The Purpose of the School Board

This post started out as a deeper review and research of the recent Urbana School Board Policy 2:82 that got Jim Dey’s and Jim Turpin’s attention. But as I dug, I started asking bigger questions. Questions about the purpose of the school board and political engagement. But let me start from the beginning…

A few days ago, NG Editor Jim Dey wrote an editorial that stung the Urbana School District Board of Education and I started exploring his article in a post. Over lunch today, I took some time to dive into this whole thing with both feet.

First I contacted USD 116; I emailed the Board, Superintended Dr. Preston Williams and Assistant Superintendent Don Owen (and various administrative aides), asking where Policy 2:82 was published on the USD website. I must have missed it the first time looking through the Board Agenda, but the policy is indeed on the Board’s Agenda website:

http://www.usd116.org/files/boardmin1112/Board-Agreement-282-120605.pdf

As I was reading through it, I tried to ignore Dey’s perspective and form my own (which is rather difficult, actually). In reading through it, I can definitely see a sense of control being exerted. Control, in and of itself, is not inherently bad; I say that explicitly because even though it is obvious, we seem to want to escalate any desire for control into the realms of “bad” and “evil”. Certainly it can be used for bad. Is it? Also, I had to remember that these are expectations – when I read this, I did not see any ramifications stated if expectations are not met. Some call that kind of thinking devious, others call it thinking outside the box. (*evil grin*)

I also had the opportunity to speak to a Board Member which was very helpful. I specifically couched my questions in terms of clarifying a position so as not to go against any of the new policies/expectations. I learned that the Board discussed this policy at a recent Board retreat in which an Illinois Association of School Board (IASB) official “facilitated” (not sure of the details beyond that). It seems like the Board’s intent was merely to clarify how the Board operates procedurally. It was not clear to me if any one person initiated the new policy. When I talked about top-down changes, the school board member agreed how it could be perceived that way, but the perception of this individual was that this was not the case.

The very last part of the document lists the following as a Resource:

From Illinois Association of School Boards meeting with District 116 Board of Education, April 18, 2012.

So, my next stop was to go visit the IASB. Trying to get a feel for what the IASB strives to achieve, I kept coming across words like “governance”. A lot. A quick review of the definition and an etymology of “govern” points to an individual or body that basically holds responsibility for guiding a larger group. The mission mission (Wayback Machine version) of the IASB is interesting; it basically takes “effective governance” and slices it up in many different flavors. However, those are only the major points – the supporting details paint a much more tangible and, in my opinion, more palatable picture. For instance,

1.1 Boards of Education will focus their leadership on student achievement.

1.2 Boards of Education will build a community-based vision for their district and will make decisions, address problems and concerns, and communicate a district culture consistent with that vision.

1.3 Board members will demonstrate the qualities and skills of leadership including the following:

  • understanding the role of the board and the role of the superintendent.
  • consensus building.
  • interpreting and using data to monitor progress toward vision and compliance with policy.
  • communication skills (listening, public speaking, etc.)

Wow. “Community-based”. “Consensus building”. Communicating….
I next took a look at the IASB Foundational Principles and was again very impressed with the lucid, accessible, practical and social aspect of the guidelines.

During my talk with the USD116 Board Member, I learned that the number one driving force of 99% of Board Policies is State Legislature; the state defines what we need to do, and like eager beavers we must ask “how high?” Where, indeed, has local control gone? The answer; it has been carved away, little by little. This explains why a majority of it is in impossible-to-read legalese. This bothers me. But how to fix it? The IASB has all this focus on community and communication, but the state is handing down our marching orders. In the back of my mind, what would happen if we said “no” to the state? I realize this breaks a whole number of things, but I seriously wonder how we get back to our roots. It is my perception that the IASB mission and foundational principles are categorically at odds with State Legislature in terms of what school boards do. How is that even possible? I really like what the IASB has put on their website, but I do not see much of it happening around me. How have we come to the point where we have become the automatons of the state?

Taking a slightly different tack, I looked at the IASB’s Governance Recognition program, where they award 4 school district Boards based on certain principles. You can read a little more about the 4 schools that won in 2011 from this IASB newsletter. The 4 schools were (linking there Boards URL here, not the school district):

There is a wide variety there. From what little I have read so far, it seems like there are bits and pieces we can hold up as models. For instance, Wheaton has a Board policy that states ” The School Board shall hold regular conversational community meetings at times and on dates designated on a calendar adopted at the start of the fiscal year.” Nice! And the dates are listed right there. Evanston has a Citizen’s ad hoc Budget Committee. And there are other characteristics I am sure you might like.

Ultimately, I started asking “What is the purpose of the School Board?” Ok, so they are guide, control, exert influence over and steer. How? Older usages of the word “govern” are applied to kings. More modern definitions target underlings who do the will of a more sovereign entity. One definition even goes so far as to say “to rule without sovereign power and usually without having the authority to determine basic policy”. *lol* That strikes close to home, IMO.

Here are two blog links that attempt to answer the question:

From my perspective, our current school boards seem to be fulfilling the guiding, controlling and steering part just fine. I think many of us wonder where the IASB’s recommendation of having a little more community focus fits into the picture. Into our picture here in Central Illinois.

In wrapping up, I had the horrible realization that if we truly want to affect change (and I am implicitly assuming that we only want to affect change we consider good), we have to plug in and engage the political machine. “Why is that a horrible realization?” For me, I have lost confidence the wheels of government. I have lost trust. Engagement seems futile at best. And yet, when I lift up my head, I do see that some folks are striving mightily to effect change, and that is encouraging.

Just as much to myself as to you, I say “don’t give up”. Keep up the good fight.

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9 Responses to “The Purpose of the School Board”

  1. pattsi Says:

    How do you relate this to democracy and bringing ideas from the bottom up? What are the pros and cons? How do citizens overcome these real and perceived barriers? How would you rewrite policy to enhance democracy and citizen engagement via expanded transparency?

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    In terms of democracy and bringing ideas from the bottom up, I go back to SeeClickFix and that massive decisionmaking document in the context of transportation; there must exist a top-down desire or initiative to be willing to listen and gather the opinions of those on the bottom, and those on the bottom must do what they can to make themselves heard. Without both, I don’t think anything will happen. Or perhaps in rare cases (the exceptions), positive change will occur without the deliberate and intentional exercise on both ends.

    Pros and cons. This is much more challenging for me to measure, given my lack of experience. I would think these efforts are always being weighed, with “efficiency” at one end of the scale and “relationships” on the other end. Or something on the other end, we might call it different things (ie, “social justice”, Dr. Laura Taylor calls it “love”).

    Overcoming both real and perceived barriers. To me, I believe this is where advocacy comes into play, whether it be in the form of peers, an ombudsman type role, or someone with a large cache of social capital helping another with less. I also firmly believe that one of the fundamental roles of public education is to equip and prepare citizens (no matter what age) to surmount both real and perceived barriers, and then to teach and help others to do the same.

    How would I rewrite policy to enhance democracy and engagement? As you point out in the question, part of the answer must lie with increased (and expanded) transparency. I would make policy accessible to the Common Man (ie, written in the Common Language). I would start with the documented and legislative requirement that policy be a tool of the people, as opposed to a tool of the state – I have this sneaky suspicion that current policy has become a tool of the state, which if true makes me upset; this is why I really like the example of the Wheaton School Board that has codified a clause to hold regular, well-publicized “discussions” with the public. I would have policy correlated to justification, such that when we enter into debates, we can do so in the full historical context of the issue, instead of having to re-invent the wheel every single time.

    I would love to hear your own answers to your questions. 🙂 In addition, I invite others to pitch in as well.

  3. pattsi Says:

    Thanks for sharing ClickFix. Very interesting concept of which I had no idea existed. I wonder how many others are in the some column as I. The activity for Champaign County is very low and very old. It does not seem that any elected entity in the county uses this–in other words postings are not forwarded to the appropriate department. Only CU Access receives forwarded posting regularly. One feature that I find missing, or maybe not if there is activity, is a posting indicating the problem posted will and has been resolved and a date as to when this will or has happened. City of Champaign Public Works Dept. has a place on that web site to post PW problems.
    As to the transportation report–this comes from the Transportation Research Board. Great resource. There are hundreds of studies on their web site.

  4. July 9th Board Meeting: review « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] about Urbana as a negative example and what Wheaton is doing as a positive example (based off a previous post). I sure wish I was eloquent. *grin* But at least I got the message across – I had also […]

  5. Stuff: board meeting video, Houlihans, community interaction « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] It makes sense that the business and enterprise of a school district be child-centric. The purpose of the Board is to guide (govern) the school district. I think (and I could be way wrong) that the Board must […]

  6. Houlihans: pushing forward with policy change and conversational meetings « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] I have heard back and we might have some traction with a couple board members. I think we have to find a way to kind of compromise and it has been suggested to perhaps make the “conversational meetings” an expectation; we can still put this in the Policy Handbook/manual (like Urbana did with their infamous Policy 2:82). […]

  7. charlesdschultz Says:

    Apparently, the IASB updated their website and ruthlessly chopped out the meat of the statement to which I was referring to. Thus, I have to refer you to an earlier version archived by the Internet Archive:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20120429040426/http://www.iasb.com/whatis/mission.cfm

  8. The Purpose of the School Board, part 2 | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] years ago, I wrote a post about “The Purpose of the School Board“. Recently, a number of events have persuaded me to revisit this topic. In particular, at […]

  9. What are public schools supposed to do? | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] related question is “what is the purpose of the board?” (part 1, 2) Basically, the school board sits at the 10,000 foot level (right below the clouds) and […]


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