Sunday, September 21, 2008

School Boards and WSSDA = more questions

The Washington State School Directors’ Association isn’t part of the solution!

All members of every school board in the state are required to “join” the Washington State School Director’s Association (WSSDA), and each school district is required to pay their dues. For the Federal Way School District the “membership fee” is approximately $ 20,000 a year or $ 4,000 per member.

What does the board member get for this “membership?” While most trade associations have a lobbying function, even if the government isn’t their source of revenue, since the WSSDA members are all “state” employees they are prevented from lobbying the Government! Does this sound like a “Socialist” trade union? It does to me. When I spent time in Eastern Europe in the socialist era, I quickly learned that “unions” there also had mandatory membership. Yet they were prohibited from negotiating with the government for better working conditions. They just “looked” like unions to western eyes.

So what does a school board member get for his $ 4,000? There is an annual meeting. However less than 50% of the school districts send even one of their five or more member to this meeting as there are additional costs for this meeting beyond the travel costs! There are also regional meetings. I have attended many of these, though the average attendance is less than 10 board members! Evidently most board members don’t regard the discussions at either of these meetings with a great deal of importance. I attended one held at a nearby school district, and found that there wasn’t even a board member from that school district in attendance!

WSSDA also sends out, approximately monthly, a 4 to 8 page newsletter that tends to focus on peripheral issues to the real tasks that face school boards, and publishes an intensive set of “policy” recommendations for school boards to deliberate on at their local school board meetings. I don’t believe that I have ever seen any articles on successful happenings in other states, or any actions by school boards in this state that would set them off from the “group think” that prevails in most school districts. I don’t believe I have seen any recommendations from WSSDA that would have any impact upon what happens in a classroom. In a state that is dead last by some measures in achievement, this organization isn’t issuing a “call to arms,” but rather is another organization that tries to make school board members “comfortably numb” by many of its activities. Our Board even got an award for something that none of us even were aware of! Very soothing.

So there isn’t any real representation of the local school board’s interests with the largest supplier of its funds and rules, and yet the organization claims to represent the school boards.

WSSDA does offer “board member training” which, from my point of view, has several characteristics of “group think”. The emphasis of this training is on keeping any controversial topics from making it to a public discussion, and insuring that school board meetings are “harmonious” irrespective of the level of accomplishments of either the board or the school district. Board members are encouraged to “support” the vote of the majority even if they are diametrically opposed to the decision. “All decisions are final,” and should not be challenged is a clear mantra. New board members are encouraged to not take any controversial stands and to “get along”. There is no mention, or suggestion, that individual board members should influence the agenda of board meetings, and bring forth suggestions based upon their own research. The general theme is to deliberate, then ratify topics that either the State or the local administration puts before them. In short School Boards should be nearly “invisible” and “look good”.

In this respect WSSDA has been remarkably successful. Since it is very difficult for even the most knowledgeable to determine any significant difference between the programs of different school districts in this state, one has to assume that “group think” is well established.

Through the actions of an individual board member in Federal Way, a lawsuit was filed to force the state to pay all school districts equally. Where was WSSDA? On the sidelines, as there was “fear” from some school districts that this might reduce their handout from the state. Why did it take almost 30 years for this to become a legal issue when there are many lawyers on school boards in this state? Perhaps “group think?”

When I talk to school board members, who attend WSSDA meetings, about their sources of information, I find that most rely on WSSDA and little else, except for what their Superintendent provides them, for their “decision making”. This is at least a “partial vacuum” in my mind.

Is there anything that WSSDA provides that is of value to school board members? Yes, there is, but few seem to take advantage of it. School Board members, and the general public who might be concerned about education, can check their website each day for a summary of some of the newspaper articles that are relevant to education. I have learned a lot from these postings, but I find that most school board members are not taking advantage of this.

Next week we will explore school boards, or is it the “partial vacuum?”

.... Charles R. Hoff

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This article is dated, but I think it adds to your points and helps shed light on something I know very little about.

The scare for some observers is that school boards will eventually have very little impact on their communities.

For instance, curriculum adoptions could be rubber stamped and decisions made by 'DANA' consultants paid by OSPI officials - something that appears to be happenning at the local level with new alternatives for schools and software being championed and seconded by superintendents and teachers turned curriculum writers. Its very much like a wild west show out there. And all the more reason, the public should be against merit pay, because deciding who receives extra pay will be arbitrary and simply creates more turbulance. Districts will spend there time more wisely adopting a successful k-12 academic program for math and science. We need more show and less tell.