Making sausage: the work of school board associations

First thing in my email inbox this morning was an “Advocacy Alert” from the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA): It was the “2012 Resolution Kit,” a kickoff notice to get the wheels rolling so that NYSSBA presents a united front in lobbying the state legislature. This was a rather tame “alert,” as these things go. Others have had a Whitney Tilson quality: “Free the Schools!” or “Full Court Press!” or “Mandate Relief? Give us a break!”

Like many such organizations, NYSSBA can be wordy and bureaucratic, but I was happy to see that this year’s kit included a statement that “the Association currently lacks resolutions addressing some of public education's most pressing issues” and that “examples of issues that lack the support or opposition of a NYSSBA resolution are:

  • How the state will address the rising costs of energy and health care and the impact on local taxes.
  • Whether or not charter schools should be allowed to join NYSSBA or receive NYSSBA services.
This resolution signals a major move forward on the part of an organization that tends to be resolutely establishment.

The second resolution signals a major move forward on the part of an organization that tends to be resolutely establishment (for all the reasons that reform critics have cited) and gives me some hope that organizations like NYSSBA can become leaders of school improvement. (See Adam’s Choice Words post on National School Boards Association executive director Anne Bryant’s strident critique of virtual learning. This is the kind of heel-dug-in attitude that sends most ed reformers to the choice barricades.)

I know this much: NYSSBA advocacy alerts are just a small part of the services the organization provides school board members in New York—and, as a full-fledged member, I am grateful. I often carry a copy of School Law to board meetings; that’s NYSSBA’s 838-page summary of state laws regulating schools. (Shall I repeat? An 838-page summary of the laws! Help!!!!) While provided as a service, of course, the volume is also a wonderful document from which to start a school improvement campaign—as Chris Cerf is doing in New Jersey, we must begin stripping useless regulations away from our education system. 

The association also has a “mailbag,” answering questions from board members via video podcast, it writes model policies, offers an array of budget and governance services for members, and has a clipping service, sending out daily links to state and national education stories. (Flypaper is often cited as a “Blog of the Day.”) And it publishes its own bi-weekly newspaper, a serious and professional journal that is as well-reported, written, and edited as you can get.

These are smart people with a wealth of information about how schools are run.

These are smart people.  And they have a wealth of information about how schools are run; thus they could be a powerful leverage point for school improvement.

In a recent issue of On Board, for example, NYSSBA’s executive director Timothy Kremer had an insightful essay about what he called “murmur moments,” taking out after state officials for caring about the wrong things.  He cited State Ed Commissioner John King, at NYSSBA’s recent annual convention, calling for school district consolidations on Long Island—the “audience gasped its surprise,” wrote Kremer. Or state budget director Robert Megna urging the school board members to “negotiate harder” to get better budgets. Audience members “launched a barrage of comments about the political realities of governing a school district in danger of `educational insolvency,’” Kremer pointed out.  Some of those realities, said Kremer, included,

  • Because of the “Triborough” amendment to the state labor law, which prevents boards from tinkering with expired labor contracts, among other things, “70 to 80 percent of [the local school district] budget is untouchable.”
  • There is a new statewide 2 percent local property tax “cap,” which prevents localities from raising taxes above that unless they can get a 60 percent majority vote from their local voters.
  •  Local districts “cannot negotiate state-mandated transportation programs, special education assignments and pension contributions.”

As Kremer pointed out, these kinds of mandates leave local school districts with little choice, as he quotes an audience member saying, but to “cut teachers and programs, and deliver a lackluster education to kids.” In New York especially, where the cost per pupil (either first or second in the nation) exceeds by a large margin student performance results, there are plenty of reasons to be focused on how the money is spent rather than how much money is raised, but Kremer and NYSSBA are not wrong about the need to shake the barnacles off the bureaucracy.

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