The Fine Line
It's a never-ending question between school boards and superintendents: Who has authority over what issues and how can both sides coexist peacefully and effectively?
Earlier this year, a superintendent in Prince George's County, Md., was fired by the school board, temporarily reinstated after a Sunday evening circuit court session and redeemed by an antiquated state law. This all happened during 10 whirlwind days that swept state lawmakers, business leaders and the media into a frenzied debate about how best to govern school systems.
Meanwhile, in Piper, Kan., the school board voted behind closed doors to override a teacher's decision on classroom plagiarism. The teacher resigned in protest; CNN, The New York Times and national media came calling. The board found itself accused of violating an open meeting law and criticized for overstepping its boundaries.
The events in Maryland and Kansas come with their own set of details and circumstances, but the questions they raise are universal and timeless: Where should the authority of school boards end and that of superintendents begin? How can school boards and superintendents coexist peacefully and effectively? And when is it appropriate for the state to step in, settle the score, or even to take the reins?
Iris T. Metts' firing sparked a heated power struggle over the 130,000-student Prince George's County school system. State legislators called for swift and immediate intervention, but after a few weeks, cooled off on the idea of an emergency takeover, and instead were considering long-term ways to restructure the board.
Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, followed the daily headlines from his office in nearby Arlington, Va. "I'm not a huge fan of state takeovers, but they should be considered a viable option in certain extreme conditions," he says. "In Prince George's County, it's kind of hard to argue with the state stepping in. Somebody has to be the adult in that case."
Houston saw the situation as "a power struggle issue, with the board trying to strip away the authority of the superintendent. Smart boards give superintendents a lot of a latitude because they recognize that they've hired a professional."
According to Houston, the metaphor of the school board as Congress and the superintendent as president is a faulty one, because, with the exception of a few Southern states, a school superintendent isn't independently elected the way a president is. Rather, superintendents are hired by and become employees of a board of education. The structure creates a unique dynamic.
Houston blames the tension between superintendents and school boards on a "lack of clarity" about what boards should and should not be involved in. "Board members often [start] without properly understanding their roles," he says. "I had a school board president tell me once that she believed her job was to thwart my actions as superintendent."
According to Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney for the National School Board Association, the majority of school board/superintendent relationships are the solid and steady kind that don't cause waves or make headlines. Gittins refutes the perception that superintendents are being driven from school district to school district by micromanaging boards.
Like Houston, Gittins believes a state intervention should occur only as a last resort. "People at the local level know best what their community needs," she says.
Gittins says the little-known Maryland law that ultimately saved Metts' job seems to be unique to that state. The law gives the state superintendent-not the local board-the right to fire a local superintendent.
Historically, hiring, firing, evaluations and other personnel issues have been major points of contention between boards and superintendents. As a result, several states, including Kentucky and Massachusetts, have taken steps to clarify or curtail the power of boards in these matters, according to Houston. In 1993, Peter Negroni, then a superintendent in Springfield, Mass., played an instrumental role in the passage of state legislation that, in part, made superintendents solely responsible for hiring and firing personnel. The new law left school boards with the sole authority to hire and dismiss only one person: the superintendent.
"I believe that, across the country, personnel matters should fall under the purview of superintendents," says Negroni, who is now senior vice president of the College Board. "I think that would dramatically change things because it doesn't allow boards to make political decisions about who is hired and fired."
While Negroni is a staunch advocate of placing certain limits on school boards, he is also unusually outspoken about the obligations of superintendents. Since boards are made up of lay people, he says, it is incumbent upon trained superintendents to use and pass along management, communication and diplomacy skills that can help the two parties work well together.
Chip Smoley is the author of Effective School Boards: Strategies for Improving Board Performance and a school management and governance consultant. According to Smoley, one camp believes boards should direct policy and leave implementation to superintendents, while another believes boards should safeguard the interests of parents and the community, intervening as necessary in the operation of schools. Smoley favors a middle ground, in which the board and superintendent work together. "In almost every area there is both policy and administrative work to be done," he explains. "They are just intertwined."
The incident in Piper, a community 20 miles west of downtown Kansas City, illustrates how blurry this distinction can become. Christine Pelton was a science teacher who asked her students to complete an assignment that would count for half their semester grade. At the beginning of the school year, parents and students signed off on a classroom rule that stated plagiarism and cheating would result in failure on the assignment in question. Pelton detected that nearly a quarter of her students had lifted material. She gave those students a failing grade, reportedly with the support of the school principal and Superintendent Michael Rooney.
After parents protested, the school board made a decision during executive session: They determined Pelton should give the plagiarizers partial credit for the assignment and should reduce its weight toward the final grade. Had the board overstepped its boundaries? Or had it fulfilled its duty in listening to the concerns of the citizenry it was elected to represent? Rooney's office said he could not comment due to pending legal charges related to the case. Board vice president Leigh Vader did not respond to a request for a comment.
In Houston's opinion, the board did right in reflecting community sentiment, but should have used the incident as a jumping point to establish new policy-not to take the superintendents' job upon themselves.
Crossing the Line
Ron Kelley, superintendent of the Jewell and Mankato Unified School Districts in Kansas, says the Piper board crossed a line. "It's like the administrators at a hospital telling the surgeons to 'step back and let us do those stitches,' when they haven't even had first aid yet," he says.
Kelley has ideas for reforming the system, such as requiring in-service training for board members, offering small salaries to attract a different type of candidate and making superintendents state employees assigned to different districts. Kelley also says board members should have competency in areas such as business and fiscal management. "The problem is you have local people on school boards who don't know beans about running an educational system," he says.
Negroni disagrees. He says requiring candidates to meet certain standards in order to gain a seat on the board interferes with the democratic process. And Smoley contends that those who run for school board with a particular agenda in mind quickly broaden their perspective once they're elected and see how the system works.
One scenario floated in Prince George's County is to appoint at least three board members, preferably with backgrounds in education or corporate management. In Boston and Cleveland, appointed boards overseen by state or city leaders have been successful. But there's not enough evidence to suggest that appointed boards work better than elected ones, according to the experts.
What it comes down to is this: An effective school system is run not by blame and accusation but by communication, cooperation and trust. Metts and the Prince George's County school board are out to learn that the hard way. At press time, the board had filed an appeal in circuit court challenging the decision to reinstate Metts. Resolving the differences between the superintendent and the board may be a long shot, but one well worth it. As Kelley points out: "So little continuity is not good for the kids or their education. In the long run, it hurts a community to drive a superintendent out of town."
Jennifer Covino, email@example.com, is a contributing editor.