A Childless Citizen’s Appeal to the Board of Education

A board’s job is not to do more, but to demand more

By John CarverSeptember 26, 2012 | Print
This article was originally published in the March-April 2009 issue of Board Leadership.

Dear School Board Members:

I am a fourteen-year resident of this county, a voter, and a property owner. A whopping percentage of my local taxes go to support the public schools. I have no children still in school. But I am just as much an “owner” of the system as any parent. All of us in this county are shareholders in an important enterprise: the preparation of the citizens, parents, and producers of tomorrow. But there are so many of us and we are so busy with other important things in our lives that we must rely on a few people we elect to vote our shares for us, that is, to make sure that we get our money’s worth.

I have an interest in public education first because it is critical to the kind of country I want to live in. Given the importance of public education in a free society, I might voluntarily pay my share for the school system. But as an individual, I have no choice because taxes are a matter of law; I am forced to pay. But I fear I am under a more compelling obligation to pay than those who use the money are compelled to use it well.

What I ask in return for the heavy taxes is simple: I want developing young people to acquire whatever skills and knowledge are needed for them and this republic to be humane and productive. And I want as much of those results for the dollar as the state of the art enables. In other words, I want to get a large bang for my buck. Furthermore, I care that the particular “skills and knowledge” be carefully chosen with foresight and vision. The world our kids are growing up into isn’t like the one I’ve known. There are jobs that did not exist when I was in school. It is unlikely that the future will slow down, get less complicated, or demand less. So I want judicious choices to be made about exactly which results my money is taken away from me to produce.

Like most other owners, I don’t care what the class schedules are, what the school calendar looks like, what the myriad budget lines are, which principal is chosen for the high school, what the attendance zones look like, what vendor is chosen for new buses, or how many children are in a classroom. I just care that my tax money buy what it should in terms of that skill and knowledge. Of course, I know all those details have to be well chosen in order to get the right results for the right cost. Someone will have had to resolve them—someone more skilled than I at those tasks and, I submit, also more capable about them than are you.

In other words, I don’t care how the results are achieved. Well, I spoke too soon; I do care about probity. I care that the system not mistreat anyone, including students and parents, and I care that the public assets in your care not be unduly risked. Within that broad demand about how you carry on business, I am content to leave to trained people the job of working out what it takes to achieve what I do care about— that skill and knowledge.

That doesn’t seem too much to ask of elected officials who represent me and other owners, especially when you can force me to give up everything I wanted to buy with that tax money. It doesn’t seem too much to ask from elected officials who are the only ones in a position to make sure the money yields what it should.

I had the unexpected leisure recently to observe a board meeting. I hoped to see how as public servants you fulfill the task you campaigned to be entrusted with. It would be a severe understatement to say that I was dismayed. I would say what I found was a mockery of public policy, but frighteningly what you were doing, by definition, is public policy. I could say I was impressed at how hard board members worked and how often they met, but I was more impressed at how hard you worked on the wrong things and how often you met about the wrong things. I could say what I found was a public board that tried hard to represent us “shareholders,” but I found it listened to a handful of parents, staff, and vendors far more attentively than to the owners. In fact, I couldn’t see that you have any organized way of listening to the public at all, since the “public meetings” you have never get close to a valid sampling of the public.

Remarkably, you spent your time more on those things as an owner I don’t care about than those I do. When I tried to find evidence that you’ve turned a deep analysis of what adults of tomorrow need to know into clear, authoritative marching orders for the system, I didn’t find it. I could find a lot of evidence that the board spends a great deal of time on things your staff can more competently do than can the board. I found a board that reacts to a relative few parents as if they represent the whole county. Sure, it made the board look responsive, but it was about as unrepresentative a group as it could be. When I looked to see how sophisticated the board was in crafting a way to prevent unethical and imprudent actions without stultifying the staff or reducing highly paid executives to clerks, I found the board shows little recognition that this kind of careful delegation is even an issue, even in a critical organization with thousands of staff and almost a billion dollars of expenditures a year! The amateurism of it all is appalling.

Even philosophers like Rousseau, Mill, and Hume of 150 to 200 years ago knew that delegation from public body to management is fraught with pitfalls and therefore demands intelligent and careful design. John Stuart Mill warned that boards should not “dictate in detail to those who have the charge of administration,” for “the interference is almost always injurious.” With reference apparently to board review of managerial acts, he refers to the board tendency toward “inexperience sitting in judgment on experience, ignorance on knowledge.” Boards may claim to understand effective delegation, but as Mill points out, they “may give power by wholesale, and take it back in detail, by multiplied single acts of interference in the business of administration.” I know you have arranged your job, like those of other public school boards, so that it is necessary for you to read huge documents and pore over bits and pieces of administrative details. I know you think it is your burden to deal directly with parents, even to hold meetings for them. I know that doing so makes you appear responsive and willing to roll your sleeves up and get involved with the system’s customers and internal issues. But these things show only that you don’t know what data to read or how to demand the system treat parents responsively. You’ve missed the point. If the governing board must get involved with customers, that is a diagnostic sign that either the board doesn’t know its job or that it doesn’t think its CEO can or will take good care of customer relations. What kind of board or CEO does that indicate? Then, incongruously, it seems the board relies on the same CEO to keep the board itself organized and on track. I would cringe to find my retirement funds invested with companies so carelessly governed.

Why can’t you see that despite all that hard work you do, your job isn’t to do more but to demand more? It is amateurism to poke and probe into bits and pieces of administration and curricula instead of systematically debating, defining, and demanding desired system performance. Rather than being the informed voice of the public, our purchasing agent for youth preparation, in determining what our taxes should buy, you plunge into becoming a part of the machinery of administration, even though you’ve hired qualified people to run that machinery.

You have a hard job. You deserve praise and an honored position in the county for having taken it on. But the job you’ve assumed on behalf of us all cries out for far more sophisticated governance, for it would enable you better to connect your stewardship duty to us owners with fulfillment of our shared community obligation to the next generation.

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