School Board absurdity
Here's a preview of an upcoming editorial. Your comments? I'll read them and possibly incorporate them into the actual editorial, which I think will appear on tomorrow's editorial page. Thanks -- Tom D.)
Have you noticed? The Farm Bill is in the news again, because some in Congress are questioning it. Others in Congress are questioning the sugar program, still others the war in Iraq, still others the Defense of Marriage Act and so on. And if you add all of these dissident senators and representatives up, and you'd find all 535 congressmen busily "undermining" (read: trying to reform or overturn) some pet-peeve law duly signed by the president and passed by a previous Congress.
Have you noticed something else? Those 535 congresspeople aren't waiting until an issue comes back to the floor. Why, they're going on TV, speechifying in front of Rotary clubs, writing policy papers and newspaper columns, even taking part in interest-group campaigns, all in an effort to get Congress to reverse itself on their issue.
And have you noticed one more thing? This has been going on every day, every week and every year for the entire 230-year history of our country. It's been happening far outside of Washington, too, as it's the stuff of political life in all 50 state capitals, all 3,141 county seats and all 87,525 local governments in the United States.
All but one local government, that is: the Grand Forks School Board.
The board should quickly repeal the absurd "collegiality" provision of its "Annual Governance Review Checklist".
As Herald staff writer Paulette Tobin reported here, the board thinks effective governance means all debate stops when a policy wins a majority vote. They couldn't be more wrong. In America, two fundamental principles of democracy are that a) the minority in any legislative body is required to obey any law passed by the majority; but b) that minority is not at all required to agree with the law -- and, in fact, the minority retains the full freedom to lobby the majority, the public and anyone else in an effort to convince them that the law is misguided.
The board members in favor of silencing minority voices suggests this policy flows from John Carver's "policy governance" board-leadership model. But that's a misreading of Carver, at least as applied to school-board governance. Carver doesn't say school boards should present a united front to the public. He says they should present a united front to the staff -- especially the superintendent, the CEO so important in Carver's plan.
In other words, embittered board members shouldn't go to school-district staff and encourage them to undermine the board's actions. Sez who? Sez Carver himself, in his article in the March 2000 American School Board Journal, titled "Remaking governance: The creator of 'Policy Governance' challenges school boards to change."
Here is Carver on the specific topic of, as he puts it, "one voice from plural trustees":
"2. One voice from plural trustees. Trustees have authority only as a full board -- but few boards behave accordingly. Staff members take instructions from and answer to individual trustees and board committees. Individual trustees judge staff performance on criteria the board as a body has never stated. Superintendents seek to keep individual trustees happy quite apart from fulfilling board requirements. Trustees enjoy getting things 'fixed' for constituents. There is often unspoken agreement that 'you can meddle in your district if you'll let me meddle in mine.'
"It is not enough to dismiss these phenomena as simply politics and personalities. Whether the board intends it or not, the realpolitik of school systems demonstrates regularly that staff members do, in fact, take direction from individual trustees.
"If a board seriously intends to speak with only one voice, it must declare that the staff can safely ignore advice and instructions from individual trustees, that only the explicit instructions of the board must be heeded. Excellence in governance will not occur until superintendents are certain that trustees as a group will protect them from trustees as individuals.
"Commitment to the authoritative unity of the board in no way compromises board members' right to speak their minds. Vigorous disagreement among trustees does not damage governance, but allowing intraboard skirmishes to affect the staff is irresponsible. (emphasis added)
"In short, trustees who disagree with the vote may continue to say so, but may not influence organizational direction. It is in boards' interest that superintendents treat a 5-4 vote as a 9-0 vote."
In the interest of avoiding controversy, the Grand Forks School Board has passed a foolish, heavy-handed guideline that tries to stifle dissent and deny elected officials their constitutional right and even duty to speak out. The guideline should be rescinded without delay.