Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

With the November election behind us, it’s a good time to reflect on what works and doesn’t work in our democracy.

Clearly there are amazing things about the American system, but this election was an extraordinary illustration of how far the U.S. political system has strayed from its intentions and ideals. In addition to the particularly egregious efforts such as active voter suppression, we observed a record amount of election spending and the noxious influence of that money on our system.

On the national scale, we’ve been witness to the most fractious and negative political environment ever, and in California the initiative system continues to prove how, ironically, it has become the very thing that is was created to prevent: the damaging influence of money and power. Our political parties have become intractable, and money has become speech; more than $420 million was spent on California proposition campaigns alone and more than $2 billion spent on the U.S. presidential election.

November 6th reminded me that there is still one political body that has largely not strayed from our ideals and is not buried under the weight of money or party politics: the local school board. Ironically, there are a number of voices who point to school boards as part of the problem in public education and/or advocate for massive consolidation among school districts. Although in some cases there could be benefits to school district consolidation, I would argue that the current scope of school boards more closely reflects the intention of our democracy and is fundamentally more effective in a number of key ways:

  • Independence: Most school board members don’t declare a political party, generally require modest funds to run a campaign, and have little ambition for “higher office.” These three aspects alone remove much of the influence of outside interests, freeing up the elected official to rely more and more on collaboration with his/her colleagues, information from experts, and good judgment. No political party has ever told me how I need to vote on an issue (and I’ve never taken a silly “pledge” committing that I will always, or never, do something), and I don’t receive much attention from lobbyists.
  • Accountability: I run into my constituents every day. People recognize me when I walk down the street. I personally answer every e-mail and phone call I get. If someone asks to meet with me, I have coffee with them. Try doing that with your U.S. Congressperson, State Senator, or even County Supervisor. Their territory is just too big to be that familiar with all of the citizens. It is this closeness which creates that accountability – I cannot hide anywhere.
  • Public participation: The flip side of the accountability coin is the ability for the public to participate in the process. In our little town, everyone is within a five-minute drive of every public board meeting, and there are so many avenues to communicate with their local elected representatives.
  • Intimacy/knowledge: Just as the closeness with the community creates accountability, it also creates a sense of intimacy and a more specific knowledge about the district over which one governs. Especially in a school district, where the support and energy of the community is so vital, I would argue this allows the board member to make better decisions. Every school board member comes to appreciate that many of their issues are truly local and dependent upon the culture of that community, and even these subtle differences can drive more optimal decisions.
  • Citizen representatives: Most school board positions are part-time and many are unpaid (or just paid a small stipend). This makes it clear that being a “politician” is not a career path for most board members, so there is little pressure to twist your values and judgment and conform to what you think people want to hear.
  • Separation of executive authority and political role: School board members are elected; superintendents are not. This is more similar to a corporate board model, where a board selects and manages the CEO. Of course superintendents are affected by “politics,” but they are freer to be honest experts in the affairs of a school district, and largely they retain or lose their job based on their actual performance.

There is one caveat to my above assertions: The larger the school district gets, the more likely the above benefits will diminish. Larger school boards will start to acquire some of the negative dynamics of other political bodies (arguing once again against massive school district consolidation). There is no magic number for when a school district “gets too big” – it is rather a continuum – but in my observation, once a district gets bigger than around 10,000 students, the above benefits start to dissipate quickly. Certainly the largest school districts, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, generate hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars in campaign contributions for school board races and often become the stage for a political battle between unions and reformers. But the far majority of school districts around our state are fairly solid examples of American democracy.

I’m not suggesting that all of the benefits of our local democracy can practically apply at the state or national level, but it is worth discussing what elements of our school board system work and how we can approximate those benefits more broadly. For example, how can we diminish the damaging influence of money and party politics in our state and in our nation? Naturally the school board system is far from perfect, and there are horror stories about terrible school board members and stupid decisions. Every organization will have stronger and weaker representatives. But if we just consolidated and gave the political body a greater scope, do we actually believe we’d have stronger and more accountable representatives who would make better decisions? The evidence suggests otherwise.

• • •

Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.


Filed under: Commentary, School Boards

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  1. Bea says:

    Hastings: “Why do school districts have a difficult time having consistently great teachers, in the way that most organizations have consistently great employees?” And the fundamental answer is the elected school boards.”

    Big assumptions there! A school board has only direct oversight over the superintendent. This is true in most organizations — the board of oversight typically has little direct impact over the employees hired. That is, ideally, delegated to qualified, professional staff operating under a shared value of excellence.

    Hastings: “For all of you that have nonprofits or for-profits, imagine if your entire board of directors was up for general election of the people every two years? You’d have rapid turnover. And, because there is rapid turnover of your board, you’d have rapid turnover of the leadership. And then it’s very hard to stay on any strategy for excellence.”

    School boards do not turn over every two years. Terms are typically 4 years, reelection is common, and entire boards do not turnover wholesale. However, at Hastings’ own charter school in Santa Cruz, board terms are 2 years, there is massive annual turnover and board members serve almost exclusively in order for their children to bypass the admissions lottery. The strategy for “excellence” is self-interest. Once a board member’s term is up and admission is guaranteed, the seat turns over. Strategic vision is notoriously difficult to implement at PCS, doubly so given the consistent inexperience of the board.

    Hastings: “Some people say the union is the problem, or tenure is the problem. And those can be problems. But they’re symptoms of the underlying chaos of leadership because of the rapidly changing elected school board.”

    They are symptoms of the fact that those actually involved in school leadership don’t always support the reform agenda. Which is why StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, et al., are now wading into local elections.

    Hastings: “The solution is to turn most schooling into nonprofits, and we’re doing that through the charter school model. Charter schools are nonprofit public schools. They follow the basic rules. Anybody can go. No religion. Open classrooms. And the key thing is that the child, or the family, decides to go there.”

    20 years hence, it’s time to level the playing field and demand that charters not only follow the “basic” rules (which they most assuredly do not, collectively), but follow *all* of the rules. Hastings’ own children reside in diverse community, but attend a virtually all-white charter school with no ELLs, no SpEd kids and no kids in poverty.

    Hastings: “And they get their new board members the same way for-profits and other nonprofits do. They find people who are harmonious with a vision, and they’re able to follow their vision. When you organize like that, you find that all the state rules are not necessary any more.”

    Charter boards must be held accountable to the parents they serve through election or ratification. They must also be accountable to the taxpayers for the funds they receive. They should not be appointed in a secret, closed process with direct personal benefit (admissions preference) and they most certainly should respect state rules while they receive state funds.

    Hastings: “Excellent organizations require self-perpetuating governance. And school districts are not blessed with that. So the key to the long term is growing the charter-school sector. We’re now up at 6 percent of kids in California, and it’s growing.”

    Excellent organizations require proved success, transparency and accountability to those they serve. This utopian view of self-perpetuating governance doesn’t actually exist in the corporate, nonprofit or charter worlds. And there is ZERO evidence that an appointed board yields better teaching, which is his initial justification.

    And this man has the ear of both our governor and our President.

    Parents, concerned community members: Rise up! Serve on an elected school board, live democracy and model true empowerment for our kids.

  2. Bea says:

    Thank you for this. I agree with much of what @el has to say, including the fact that real parent empowerment is having a seat at the official table. If the folks behind the trigger were serious about authentic parent power, they would be advocating for the breakup of large districts in pursuit of greater local control led by democratically elected officials that include parents with actual power.

    That Reed Hastings was the man behind the curtain via Bill Lucia, who actually did Romero’s heavy lifting on that bill, speaks volumes about why the trigger was never about empowering parents. It is about usurping control from local school boards and handing publicly funded resources over to private, non-accountable management. Which is, bottom-line, Hastings’ platform.

    Hastings’ comments in the transcript recently posted in the Mercury News (http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_22029221/transcript-governor-and-ceos-discuss-californias-ability-compete) are worth parsing as they are a clue to reform agenda sweeping this country.

  3. Seth Rosenblatt says:

    Thanks both. I am a capitalist and have been in business my entire adult life, but Reed Hastings, like many other business leaders, falls into a common trap. They fail to see the fundamental differences between running a public agency (like education) and running a business. There is a giant difference between learning from what businesses do (which we can and should) and just doing it like businesses do. Reed should read my article from almost two years ago in eSchoolNews which lays out some of those fundamental differences, and in fact why we want to have those fundamental differences (http://www.eschoolnews.com/2011/02/15/viewpoint-why-education-is-not-like-business/).

  4. gkoval says:

    Great post Seth. Thanks for advocating for democracy. In the recent San Jose Mercury round table discussion editorial Reed Hastings(Netflix) advocated for getting rid of elected school boards so that districts could be run on a “business model.” Just like his I guess..which recently alienated millions of it’s customers and saw it’s shares sink like a rock.

  5. el says:

    Another great essay from Seth.

    Something I’d add is that school boards tend to be low information races. That is, if your district isn’t small enough that everyone pretty much knows everyone else personally (mine is), it can be very hard to get information about the race. The paper may not cover it, and paradoxically, it costs several hundred dollars to add a candidate statement to the ballot. The one advantage we have in these social media times is that it is basically free to create a small website or facebook presence, which can be used to discuss candidates or to advocate one’s own candidacy. Without information, often people don’t vote for these offices because they don’t know who to vote for.

    That said, for all the parent trigger nonsense (“let’s have a few parents sign a petition to take away our right to vote for school board forever”), the reality is that at the local level votes are worth more than money, and it is possible to build an inexpensive grassroots campaign with volunteers. If you don’t like your board, the smaller the district, the easier it is to draft a candidate and go door-to-door or phone-to-phone advocating for a new one.

    Small districts may appear to have more overhead, but my sense is that the administrators are conversely closer to students and staff, spending more of their time in the programs they oversee. They also tend to be paid less – that is, a superintendent/principal at a small district may be paid less than an LAUSD principal.

    As for how large is too large? One day I did a calculation. LAUSD has over 750 schools. There are 180 days in the school year. If you, as a board member or superintendent, decided to visit each school, and you had the luxury of doing absolutely nothing else, maybe you could make two meaningful visits a day. Maybe. At that rate, it would take you more than 4 years to visit every school in the district just once…. ie, a whole 4 year high school class would graduate before you returned to visit that high school again… and that’s assuming you held your position more than one 4 year term. As a practical matter, this means that the district board and superintendent is never personally visiting every school even once during their tenure. How can this be effective local governance?