambitious, as responsive and accountable, just as prepared and knowledgeable and disciplined, and smarter and more diverse than other local legislative and governing bodies. As for "coherence and continuity", I find school boards as much so as city councils. Etc. In other words, school boards are not worse than city councils, yet the BoE gets criticized in ways the council members do not.

Mr Hess cites one claim that I find factually mistaken, at least for the vast majority of school boards. He says one criticism is that BoE engage in
"... frenzied, symbolic reform efforts and ritualistic hiring and firing of superintendents, producing constant changes in direction and inattention to implementation." In fact, despite the oft cited, but not well supported, claim that superintendents average span of service in a district is three years, research on all districts, rather than just a few large urban ones, finds that superintendents tend to serve far longer than that, averaging 7-9 years in given district before moving to another (often moving "up" to a larger or wealthier district). "Frenzied ... ritualistic hiring and firing" is the exception rather than the rule in the typical school district. In my district the current supt. is in her 13th year in our district.

Do school boards "micromanage"? Yes and no and that depends. Does the typical BoE "micromanage" more than city councils? Not in my studies. In fact, most city councils (CC) and county boards do more direct management of and meddling in staff than BoE.
However, there are some important differences between BoE and CC. School boards tend to have more assignments in state law that require involvement. Thus, for expl, school boards are required to approve textbooks and are established as a quasi-judicial court of appeals so that any parent can appeal a supt. decision on bus stops, suspensions, and other things. Similar types of duties are not part of city councils, etc.
In general, the BoE has a wider range of duties assigned by state law and less flexibility in acting compared to other local governments.

And so on.

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 Lessons? Small districts? by Allen Lambert on July 4, 2009
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