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PAR Urges School Board Reform

Over the past few months, the chorus of voices pressing for reforms in the way local school boards operate has grown. At the same time, those insisting there is nothing wrong with the way local school boards operate have grown more vehement. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s public education system continues to hug the bottom of most lists measuring quality and achievement. What is clear is that maintaining the status quo is not acceptable and change is needed now.

In May 2008, after hearing complaints about school board micromanagement, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) directed Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and the Department of Education to look into school board governance and come back with recommendations for change. In response, the department developed a set of legislative proposals that would make significant alterations in local school board operations. The proposals were to be presented to BESE at its March meeting, but instead of taking a position on the proposals, BESE voted to ask the Legislature to create a task force to study school board reform. In addition, one legislator has drafted four bills to address various school board reforms. The two sets of proposals focus on ending micromanagement, bringing new ideas and new membership to boards, and re-emphasizing integrity and qualifications.

The issue of local school board governance has been the subject of debate in academic circles since the mid-1980s. The underlying conclusion has been that the best role for local school boards is to set overall education policy for their districts and then to get out of the way and let superintendents handle the day-to-day operations. The school board reform measures being proposed for Louisiana are intended to achieve that goal.

PAR supports the following reforms:

  1. Limiting the ability of school boards and school board members to involve themselves in district hiring and firing decisions;
  2. Requiring the approval of a super-majority of school board members before a superintendent can be fired;
  3. Setting term limits for school board members;
  4. Changing the compensation for school board members to a limited per diem system;
  5. Strengthening state nepotism laws that govern school boards and superintendents;
  6. Prohibiting school board members from taking part in district health insurance plans.

PAR strongly supports the first two proposals, which are aimed at ending micromanagement by board members. Currently, state law does little to limit the ability of local school board members to inject themselves into the day-to-day operations of their districts. As a result, interference in hiring and firing decisions has been cited by a number of local superintendents as one of the main obstacles to running their districts. In addition, a simple majority vote is all that is required now for a school board to fire a superintendent, thus increasing the potential for politics to get in the way of effective leadership.

Term limits for local school board members should be imposed, and the current expense allowance system used by most school boards as compensation should be changed to a limited per diem system. The term-limit proposal is not without precedent. At least one school district in the state – Lafayette Parish – already has term limits for its board members. Voters there approved a three-term limit for local school board members in 2006. Nationally, at least four states allow local jurisdictions to set term limits for their school board members. On the question of school board compensation, state law currently allows either a per diem option or an expense allowance option. Under the per diem option, board members may receive up to $50 per day for every meeting of the school board, not to exceed 144 days in any one year or 12 meetings in any one month. Or board members may vote to use the expense allowance option instead, which allows them to receive a maximum of $800 per month.

State nepotism laws should be strengthened by restricting employment of immediate family members to those who previously were working in a similar capacity in the district for at least a year before the school board member or superintendent takes office. State law currently allows school boards to hire any immediate family member of any board member or superintendent as a classroom teacher, provided the person is certified to teach, and to hire immediate family members of school athletic directors as coaches at the same school.

Employee health insurance benefits for local school board members should be eliminated. Under current state law, local school boards may include themselves and their family members in district group health insurance policies and may vote to pay for part or all of the premiums out of district budgets.

At the heart of the debate over school board reform is the balance of power between local school boards and their superintendents and between local school boards and the state. Despite what some of the heated rhetoric surrounding the debate suggests, local school boards are not entities unto themselves. They are a creation of the Legislature and as such the state retains the ultimate responsibility for how they do their jobs.

At the same time, none of the proposed reforms would usurp local control of school districts. Local school boards still would have the ability to set overall district policy and to hire and fire the superintendent. What the proposed reforms would do is remove much of the clutter surrounding day-to-day district operations, thereby allowing local superintendents to concentrate on effectively running their districts and school board members to focus on setting policy.

The reforms being proposed are logical and straightforward, and most of the debate surrounding them has more to do with turf battles than anything else. Rather than banish them to a task force, the Legislature should implement these reforms this session. No further study is needed.

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