Tag Archives: governance

Portrait of a REALLY dysfunctional school board

I was kind of amazed to tune in recently to a controversy that has apparently been going on for quite a while in Atlanta Public Schools. The city’s nine-member school board has been wracked with infighting and factionalism that culimnated in a kind of a coup late last fall — the Board quietly changed its internal rules that had previously required a two-thirds majority to elect a chair, instituting instead a simple majority requirement.

You might guess what happened next: A five member faction quickly voted in new leadership, and the four members in the minority cried foul. The case went all the way to the state attorney general, with board members asking for a definitive ruling on who actually had the power to chair the board. In the meantime, the district was rocked by a cheating scandal and the long-serving and highly-regarded Superintendent, Beverly Hall, announced plans to retire.

Last week, one of the nation’s largest accreditation agencies threatened to pull the district’s accreditation if the school board could not get its act together and govern the district appropriately. (Read the agency’s highly critical report here).  

What is most interesting to me is that board elections have long been influenced by an organization called “EduPAC,” which was begun by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce almost two decades ago. Indeed, eight of the nine current board members were endorsed by EduPAC, which boasts a wide membership of business leaders, civil rights leaders, parents and other active community leaders. In Atlanta, EduPAC is the biggest endorsement there is when it comes to school board races.

But in interviews with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, EduPAC leaders seem floored by the current state of the school board they elected.  “We thought we had a great slate of folks,” William “Sonny” Walker, EduPAC’s chairman, told the newspaper. “We thought we had found the answer. But apparently we didn’t have the answer we thought we had.”

There have been times where I have thought our own school board was dysfunctional, but when I read stories like these, I realize that we are lucky here in San Francisco to have missed out on what true dysfunction looks like.

Who needs Superman?

Thank you, Larry Cuban, for this guest post on the WaPo’s Answer Sheet blog. He’s beautifully summed up something I’ve been mulling over for quite a while: Who needs Superman? Or, to borrow from Mr. Cuban’s headline, exploding “the myth of the heroic leader.”

There’s already been a fair number of pixels spilled on Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” and the movie doesn’t officially come out for another week or so!  I have strong, mostly negative, feelings about the film, because the whole concept of looking for a Superman–or a miracle cure–to fix local schools is wrong-headed. In every school system where reforms have led to sustained increases in achievement (Montgomery County, Md.; Boston, Mass.; and Austin, Tex., to name a few), those reforms have been introduced gradually, with community consensus, by a superintendent who has managed to last two or three times longer than the average urban school leader’s tenure (about three years).  Mr. Cuban writes:

They wore no capes and donned no tights. They slogged through a decade or more of battles, some of which they lost, to accumulate small victories. They helped create a generation of civic and district leaders and a teacher corps who shared their vision.

They built brick-by-brick the capacities among hundreds and thousands of teachers, principals, parents, and community members to continue the work. Yes, they angered many and, yes, they fought to win but they persevered. They left legacies that teachers, principals, and parents can, indeed, improve schools by working together.

Michelle Rhee can pose with her broom all she likes, but will the schools in the nation’s capital be better off for her scorched earth, take no prisoners approach? Test scores have risen, but whether or not the famously dysfunctional D.C. schools are “fixed” remains to be seen. At the very least, it appears that Mayor Adrian Fenty’s failure to win nomination for re-election last week was at least in part a referendum on Ms. Rhee’s penchant for pissing people off.

The larger point is that education reform is hard, slow work–a marathon. Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or lying; think less about miracles and more about thoughtful, sustained reform approaches that take time, effort and money. Superintendents, however brilliant and charismatic, can’t reform school systems on their own — they need buy-in from teachers, from parents, from students and from community leaders.  Sustained reform takes vision, coalition-building, lots of listening, trust and tolerance for missteps or mistakes.

Does San Francisco have the patience or the political culture to build the necessary coalition to support true educational reform? I know San Franciscans yearn for schools they feel are worthy of their beloved City.  What I hope is that it will be possible for our traditionally exuberant and fractious public discourse to allow for long-term consensus-building around school reform.  That’s what I’m waiting for.

What’s next for CSBA after Director departs?

My inbox has been active these past few days, ever since a Sacramento TV station aired a report investigating the compensation and spending habits of Scott Plotkin, the Executive Director of the California School Boards Association (CSBA). On Friday evening, CSBA announced that Mr. Plotkin would retire Sept. 1; until then he will be on paid leave, using up accrued sick time.

Details are scarce, and the CSBA Board is being tight-lipped because this is, ultimately, a personnel matter. But Mr. Plotkin’s compensation — reported as being in the area of $500,000 for 2007 and 2008 — has raised eyebrows, as has his use of corporate credit cards to withdraw significant sums of cash at Sacramento-area casinos. (I think I am safe in saying that it is almost never good news when you read the words “cash” and “casinos” in conjunction with “corporate credit cards.”)

What makes this story bigger than your garden-variety “executive retires under a cloud” news is that CSBA (a private non-profit organization) is funded through dues paid by member school districts — districts that are of course funded with taxpayer money. And in a time when schools are cutting back to the bone, and suing the state of California for equitable school funding, this news is spectacularly ill-timed.

 It’s horribly sad to watch a long, illustrious career in education policy come to such an abrupt end, and though I only met Mr. Plotkin once or twice I am sure this is not how he envisioned his retirement. Still, I think it was right for the CSBA Board to act quickly and decisively, because the credibility of the organization is at stake.

School districts pay tens of thousands of dollars to CSBA annually in dues and other fees, and taxpayers have a right to know whether their money is being well spent. In my 15-plus months representing SFUSD at the CSBA Delegate Assembly, I have never had cause to doubt that the organization was accurately and aggressively representing the concerns of the staff and students of San Francisco. But in the past few days, constituents have asked me what, specifically, we’ve gotten for our investment in CSBA, so here are just a few thoughts:

  • California has very few urban school districts, even though those urban districts enroll most of the state’s students. The overwhelming majority of delegates to the Delegate Assembly represent rural or suburban districts, and the policies of the organization skew towards those concerns. SFUSD’s active participation in CSBA over the years has clearly advanced the concerns of urban districts, which tend to have more low-income students, more students of color and more special education students than suburban and rural districts.
  • CSBA has a seat at the inner circle that makes education policy decisions in California. If SFUSD were to decide not to participate in CSBA, we would lose access to that seat at the table. This is hugely important because of our unique concerns as an urban district.
  • CSBA gives school board members from different districts a forum to connect with and learn from one another. I have learned a great deal from participating in CSBA workshops and seminars, and I know I am a better Board member as a result. I’ve connected with Board members across California and particularly in the Bay Area, and we’ve shared stories and strategies that have been mutually beneficial.
  • Last but certainly not least, CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance has won important legal victories that have increased funding for all districts in California. The negotiated settlement on Behavioral Intervention Plans last year is just the most recent example; that single settlement brought more funding into SFUSD than we have spent in CSBA  and Legal Alliance dues in decades. 

The CSBA Board has some work to do now, to rebuild trust among the dues-paying school districts and the tax-paying public. I have no doubt that the organization is more necessary and more useful than ever, but its practices and spending must be above reproach if we are to continue to advance the cause of adequate funding and sensible oversight for California’s school districts.