Thursday, November 14, 2013

Role of the School Board

Now that the election is over, and the composition of our school board is set for the next two years, it might be worth a reminder of what it is the Board of Education of an Ohio public school district is supposed to do.

Section 3313 of the Ohio Revised Code answers much of that question, plus there are a great number of other requirements placed on school boards in other sections of the state law. One can get a sense of what those requirements are by looking back through the minutes of prior meetings and reading the resolutions which were acted upon. With few exceptions, those resolutions were mandated by something written into a law. For example, the law requires that school boards must review and approve the Five Year Forecast twice each year. Look at the minutes for May and October, and you'll see resolutions to that effect.

So while a school board must perform certain duties as dictated by the law, a school board has the ability to engage in pretty much any matter it cares to when it comes to the school district - nothing is off limits.

That doesn't mean it's a good idea for the school board to participate in the day-to-day details. This is perhaps why the Ohio Revised Code requires each school district to also have a Superintendent and Treasurer, who serve as the executive officers of the school district, reporting to the school board, but with their own statutory responsibilites. Clearly the state lawmakers believe that governance and management are separate roles. So do I.

But what is the difference in those roles?

This is a point of debate and often tension between governing bodies and executives in all kinds of organizations, not just school boards. Shareholder-owned, for-profit corporations have Boards of Directors and Chief Executive Officers. Many not-for-profit organizations do as well. I have served on both kinds of Boards, and have at times been witness to a divergence of opinion between the Board and the CEO. It's never fun, but neither is it something to be avoided when the success of the organization requires it.

In the corporate world, this tension is sometimes prevented by naming the same person to be the Chairman of the Board of Directors as well as the Chief Executive Officer. While this may streamline the decision-making process, it can also lead to out-of-control management. Since the meltdown of the stock market precipitated by the collapse of companies like Enron and Worldcom (briefly my employer), having both roles held by the same person is viewed much less favorably.

The Founding Fathers set up the federal government of the United States of America with three branches, each of whose powers are limited by the other two. Within that, we have a legislative branch with two houses which must agree on exact language before a law can be enacted. 

One can complain that this structure is inherently inefficient, but the objective of the Founders was never efficiency - it was restraint of power. The Founding Fathers thought it was okay if the federal government would have a hard time generating new legislation. After all, they were generally in favor of less government, not more.

Nonetheless, Congress can be acquiescent to a popular or powerful President. Lyndon Johnson is said by some to have been the most productive President the post World War II period, based on the number of initiatives championed by his administration which made it to law. He also had the advantage of holding the Presidency at a time when his party had held the majority in both houses of Congress for 26 of the prior 30 years. And it is often said that the members of Congress feared LBJ because he was a bully, and they weren't really sure what dirt he might have about them.

These days our federal government is almost dysfunctional because the Senate and the House of Representatives are ruled by two different parties, and the President has been unable, or unwilling, to build a workable middle ground. That too has happened from time to time in the history of our country. It has a way of working itself out - when the people grow tired of the shenanigans and start replacing incumbents who thought they were safe.

So how does this relate to public school boards, you ask?  After all, the superintendent of a school district isn't directly elected by the people, as is the President of the United States. The superintendent is hired by the school board, evaluated by the school board, and has his/her contract renewed (or not) by the school board. How can there be any conflict?

In this case, it might be helpful to look not at the model of the relationship between the President and Congress - both elected positions - but rather between the President and the officers in charge of the military, the latter whom are appointed by the former.

While Presidents are limited by the 22nd Amendment to no more than two terms in office, the top military officers serve for their whole adult life. When President Obama graduated from high school, Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was already a Major in the Army. By the time Mr. Obama was elected President, without any prior executive leadership experience, Dempsey had risen to the top of our military command structure as a 4-star General, having commanded hundreds of thousands of troops and received extensive training in international affairs.

It can be easy to understand why our professional military leaders sometimes get a little frustrated with an organizational structure which places them under a civilian Commander in Chief who may never have served in the armed forces, or have much in the way of leadership experience. Douglas MacArthur was famously belligerent toward President Truman, as dramatized in this clip from the movie MacArthur, with the General portrayed by Gregory Peck:

Note the character's use of the term "temporary occupants of the White House."  He clearly has disdain for the notion that folks he perceived as amateurs should be allowed to control the actions of lifelong, professionally trained, experienced military officers. Of course, that got MacArthur fired - Trueman wasn't about to let The General or any other military leader threaten our system of government.

I think similar dynamics happen in a public school district. While in abstract it is true that the school board appoints the superintendent, the fact of the matter is that school board members come and go while superintendents often hold their jobs for many years. 

During the 34 years my wife and I have lived in our school district, there have been I think only three Superintendents prior to our hiring of John Marschhausen this year:  Dale McVey (2000-2013), Roger Nehls for ten years or so before him, and before Mr. Nehls someone I never met.

In that same period, 26 different people have served on the school board, 17 for only one term. Very few were professional educators. So one can understand a Superintendent being wary of a school board that gets too engaged.

But a school board has to willingly abdicate its authority to the superintendent - the superintendent can't take it away. Strong superintendents will fill the vacuum left by a board that doesn't exercise its lawful authority, and if that condition is allowed to exist long enough, it will become the cultural norm. This is exactly what happened with Columbus City Schools in my opinion - a deadly combination when the superintendent is not effective. 

I'm grateful to have been one of the few board members who in the last 30 years has had the opportunity to participate in the hiring of a new superintendent. I think we did a good job in hiring Dr. Marschhausen, and hope that he too will serve our district until his retirement.

During that time, I suspect the Hilliard School Board will have had a number of new members, and the unique relationship Doug, Andy, Lisa, Heather and I have with Dr. John - being the Board who hired him - will be replaced by new relationships with people whose names aren't even on our radar. It's therefore crucial that the roles of the Board and our new Superintendent be well defined now, and sustained through successive generations of the Board.


  1. Paul,

    This is a good article and a great opportunity to discuss some of the important functions of a school board, and maybe identify ways that the BOE could grow and be more effective in certain areas.

    As an example, according to the current SCHOOL BOARD POWERS AND DUTIES (BAA), some of the Board’s major responsibilities include:

    "6. to consider and approve or reject the recommendations of the Superintendent in all matters of policy, appointment or dismissal of employees, salary schedules, courses of study, selection of textbooks and other matters pertaining to the operation of the

    7. to require reports of the Superintendent concerning the conditions, efficiency and needs of the District;

    8. to evaluate the effectiveness with which the District is achieving the educational purposes of the Board;

    9. to inform the public about the progress and needs of the District and to solicit and weigh public opinion as it affects the District"

    Lots of important stuff here, but what does it look like in pracitice?

    It might be nice in a series of future blogs (or in Hilliard This Week articles) for you to write about what the BOE is currently doing in these areas as well as what is planned for the future.

    Community stakeholders who are better informed in “BOE governance” can better understand district challenges and help support our schools, and could even inspire that next generation of BOE members that will be needed.

    Steve B.

  2. "After all, they were generally in favor of less government, not more." ...ah the good old days (like the 18th century)!