June 29, 1989

Power and School Boards

Whether power is good or bad depends on how it's used.

Since we are all born naked and powerless, the acquisition of power becomes a lifelong occupation. However, while everyone wants power, the direction that desire takes and the amount of power desired differs considerably among people. At one extreme is a person who only wants power over himself. At the other extreme is a person whose greed for power knows no limits -he wants power over everything and everyone. Then there is the whole range in between.

A small child is surrounded by others with power, while he has very little. To him the power of parents and teachers seems absolute. With maturity comes the understanding that absolute power doesn't exist. The power of a king or president is largely an illusion. Even in those times when kings supposedly had absolute power, their power could be abrogated by a careless bodyguard, or a bit of poison in a cup of wine or by the commanders of the army. A large amount of power can only be maintained through the approval and efforts of a large number of people. The President of our country has the power of appointment; but beyond that, he is at the mercy of the "power structure", the federal bureaucracy and the electorate. Mostly, he is under control of "experts". It has to be that way, because he can't possibly know everything. His greatest power is being able to decide who he will listen to. Perhaps that is true for all of us.

A school board's greatest power is to appoint the head of the school. It is the same with a corporate board, where its main job is to appoint or fire the chief executive officer of the company. A chief executive who is controlled by a board is impotent and can't make the kinds of decisions that a C.E.O. has to make. A company or a school system cannot be run by a puppet. Some school boards and corporations have hired a head who will do as he is told, with the board telling him what to do and how to do it. They ended up with a "headless" system, with everything that implies. In most corporations the C.E.O. runs the company and the board approves. If it doesn't approve, it gets a new chief.

The person running a company is a specialist, while the board members, as a rule, know little about the running of the company. Most of us consider ourselves experts on education. Didn't we go to school? Don't we know how to raise our children? Having raised my children, I am now certain that I am far from being an expert on the subject. I can recognize a good teacher by his or her effect on the children, but I really don't know how it's done, despite my having taught. I can also recognize a good administrator by his ability to get things done, keep the morale of his staff high and his ability to work with the board and the public. I imagine that many people are capable of running a school system; but not without a number of years of experience in elementary and secondary education and administration.

I believe that a school board should keep its hands off of the educational process and leave that to the professionals. If it doesn't approve of the job that the schools are doing, it should fire the head. Tying his hands does no good and telling him how to do his job does less good. If he has to fight his board, he can't possibly do what he has to, any more than a football coach can do his job with everyone telling him how to do it. I think that one of the major problems with the California school system is that there are all ready too damn many people telling the principals and teachers how to do their jobs.

There are things that school boards can do well:

One has to do with finance. Odds are that board members may have a more intimate relationship to large amounts of money than does an educator. Educators, as a rule, don't get close enough to the long green to have more than a passing familiarity with the stuff, while board members are often the wealthier members of a community. It is almost as if the board and the educational administrator represent the two sides of the financial coin; the board members being expert at acquiring money, while the administrator has to be expert at spending it.

The board may have a finger on the public pulse and can tell the head when he is stepping on toes.

The board is the final arbiter in disputes between the head and the staff, and the head and the public.

In deciding where to build a new school, it is the board that does much of the work and makes the decisions. It is the head who will largely determine what kind of school will be built after much input by the builders, staff, public and board. The board will either approve or say that it should go back to the drawing boards.

In short, there should be a clear separation of powers and if the board meddles in what should be the province of the head, it screws up the system. That is the way that I see it. Some people see the board as running the schools. Such people, if they are members of the board, can disrupt the entire balance of power. This discord can filter down to the teachers themselves, to the detriment of the school and, ultimately, the children.

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