Pointers for new Detroit school board

Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim

Detroiters are understandably delighted to have a locally elected board to oversee their public schools. All the good things said about local control — accessibility, cultural sensitivity, roots in the community, and caring about kids and neighborhoods — are true.

These attributes are important — and the new board members certainly have them — but they are not enough. School board members, not just in Detroit but in cities and towns across the country, take on the job with the best intentions and often at some personal sacrifice. They intend to pay attention to the big issues and make life easier, not harder, for educators and parents.

But school boards have very broad powers — and few guidelines about how to use them to best effect. Reality intrudes. A parent has a complaint about a teacher, or a union has a beef with a principal. Neighbors complain about students misbehaving in stores. Some activists want certain topics emphasized or cut out of the curriculum. A principal buys something without asking permission. An unsuccessful bidder for a district contract wants to have negotiations reopened. One board member intervenes to get someone a job; other members disapprove at first but eventually find themselves taking similar actions.

Board actions on small matters of concern to only one member create de-facto policies by doling out resources to some but not all or by setting expectations about what schools must do if they want to avoid board intervention. While some individuals benefit, others — principals, teachers, and parents — come to see the board as playing favorites and causing more problems than it solves. In a city that hasn’t had a local board for a long time, Detroit’s board members will find themselves beset with petitions and grievances that they can fix but probably should consider only after careful review of the long-term repercussions for all schools.

We have urged state legislators to simplify boards’ powers, for example by taking them out of the business of approving contracts and school personnel decisions, and leaving them with the one power that really matters: deciding which schools will operate in a given year, and which schools should be consolidated, closed, or opened anew. This would let boards spend their time reviewing individual schools, looking at data on student growth and family satisfaction, and constantly asking: is this school the best we can do for these students?

The state could have defined the new Detroit board’s powers in this way, thus helping members avoid the trap of doing casework and refereeing fights that might not even have arisen if the disputants had known they had to work it out themselves.

Of course, Detroit’s board members could exercise super-human self-discipline and hold one another to focusing on school performance, unmet student needs, filling gaps left by anticipated school closings, and developing alternatives for students who are not thriving in current schools. The board could even decide to stay above the fray in the next teacher union negotiation and only ratify an agreement that both the superintendent and union can agree won’t further burden school leaders.

But this is a tall order. Detroit’s city leaders, media, philanthropies, and parent groups can all help by praising high-level actions and avoiding dramatizing small issues and blaming the board for keeping a proper distance. Board members can help themselves by telling disputants to work out their own issues, or by sending hot issues to arbitration.

Detroit can decide whether it wants a board that will work on improving schools or become a forum for dispute resolution and a source of patronage. Success in this will benefit the whole city. Failure will mean future dysfunction, and maybe another insulting state takeover.

Paul Hill is founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. Ashley Jochim is a research analyst at CRPE.