Board Out of Their Minds
More and more large urban school districts are going to an appointed school board. Will it work in Memphis?
by Mary Cashiola
Ten years ago, Cleveland's school system was in shambles. Because of fiscal and academic problems, a district judge stepped in, removed the elected school board, and placed the district under state control. Two years later, in 1997, the governor and the state legislature approved a mayor-appointed school board. A teachers' union went to court to fight the decision, and polls showed that voters opposed the appointed boards.
Five years later, the electorate got their chance to have a say on the issue. The surprise was that they overwhelmingly voted to keep the mayor-appointed board.
Could this happen -- or work -- in Memphis?
The Memphis City Board of Education is like the pregnant girl at the prom -- plagued by a bad reputation, but she's not the only one to blame. It was clear, from the very first lawn chair in the administration's front yard not even 24 hours after the board tried to buy itself new chairs, that the community is ready to vent its frustrations over the way the city schools are being run. In this type of atmosphere, an appointed board begins to look like a good idea.
"When a board has trouble with decades of poor systems and inadequate oversight, there's a lot of public frustration," says National School Boards Association executive director Anne Bryant. "That's when a mayor or a state legislature steps in."
Memphis mayor Willie Herenton proposed just that at the beginning of the year, but legislators weren't keen on changing the law and Herenton dropped the idea to renew his fight for a consolidated school district.
Even MCS board members express frustration with the marathon meetings and confusion-riddled debates under president and 30-year board veteran Carl Johnson. Twice, board members publicly threatened Johnson with impeachment before moving on the issue in March and voting to keep him 3-2 (members Sara Lewis, Wanda Halbert, Patrice Robinson, and the late Lee Brown passed or abstained). The board and staff are also often at loggerheads, most notably resulting in current Superintendent Johnnie Watson filing a formal complaint against board member Lewis last year.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, candidates for school board seats are scarce and incumbent members almost always win reelection. Maybe Herenton's proposal was scrapped too soon.
Bryant and the National School Boards Association don't advocate one form of school district governance over the other. There is no research to show that one works better than the other, and, because several states have recently enacted laws against appointed boards, the national trend is toward elected boards. Among urban school districts, however, that trend is starkly reversed.
In recent years, school boards have been appointed in New York, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago.
"We've seen wonderful progress made when a good process is put into place and a board switches from elected to appointed," says Bryant. "One great example is Cleveland. There are other examples, like Providence, Rhode Island, where the mayor was corrupt and shown to be so, and the appointed board wasn't very good. If you have a high-caliber board, you get good results. If the mayor appoints his cronies, you won't."
The mayor of Cleveland at the time -- Michael R. White -- did not directly appoint the board. Instead, he appointed a nominating committee. The nominating committee then decided what skills they wanted to find in board members and encouraged anyone in the community to apply. "It was so effective that [the citizens] voted overwhelmingly to keep the appointed school board," says Bryant.
This is not to say that the appointed board is a magic bullet. It doesn't instantly solve all problems, a fact that Michael Usdan, senior fellow with the Institute of Educational Leadership, is quick to point out.
"It seems to have provided a little stability to districts that haven't had that in a while," he says. "There's such turmoil in urban districts. Mayors are getting involved for the same reason governors and presidents are becoming involved in education. The mayors are saying, if we're going to get blamed for schools' performance, we want a little more authority and influence over them. There's a growing trend toward more mayoral influence, and it's played out to more mayoral-appointed school boards."
Usdan says appointed boards create a direct line of accountability to the mayor, while with an elected board system, accountability is diffused among the board, the staff, and the superintendent. Everyone's to blame and no one's to blame. "For many years, mayors wanted nothing to do with schools. There were too many controversial issues," says Usdan. "Because of the economy, they've become more and more proactive. They understand that their cities' economies are tied directly to the effectiveness of the school system. One thing city mayors can do is pull things together."
The Memphis board includes only one member with a background in education. Other board members work at MLGW, FedEx, and for the county. In Cleveland, at least four of the nine appointed board members must have significant expertise in education, finance, or business management. Additionally, the presidents of Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College are nonvoting ex officio members. In Boston, members include a professor of social sciences, a retired president and chief operating officer of John Hancock financial services, and the executive director of the Urban Law and Public Policy Institute.
Liz Reilinger, a former associate dean at Boston University, is the chairman of the Boston School Committee. The committee was first appointed in 1992, and, as in Cleveland, the city held a referendum in 1996 to ask the electorate whether they wanted an appointed or an elected board. They also voted to keep the appointed board.
"We had made considerable progress," says Reilinger of the vote's outcome. "We were using clearly documented goals and meeting them and that hadn't been the case before. We targeted all our work toward student achievement."
Boston's court-ordered school desegregation in the 1970s was a painful process for the predominantly white Irish-Catholic city. There was massive white flight out of city schools and a declining enrollment that continued into the 1990s.
"There was the sense that we had a revolving door of superintendents, as well," says Reilinger. She joined the committee in 1994, when the group terminated the superintendent and held a national search to replace him. Thomas Payzant, recognized as one of the top three superintendents in the country, was hired and has been in Boston ever since.
"He's on the eighth year of a 10-year contract," says Reilinger. "I think he's the longest-serving urban superintendent in the country. Part of that is that the relationship between the board and the administration is not adversarial. Often, elected boards need to sit aside and distance themselves from the administration so they look like they're in control."
For Reilinger, the main advantage of the appointed-board system is that it takes politics out of education. Board members don't have to worry about serving a particular constituency and can focus instead on what's good for the entire community. To put it in Memphis terms: Board members don't have to worry about keeping Manassas High School open even though enrollment is minimal. They can make the hard decisions.
"In a lot of communities, election to the school board is the first step to other elected offices. There's a feeling that appointed boards close the door to that step, but I have to ask: What is your primary agenda?" says Reilinger. "I think one thing boards really need to understand is their role as a governing body. Because the operating role is more visible to constituents, there's a tendency to try to take that on. Most elected members don't have a background in education. It's not a full-time job for them. Monday morning quarterbacking is great, but it's not very effective."
Going to an MCS board meeting is like watching a fight in slow-motion: It's painful and ugly, and, though you can see where the punches should land, they just don't get there fast enough. Board president Johnson places a high premium on parliamentary procedure, so high, in fact, that it threatens to stifle the board completely. Board members will ask simple questions, wanting yes or no answers, and instead will get a 10-minute discussion on whether it was the appropriate time to ask the question. A look back at the board's minutes since January shows that the average meeting lasted just under four hours, with the longest one starting at 5:30 p.m. and ending at 11:50 p.m.
In roughly 50 hours of official board meetings, what's been done? The board's functions are to approve budgetary items, hire a superintendent, and set district policy. They've hired a superintendent, but that mostly took place at committee and specially called meetings.
Board members frequently say they want to focus solely on student achievement, but their record is spotty. They've introduced and approved resolutions to create a break-the-mold school and an after-school intervention plan. They've also introduced and passed resolutions having to do with an audit committee, retired teachers and their FICA deductions, and building a new school in the Douglass community.
Usdan and Bryant say that persuasive arguments can be made for either school board system -- appointed or elected.
"The elected boards come from the community," says Bryant. "The community feels connected to them. They're seen as more easily accessible and, usually, they're more like the community." The appointed board, on the other hand, is sometimes seen as apart from the community, elitist, and a deprivation of democratic rights.
Usdan says it's simply a matter of the problems being so large that people are looking for any way to fix them.
"The problems in cities are more acute: the fiscal problems, the poverty problems, the lagging achievement levels -- they're all more acute. There's disaffection with the schools -- not just among the citizens, but with the business leaders and politicians. Everybody wants to shake up a system that they don't think is working very well," he says. Even some smaller communities are beginning to look at the appointed-board option because they see their system as nonproductive. But Usdan cautions communities to be wary:
"Just because you rearrange the deck chairs, it's not going to solve all the problems. You're still going to have the basic problems of money, race, and performance." n
District 1: Currently Open
After the death of Dr. Lee Brown, this spot is empty. A special election will be held October 9th to fill the vacancy and candidates who have filed to run include J.M. Bailey, county commissioner Walter Bailey's son.
District 2: Deni Hirsh
The newest member on the board and one of the most astute, Hirsh's driving platform is the annexed area in Cordova, but she also has tried to facilitate City Council/board relations as the board's liaison to the city.
District 3: Patrice Robinson
Robinson believes that with enough policies and procedures, the administration and the board will function like a well-oiled machine. One of several mothers on the board, the MLGW employee wants to see the district run more like a business.
District 4: Michael Hooks Jr.
Once called the hip-hop commissioner, Hooks has matured into a voice of common sense, cutting through needless dialogue and off-topic discussion. The son of county commissioner Michael Hooks, Hooks recently worked on an after-school intervention program for low-performing elementary schools.
District 5: Lora Jobe
A nurse, Jobe is probably the most soft-spoken member of the board. However, she is the only board member to routinely stand up for the superintendent and the staff in the face of harsh criticism from other board members.
District 6: Carl Johnson Sr.
The board chairman seems obsessed with parliamentary procedure to the point of stretching meetings into five-hour marathons, frustrating board, staff, and spectators. He did not attend any of the superintendent search finalist interviews then told other board members at the meeting held to vote on the finalists that he did not understand the process. He has been on the board more than 30 years.
District 7: Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge
Sandridge is a straight-talker and has little regard for others' personal feelings or politics. The reverend from the Thomas Chapel M.B. Church doesn't hesitate to bring his fire-and-brimstone style to board meetings.
At Large, Position 1: Wanda Halbert
Halbert joined the board as a parent crusader and found problems with the board's transportation contract. Distrustful of the administration, Halbert harshly questions many of the staff's decisions.
At Large, Position 2: Sara Lewis
A former principal and associate superintendent, Lewis is the most visible member of the board, frequently using colorful phrases and doing television interviews. With her long history with the district, Lewis has a lot of opinions and information -- and shares them freely. n
Memphis brings it all in-house,
while Shelby County farms it out.
In an effort to pinch Pennies, city and county school districts are making changes to their construction programs. The city system is enacting more control, while the county system has decided to contract out construction on an as-needed basis.
The city board hired its own construction consultant this year and has recently begun drafting policies members hope will help them get a handle on construction costs, including how to select school sites, contractors, and design professionals.
"It's really a road map," said board attorney Dedrick Brittenum. "A step-by-step guide to take the project from A to Z. The facilities planning department needs to be organized. [The] Parsons-Fleming [company] was heading that function, but now that it's back in the school system, it needs some guidelines."
In February 2001, the city board had to approve an extra $2 million to remove contaminated soil at the downtown elementary school site. An independent study presented to the board around the same time found that city schools were costing almost twice what it cost the county to build its schools.
The county still expects to build its schools as affordably, but as a result of this year's budget cuts, the four-person facilities planning department has been eliminated. In all, the district eliminated 97 positions, but those included jobs that had not yet been created, as well as retirements and resignations.
"We'll just have people working that much harder," said Shelby County spokesperson Mike Tebbe. As for the dissolved facilities planning department, Tebbe says he doesn't expect the district's schools to be affected.
"We'll simply contract the work out on an as-needed basis. In the long run, we're saving the taxpayers money," he said.
Meanwhile, MCS has also begun developing its own contracts, as most government entities do.
Brittenum said it's only been in the last two years or so that lawyers have begun looking over all the contracts for the district before they are signed. Lawyers for the district are still in the process of reviewing all construction contracts. Brittenum said that by drafting their own contracts, "MCS will have a better sense of what they're getting into."
It's a step that can't come too soon for Commissioner Patrice Robinson. As head of the district's construction committee, she's been asking for almost nine months for more policies and procedures.
"From my perspective, I've never worked with a group of people who act like we're at the mercy of the vendors," she said. "We're the ones with the money. When I'm spending my money, I'm not at the mercy of any vendors. But we're changing."
And after late deliveries of two dishwashers held up construction on new schools, the construction committee also talked about keeping a record of vendors' performances.
Brittenum called the move "critical."
"The school system is not required to go with the lowest bid but the lowest and best bid," he said. "If we can build a record of vendors with poor performance with us, we have a reason we can use to reject a bid." n
Eleven Minutes With
Dr. Carol Johnson, recently selected as the superintendent of the Memphis City Schools, has grand ideas about education. She says she thinks the way America's founding fathers and mothers did: that education is the key to liberty.
Currently the superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, Johnson came to town last week for the first day of school. She visited three schools and had lunch with current Superintendent Johnnie Watson to discuss the district's $32 million budget deficit, the MGT study, and the district's organization. In between, she took an hour to meet with the press. Here's what we gleaned from our time with her.
Flyer: You recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that school boards hire superintendents to be either an agent of change or continuity. What do you see as your role in Memphis?
Johnson: I think the board wants a little bit of both [laughs]. Today, I visited Snowden and Ridgeway. They don't want those things changed. If anything, they want continuation and an expansion of those things.
But there are schools that are having problems, and this is where the board wants to ensure that we make changes. So I think they want change, but I also think they want continuity of other things.
Now that you're more familiar with the district, are there any specific strategies you want to bring to Memphis?
I'm not sure I know enough already, but I do think we need to find ways to reach out and connect with parents in meaningful ways. Part of that the parents have to assume some responsibility for, but I think that trying to connect with parents in ways that will help them to do a better job with connecting to their own children is something that [Minneapolis] tried to work on.
We want to go through and look at some of the organizational structure and the systems suggestions that come from the MGT report. I don't think I want to use the MGT report as strictly as a script of what to do, but I think they do have some valid suggestions. The organizational structure, how to help the zone directors focus more clearly their time on teaching and learning, and student-improvement issues are areas that I want to focus on. There is nothing more important than the quality of teaching, so we want to make sure our teachers are well-qualified in all of our schools and make sure we give them all the support that they need to get better.
You're coming from a city with a strong commitment to education. Is there a way to promote that sort of interest in Memphis?
Well, I think Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota have always understood the close connection between education and the community's well-being. Economic prosperity, public safety, all those things that if people are well-educated they can use in productive ways. If people aren't well-educated, they can't pay taxes, they can't be involved economically in a community, and the streets aren't safe. I think they see that connection.
I think the city of Memphis sees that too. I think part of the work we have to do is rebuild the confidence people have in the city schools. I think some parents I met today have a great deal of confidence. I've also met citizens who, instead of congratulating me, are worried about me. I think that what we want them to do is not worry about me. We want them to worry about making sure every child gets the best chance at a good education.
You've referenced a scene in Remember the Titans and how we need to change how we play the game. It sounds good, but what does that mean exactly for urban education?
I think that both affluent and poor parents have more opportunites to make other choices. If they don't think our schools are the places their children will do well, they won't choose us. So I think we have to think about the work in terms of making sure that when parents think about Memphis City Schools, they think of great places for their kids to learn.
Last May you laid off about 500 teachers ...
It was very difficult.
Was there something that helped you make that decision?
I think that there are a lot of difficult choices and decisions you have to make sometimes in urban public education. The important thing is to involve the community and the staff. It helps people understand why we're faced with the budget challenges and also helps them understand what the choices are. Even if they don't like the choices, they will understand the decisions because they've had the opportunity to give input.
I think these aren't easy choices because teachers are at the heart of the work and whenever you lay them off, it's really not what you would choose to do. In public education, so much of your revenue is tied up in people. It's a people industry. It's not easy to replace the people with equipment and neither would you want to. You're not making widgets.
What would you say drives you?
This work is so important. Education is really the key to liberty and freedom and equality and justice. I think it's about how the American dream actually comes alive. It comes alive because it's transfered to the children in the classrooms of our schools.