Oh, Those Poor, Powerless School Boards

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Mike Petrilli draws attention to this Washington Post column by Laura Berthiaume of the Montgomery County, Md. school board. Mike seems be taking Berthiaume’s claims pretty seriously. I’m not sure why.

Berthiaume is responding to the Post‘s complaints that school boards bend to the wishes of the unions, because the unions have disproportionate power in school board elections.

She begins by acknowledging that the Post is basically right:

It is true that all current board members have gotten their seats with some level of union blessing.

Well, give her this at least: she’s not doing this the easy way. Beating your opponent at chess by knocking down your own king as your opening move is a tough challenge!

She writes:

In the balance of power between the board of education and the bureaucracy, the superintendent and his staff hold all the cards.

That’s a mighty strong claim, considering that, on paper, the superintendent works for the school board. So how does she justify it?

They outwit, outlast and outplay.

Well, forgive me for asking, but: whose fault is that?

Berthiaume elaborates:

When the union felt threatened by an impending state action more tightly linking teacher evaluations to student performance, an “agreement” between MCPS and the unions was announced in The Post on April 21 — and all but one board member found out about it that same morning, in the newspaper.

Well, OK, that was a nasty thing for the superintendent to do. And to hold him accountable you did what?

In my experience, the board actually has little to no impact on union contract negotiations: The superintendent and his staff negotiate the contracts.

And the superintendent is supposed to be held accountable for looking out for the district’s interests in these negotiations by whom?

Even if there ever were actual board opposition, it would be met with a fierce, resolute wall of angry staff.

And the staff work for whom?

Just what does Berthiaume think the voters of Montgomery County put her in office to do? Just what does she think the taxpayers of Montgomery County are paying her for? To rubber stamp whatever the superintendent and his staff do?

If they’re just there to look good, why don’t they put their pictures on the ballots so we can judge for ourselves which candidates are best qualified to fulfill the expectations of the office?

Look, I understand the obstacles to reform are humongous. But if God puts you in a position of responsibility (and really, he’s put all of us in some kind of position of responsibility) then it’s your duty to fight for the right as smartly and as spiritedly as you can, get whatever you can get, and go home at the end of the day satisfied that whatever else others may have done, you fought the good fight.

And if you really think your ability to accomplish anything is zero – well, shame on you for wasting the talent God gave you by spending your time on something you admit is useless!

Update: Just to be clear, Berthiaume is right that the Post shouldn’t go easy on the superintendent and lay all the blame on the board. But she should quit going so easy on herself and laying all the blame on the superintendent!

2 Responses to Oh, Those Poor, Powerless School Boards

  1. Joe says:

    That was sort of my reaction when I read Petrilli’s piece, but I think there actually is something to Berthiaume’s complaint. The board is weak insofar as its only real option to get compliance is the nuclear option of firing — or threat thereof. But in a way, the superintendant can hold the board hostage because of this, since good supes can usually find another gig, replacing leaders can be very disruptive, and finding a good one can be a major headache.

    • allen says:

      What’s a good superintendent?

      It’s certainly not the superintendent who’s responsible for policies that result in rising student attainments so how does a board determine that the superintendent they’ve hired is good enough that they’re unwilling to call the superintendent’s bluff when defied? There’d have to be widespread, and well-regarded, measures of student attainment. Despite most of a decade of NCLB student attainment is still largely something for mommies and daddies to worry about, not superintendents.

      Sorry Joe but the only reason a superintendent can “hold a board hostage” is because they’ve abdicated their responsibility to oversee the superintendent.

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