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Harvard EdCast: The State of School Boards

A look at the role of school boards and the current debates playing out at school board meetings.
School board

Many of the country’s most debated topics seem to be playing out at school board meetings. In the past year, school board meetings have featured heated debates from the public about issues like mask mandates in school and critical race theory. The meetings make national news and have even recently resulted in asks for assistance from the federal government as board members face threats and violence. This week on the Harvard EdCast, Michael Casserly, the strategic adviser of the Council of the Great City Schools, reflects on the current state of school boards in America, and offers some insight into the true role of school boards.

TRANSCRIPT:

Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast.

School board meetings seem to be one of the most contentious places to be these days. Some of the country's most divisive issues on mask policies and critical race theory are playing out at school board meetings in shocking ways. There's yelling, threats, and tears. Michael Casserly, though, isn't necessarily surprised. He has over 30 years working with urban schools and school boards nationwide in his role for the Council of the Great City Schools. Just days after Justice Merrick Garland had asked the FBI to help in protecting school board members from violent threats in their communities, I asked Michael how he would characterize the state of school boards in America right now.

Michael CasserlyMichael Casserly: Well, there's obviously a lot of controversy and a lot of unexpected activity. I'm not sure that I'm necessarily surprised by any of this, in part because the field itself is going through quite a fraught period and possibly some permanent transformations, but the whole conversation about the reopening of schools and the vaccines and the masks and the online instruction and critical race theory and all of these things are the kinds of issues and controversies that people get very worked up about.

I'm not sure that it looks much different in the cities than it ever looks, which is, I think, one of the reasons why a lot of the city boards don't necessarily find this terribly surprising like boards in other areas of the country might. The urban boards tend to be a bit more used to contention and debate and protest and all of that, not that the boards themselves care for it anymore than any other board does, but they tend to be a bit more used to the variety of perspectives and opinions that you find in the cities compared to other places, so while we're getting the same kind of contention that you see in other boards around the country, I think our boards in the major cities are probably a bit more used to it and don't find it as shocking or troubling as many other boards that maybe haven't been subjected to that kind of discussion.

Jill Anderson: Some are calling school board meetings "center for culture wars" and I think we're beginning to see some board members resigning around the country.

Michael Casserly: You do see some board members saying, "I have had enough," and some superintendents and other administrators who draw the same conclusion and say, "I have had it here," and I don't know that anybody can really blame them. I mean, they've been under enormous stress. A good many of them have not been able to take any substantial time off. They've been subject to lots of name-calling and the like. Who can blame them for basically saying, "I didn't sign up for this"? What they signed up for was to teach kids.

Now, again, I think the superintendents and the board members in the major cities tend to be a bit more used to this because there is always contention and debate and varied perspectives and opinions in the cities that you don't necessarily get to the same degree where there's a much more homogenous point of view and not quite as diverse a population outside of the cities, but it's not much easier for the folks inside the cities, either. They are human beings and the constant name-calling and the protesting at people's houses and all of that stuff is wearying.

Jill Anderson: Do you worry that we're going to see just a drop-off in people willing to be a part of these boards as a result of some of what we're seeing right now? I mean, what's really an incentive to be a school board member in 2021 or 2022?

Michael Casserly: Well, honestly, other than just civic goodwill, you'd have to wonder why anybody would ever want to be a school board member.

Jill Anderson: Right, right.

Michael Casserly: It doesn't really pay anything. It has very long hours. It can be very thankless in lots of ways. I think that question is always on the table, and that is, why would you really want to do this? Except that people really do care about the schools in general and they care about the kids and they want to do the best they can and see the best possible education provided for kids, and at least in the cities, anyway, this is a pretty resilient bunch of folks who understand that this work is difficult but are willing to step up and take the slings and arrows people sometimes throw at them, but along the way, there's going to be some folks who said, "Gee, this is even more than what I had expected, and I just don't want to do this anymore."

But honestly, at least in the cities, well, we're seeing some resignations. I'm not seeing wholesale exiting by the board members. While the three biggest cities in the country saw their superintendents turn over in the last six months or so, the total number of superintendent turnovers in the big cities is no more this year than it was in any typical year.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Michael Casserly: That is, someplace between about 12 and 15 out of the top 75 cities in the country. But you will definitely hear the superintendent and board members say they've never seen it quite this intense and quite this vitriolic and divisive as they see it right now.

Jill Anderson: Hmm. I mean, to see that Merrick Garland is trying to help just seems crazy.

Michael Casserly: Yeah. As a tactical matter, I'm not sure that I necessarily would have prepared a letter like that. I'm not sure that it's necessarily the wisest strategic move to make to tag your customers as terrorists.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Michael Casserly: As a public institution, I think you ought to pull up a little bit short of that kind of characterization. I can get it, that people are just very frustrated and upset, but I'm not sure that I would consider that a well-conceived strategy.

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right. I want to shift a little bit to talk about working with the community, which is, of course, at the heart of what school boards do in many ways. You're involved in an institute for board members and superintendents run at Harvard, the PELP Accelerating Board Capacity Institute.

Michael Casserly: Yes.

Jill Anderson: One of the things that you address at this is managing conflict in the community. Obviously, that's something that's super heightened right now with mask policies and debates about race and how history get taught, so how do you advise school members navigating some of these highly contentious issues in the community right now?

Michael Casserly: Yeah, honestly, I don't think there's any particular magic in the managing of the public. The public has their expectations and the board does play a role in shaping those expectations and sometimes the expectations that the public has of the board is sometimes skewed by board members' own misunderstandings of what the role of boards actually are and what they are not. Sometimes the public has expectations of the boards that aren't necessarily appropriate for what the role of the boards actually are when, in fact, the major role of the board is to reflect the overall values of their community, whether their board members are elected or appointed, whether they're appointed or elected by ward or at large, doesn't really make any difference. Part of their responsibilities is to reflect the values of the community that they come from and bring that perspective to the board meetings.

I think it's also important that the board define the broad direction of the school district. Sometimes boards don't necessarily think it's their role to define where it is that the school system is going in its broadest sense. My perspective is that's really part of the governing role of any elected or appointed governing body is to find the broad direction of the institution. I think it's also important that boards as boards articulate the broad goals of the system and then determine metrics by which to measure and track progress on those goals and then monitor progress on those goals on a regular basis, ensure the financial integrity of the school district, and select and evaluate a superintendent who can take the district where the board articulates that the institution needs to go. Beyond that, I think boards sometimes get in trouble and sometimes contribute to the overall consternation in the community by getting into management's business around contracts and hiring and the like that simply contributes to the divisions in the community itself when I think the board really has a broader role to play.

I think it's also important for boards to understand that the role of the boards as a board are pretty much what I just articulated: The role of the individual board members is really something different, and that is basically to show up and participate in all of those things, but the individual board members don't have any particular or designated authority as such. Sometimes individual board members will act as if they do have that legal authority or legislative authority, when in fact the authority and the power of the board is vested in the board itself and the votes it takes, not in the individual board members, per se.

But sometimes I think board members' misunderstanding of that and the public's misunderstanding of that contributes to the divisions that you sometimes see because the public will make various demands on individual board members that are really inappropriate, in part because the public misunderstands and sometimes the board itself misunderstands what its role is. I mean, the power of a board is really in what it does as a body, the votes that it takes, and whether the individual board member is on the majority side of those votes or on the minority side of those votes, their responsibilities are really vested around participating in the process that the body is pursuing, but the individual board member as such doesn't have individual legal or legislative power to do much on their own.

Matter of fact, I don't know of very many states, I don't know of any states, actually, that vest legal or legislative power in individual board members, per se, but sometimes getting that distinction clear can provide unity of purpose to the board's overall action that can help guide a community, understand what it is that the board is trying to do, and how it is monitoring the institution's goals and the time that it spends devoted to talking about how the kids are doing, rather than the board getting into individual contracts and procurement and hiring and the like.

Jill Anderson: Are you saying what might distinguish a highly functioning board over maybe one that's getting a little bit, I don't know what the word is, and I don't want to use "lost," and this is just that unity and being able to work as a board versus maybe individual interests or something?

Michael Casserly: Well, you're going to have individual perspectives on the board, which is why you have seven-member boards and nine-member boards and member boards of various sizes. You don't have a one-member board of education. You want to have multiple members because they had different perspectives and they may come from slightly different communities in the same school district.

I think where boards sometimes get off track is when they misunderstand what the role of the board really is and start thinking that their duties and responsibilities really have more to do with the managing of the school district than the governing of the school district, so I see lots of boards over the years. I've worked with tons of boards in many, many cities, some who do extremely well in governing their school district and some that just cannot stay out of the process of managing the school district and the systems or the boards that stay within their broader governing responsibilities. There's plenty to do on that front. It's not like I'm suggesting that the boards pull back on what it is they have to do or I'm leaving them with nothing to do, that's not really the case at all.

But the boards that stick with their governing responsibilities and then work with their superintendents around the governing and managing responsibilities of the school districts are ones that typically do better. The ones where the board, in defining its overall direction and defining its goals and being clear about how it is it's going to measure its goals going forward, and then it monitors the goals, particularly its academic goals, and has robust conversations about how kids are doing on a regular basis are school districts that tend to do better academically and show more progress in terms of student achievement than boards that tend to not pay any attention to those issues. Now, there are exceptions to that, and there are reasons why the exceptions sometimes work, but as a rule, boards that pay more attention to what they're in business for, which is to guide the overall academic attainment of kids, are districts that will see it.

Jill Anderson: Hmm. There's probably a lot more school boards that are doing well and functioning right now that are just not grabbing the news headlines like some of these other boards that we're hearing about.

Michael Casserly: Absolutely. I'd say, by and large, most boards do pretty well and understand what their roles are and have the backing and confidence of their respective communities. But as always, we hear about the boards where there is lots of debate and lots of screaming and yelling because that's what the media is basically trained to cover, so at a certain point, that's what the public understands boards of all kinds and all locations are actually going through. Now, they're certainly going through it much more so than is the norm, so the media isn't completely wrong in characterizing the board situation as being divided, to be sure, but not everybody is suffering through this and not everybody understands the public's consternation in exactly the same way.

I think this is probably one of the times when we are having the most trouble focusing on the academic attainment of our kids because non-instructional issues are really the topic of the day for lots of members of the community and lots of members of the press and others, so talking about the student transportation and the shortage of bus drivers, talking about the burnout of school cafeteria workers, talking about whether or not there's enough schools that are offering online services as schools reopen physically, talking about whether or not there should be mandates for vaccines or mandates for masks are all things that the public is having conversations about and are bringing those concerns back up to their respective boards and it does mean that boards sometimes, and the administration as well, the same way with teachers, are having a much more difficult time focusing on what the core business of the institution is all about than would normally be the case.

Jill Anderson: Hmm. I'm wondering, you mentioned earlier about some of our urban school boards, having a lot more experience with protests and contentious issues than maybe some of our suburban or rural boards or what we see playing out in some parts of the country. What do you think that some of those boards could learn from our urban school boards and how they respond to controversy and contention?

Michael Casserly: I'd be a little bit hesitant to hold us up as paragons of good behavior all the time. Our boards often do a great job, but the trick is always in the transparency and their ability to communicate with the public. The problem is is that there is no end to the communication. You almost cannot communicate enough or be transparent enough about the way that you are doing your business, but trying the best that you can and going the extra mile is something that I know urban boards have had to stretch themselves to do more of, and I think they would be the first to tell you, even with that stretching, it is insufficient in the public's mind to address all of the concerns that the public has.

But those instincts around having ongoing, relentless conversations that are transparent with every section of the community is something that I think most urban boards would tell you is absolutely imperative if they have any chance of capturing the public's confidence at all. I can't hold us up as paragons of transparency and communications, but I think our districts probably are more used to those kinds of conversations and those kinds of debate and divisions inside of the community than sometimes other boards are.

Jill Anderson: I guess part of what I wonder is if there's a disconnect in understanding what the role is of the school board.

Michael Casserly: I think there probably is misunderstandings in the community about what the role of the board is, but there's also misunderstandings on boards about the role of the boards are.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Michael Casserly: Sometimes one feeds the other. That is, boards sometimes feed the misconceptions in the community, and the community sometimes feeds the misconceptions on the board, so I think the boards actually have some responsibility in making it clear to the community what the role of the boards are and what they're not. I don't think it's the role of the boards to lecture the community or parents on what the community should be or think or want, the community has its own responsibilities to articulate fully what it wants from its public institutions, and again, it's our responsibilities to listen to that and to try to meet those expectations as best we can.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much, Michael.

Michael Casserly: Hope this was helpful.

Jill Anderson: Michael Casserly is a strategic adviser for the Council of the Great City Schools, where he's previously held roles as the executive director and legislative and research director. I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.