by Craig Ruff, President

This Advisor proposes that school boards could be changed in a number of ways, most notably to comprise not just elected members but also some appointed trustee members; such trustees could be selected to provide geographic, ethnic, or other balance when it is missing on the board and fill gaps in expertise.

Background

Michigan law puts in charge of local K–12 school districts a small number of locally elected residents. Four thousand men and women currently serve on the state’s 524 K–12 school boards. They spend $12 billion annually to advance learning and hire 524 superintendents to manage those expenditures. During their four-year terms, school board members are responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent, deciding when to ask voters to approve a millage, and making the major policy decisions for their district.

Most Michigan school boards have seven or nine members; the most notable exception is Detroit’s 11-person board, four of whom are elected district wide and seven from defined districts. Until recently, the Michigan School Code specified that the size of the school board depended on a district’s classification, which was determined primarily by its student population. However, under the new code, enacted in 1995, the state’s rein on school boards is looser, and local voters now may change size of their board.

School board members must be elected by a plurality of voters in their district. To get a place on a ballot, a candidate must file with the secretary of the local board of education a petition signed by at least one percent of school district residents who cast ballots in the previous general election for the State Board of Education’s leading vote getter; unlike in partisan elections, there is no primary election or nominating process. The elections typically are held in June,1 the ballots identify candidates only by name and not by partisan affiliation, and the winners are the leading vote getters for the number of seats open. Mid-term vacancies are filled by a vote of the remaining board members.

Today’s school-system governance depends solely on the ballot. In the days when Michigan had 7,000+ school districts (1890–1920), at any point in time one of every 15 adults was serving on a school board—roughly one of every seven families held a seat on the local board of education. The number of board members per district has stayed roughly constant, yet school district size—triggered by district consolidation and population growth—has mushroomed from an average of 285 people to 18,000 today. With this century’s marked decline in the number of districts, a much smaller percentage of Michigan citizens now serve and the number of students served per member has spiraled.

For most districts most of the time, the elected board works. It may be that our great-grandchildren will matriculate through school under this same governing system and find it entirely satisfactory. School governance has been mostly free of graft and other abuses of the public’s trust; members generally adhere to ethical standards that are underpinned by intense public and media scrutiny and the required openness of board deliberations and meetings.

As with any group of people, school boards click smoothly some of the time, niffnaw and come a bit unglued at others. Discipline, decorum, and collective reason usually are exhibited, but consistent harmony among any seven or nine people never can be guaranteed.

Generally, school board members are utterly selfless. They receive no pay and only rarely a perk as attractive as travel to and from a national or state convention. They are tormented nightly in their homes by phone calls from parents. They regularly spend an evening publicly—perhaps under the glare of television lights—discussing the arcane and important issues involved in school governance. Dutifully, they also attend board committee, PTO, and neighborhood meetings; hit all the graduation ceremonies; and show up at school fund-raisers, sports and arts events, and assemblies.

To get on their board, people walk petitions through their neighborhoods, usually in the awful weather of February and March. The bit of money they campaign with is mostly their own and is used to buy newspaper ads. They engage opponents in public debate. They walk the streets with literature. They bite their nails on election night. If they lose, they suffer a dent to their ego and a bit of humiliation. If they win, please see the previous paragraph.

Reasons for running vary but nearly always are altruistic: make a civic contribution, change one or a slew of school policies, institute economies, launch new programs, elevate the moral code, increase foreign language instruction or change some other aspect of the curriculum, improve teacher benefits, halt the current board’s spendthrift ways.

With all due respect and gratitude to board members past and present, there are other ways to govern schools. The quality of governance could be elevated, the balance of reason and passion tilted more toward reason, and diversity of interest, expertise, and perspective better represented. For all its strengths and tradition, the modern school board structurally is not keeping pace with social change.

How many times have we thought, Why don’t better people run for the school board? What on earth is John or Mary doing on my school board? Why are there no parents—or employers, teachers, accountants, lawyers, fund-raisers, global thinkers, market strategists, engineers, retired taxpayers, and so forth—on my board?

Blending Elective and Trustee Mechanisms

One notion is that the contemporary school board should be expanded in size, not for the sake of doubling local sinecures but to better represent local expertise and populace. As governance becomes more complex and community interests expand, it may be that it takes more than seven or nine people to effectively represent a district’s diversity and comprise the expertise needed to govern a large organization.

I propose that where school boards should be expanded to enhance diversity, the additional members be selected not through the traditional election process but by appointment by a group of permanent trustees.

While true that some private, public, and independent entities with budgets far larger than school districts are governed by small boards, most corporations, government units, civic organizations, and foundations have boards or legislative and executive bodies of at least double or triple the size of today’s school board. And with the exception of government units, the board seats are filled with people—trustees—who have been selected by other members of the board.

Most communities are relatively heterogenous. Local households vary quite widely among income and education levels. There is a good mix of homes that have school-age children and those that do not. While we hardly are a fully integrated society, racial and ethnic diversity is present in most school districts. Neighborhood needs typically vary widely within a school district.

In the winner-take-all, at-large elections held in all Michigan school districts except Detroit, minority interests often end up with little or no representation on a local board (while we usually think of minority in terms of race or ethnicity, it also can pertain to geography, relative wealth, education ideology and values, and other factors). And sometimes the reverse occurs: A passionate few mobilize around a candidate or two and wind up dominating a board. Neither minority exclusion nor rule is healthy.

Moreover, in addition to imbalance in representation, boards frequently experience imbalance in the members’ personal expertise and experience. When voters produce a professionally and experientially balanced school board, it happens by chance—a roll of the dice. Naturally, people will wrestle with what constitutes balance, but for argument’s sake, let’s say that a seven-member board should include three parents (representing elementary, middle, and high-school-aged children), an attorney, an accountant or financial manager, a retired teacher, and a self-employed business person.

There is no guarantee that people from such categories will choose to run. If they do, there is no certainty that they will be elected. Voters are discriminating, but how many consider carefully the professional expertise and experience of candidates—let alone the board’s overall balance. One of the inefficiencies of a democracy is that balance in multiple areas rarely is achieved: The electorate is unlikely to deliberately fashion a board accurately representative of a populace’s competencies and gender and race/ethnicity and geography and political idealogy and so on.

To better assure a balance of majority/minority representation and of professional expertise, it makes sense to me to blend elective and trustee methods of selection. In a given school district, why not have voters elect seven members, and add another six, seven, or eight members who form a trustee component of the board? It is a fact of life that elections rarely produce sufficient diversity and competence in all the skills needed to govern. Trustee members can fill the gaps.

Most civic and service organizations (e.g., Rotary, Kiwanis, United Way, YMCA, Scouts, National Kidney Foundation, and other service and charitable groups) rely on appointed boards, with members serving staggered terms, which frequently are limited to assure that fresh faces and ideas regularly are infused into the organization. Nominating committees set criteria for new members that assure that the organization will have a proper mix of expertise and perspective. Nominees typically do not face contested elections, with the horrifying possibility of rejection. Hence, people of significant stature earn their place on a civic board not through campaign prowess but rather through having a proven record of contribution to the community, professional competence needed by the board, and the “chemistry” necessary to work well with others on the board.

While elected members will inculcate democratic ideals and public responsiveness among trustee members, the latter probably can teach elected members a thing or two about a concise agenda, efficient use of time, and the difference between policy setting (governance) and policy implementation (management). The different routes to selection themselves will produce considerable benefit to a board as a whole.

I have great trust in the wisdom and good instinct of voters, who deserve a place in setting local education policy. But very few voters show up for school board elections (10–15 percent turnout is pretty good; sometimes only 5 percent of eligible people care enough to vote). Races frequently are uncompetitive and campaigns low profile. Candidacy is unaffiliated with a partisan designation that may offer voters a clue as to what kind of policy or perspective to expect from a candidate who gets elected. (The ballot does not permit, for example, Mary Doe to be labeled as “Pro Charter Schools” or John Doe as “Wants Better Benefits for Teachers.”)

For government entities, it is unlikely that we would tolerate fully trustee boards because then the members would not be directly accountable to the general public—the public could not oust them or their appointers (e.g., the mayor, governor, president) at the ballot box. But for nongovernment entities, the value of trustee board members is that they can take a view longer than the fickle, today-minded public will understand and tolerate; they can stand for principles and support actions take that go against prevailing opinion but produce longer-lasting, more beneficial results for the organization.

I think that a blended school board will result in keener and longer-term strategy setting and that in the end such strategy will not be so very much out of synch with prevailing local opinion.

Other Notions

Mine, of course, is not the only game in town. We can reform in other ways.

  • We can elect school boards by wards or sector instead of district wide, assuring at least geographical balance, probably enhancing representation by racial and ethnic minorities, and making it more likely that voters will know the candidates.
  • We can consolidate school districts, thereby enhancing the stakes of a candidacy and perhaps attracting candidates of greater stature and profile. In the extreme, districts can follow intermediate school district (ISD) boundaries, eliminating duplication of services (e.g., separate administration of the districts comprising the ISD) and reducing the number of K–12 school districts from 524 to 57.
  • In a direction precisely the opposite of the previous, we can reconfigure districts so that each school building or perhaps the catchment area of a single high school becomes its own authority. Board members likely will be well-known because of the smaller political jurisdiction, and they will be focused on the school building(s) that directly affect their homes and businesses.
  • In communities that believe smaller boards are more efficient than larger ones, the size of the school board can remain at seven members, three of whom are elected and four of whom are trustees.
  • Paying board members can be a way to attract a broader array of candidates—people of low income who cannot afford to volunteer their time as well as active business people who know from experience that time away from their enterprise is money lost.
  • Specific “stakeholders” in public education can be slotted seats on a board, and board candidates identified on the ballot by the slot they represent—e.g., people with a teaching, law, or accounting degree; parents of children of certain ages; or retirees. It makes as much sense to have a ballot on which voters select people from a discipline or life experience than it does to have one on which people of an identified partisan persuasion are selected.
  • School board elections can be held in November of even years when, in presidential or gubernatorial elections, voter turnout is biggest.

Conclusion

Michigan has revolutionized its way of financing public education. It has fostered experimentation with marketplace reforms, such as charter schools and cross-district choice. But governance of local schools remains the same and merits its own shakeup.

No one alternative to the elected school board and no one reform may work best across the state. The hybrid board, consisting of elected and trustee members of roughly equal numbers, makes the most sense to me, but this may not offer advantages to every district.

A reasonable approach by state government is to offer alternative governing models to the school districts of Michigan. This will allow voters, boards, and stakeholders to invent new ways to assure representation of diverse populations, competencies, and life experiences, enabling them to mold more strategic and bolder—yet responsive—school governing bodies.

There is nothing magic about seven or nine people being the best size for a governing board. Nor is there anything inherently sound in having every board member selected by a general electorate. Michiganians justly pride themselves on their local control of schools, and it is time to encourage them also to control the structure of their schools’ governing mechanisms.

1While the new school code allows districts to hold elections in months other than June, few do so.

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