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Thursday, May 24, 2012 03:36 pm

Nickeled and dimed

Confusing management for governance in District 186

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A few years ago, the executive director of the National School Boards Association said, “In a democracy, school boards are the closest thing to the ground.”

“Like dandelions in a lawn,” I muttered to myself. In my too-many years as a public scold, I have learned to accept the many absurdities occasioned by government of the people, by the people, for the people. None is more absurd than local control of public schools, which installs people in charge of educational organizations who (with rare exceptions) know nothing about either education or running organizations at the behest of voters who regard that ignorance as the soundest possible credential.

Think what you want about teachers and administrators – and there are too many of each about which one must think the worst –  it is lay school board members who hire them, who largely set the unofficial standards by which they operate and who negotiate the contracts with each that make mediocrity the effective standard for advancement.

In Springfield, District 186 spends more than $200 million a year, in return for which taxpayers have been given high dropout rates and low test scores, especially among those students who need education the most. (More than four of every five African American high school juniors failed to meet  Illinois’ risible state reading and math standards in 2011.) And what is the board fretting about at meetings these days? Whether to raise prices for student lunches for next year by a nickel or a dime.

Piddling while Rome burns, I calls it.    

Most alert citizens probably agree that this kind of busy-body-ness is not what school boards are elected to do. Agreeing about what school boards are elected to do is harder. Members sit, in effect, as a nonprofit’s board of directors. To the public, plainly, the board is to the school system what the city council is to the City of Springfield.

This impression is strengthened by the tendency of so many board members to comport themselves like aldermen. “Good school boards,” explains the Illinois Association of School Boards, “know the difference between governance (which is their job) and management (which is the administration’s job) and place a high priority on respecting that difference.” The 186 board, in contrast, hires a guy at $220,000 per, presumably in part because he knows how to prepare a budget. Yet when he proposed to save about $600,000 of a needed $5 millions in cuts by moving back into the classroom 11 teachers being trained as administrators and principals, a majority of the board rejected the plan on April 9 because – horror! – some teachers and parents objected. Assuming those $600,000 are eventually cut, they will likely come from programs that are merely unpopular rather than inefficient or superfluous.

The State of Illinois knows what a school board’s role is, because the State of Illinois invented them. Although elected locally, school boards are state agencies carrying out a delegated state function, that being (quoting the Illinois Constitution) “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.” Local boards are ultimately responsible to the state, which can take away their powers as fast as you can say “head coach in the shower.” Not that the state does it very often; only two local boards out of the nearly 900 in Illinois have been taken over by the state at the moment, even though many more than two are manifestly failing at least some of their students.

The state made its agents close to the ground electable to give the whole business political legitimacy. It thus made school boards accountable to the communities whose money they presume to spend. You can also say they were thus made vulnerable to those communities. Democracy reduces school board members from stewards of a public trust to politicians. Not a problem, except that voters are quicker to hold boards accountable for failure to protect union members, protect sports and protect elderly taxpayers than the state is for their failure to teach Illinois’ children.

A board is not doing a good job when it gives the public what it wants, in short, but when it gives the children of Springfield what they need. Top of the list is solidly trained teachers who are free to teach and who are overseen by building administrators who are free to reassign, retrain or fire those who don’t do it well. Bottom of the list is busy-body boards.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

A goof in last week’s column, “Fountain of death” (May 17) had me stating, “The real danger posed by the old is not the cost of the medical care that allows them to get older.” That is of course not accurate. It is the medical care costs of federal entitlement programs that are much the graver fiscal threat.

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