Friday, August 10, 2007

Appointed School Board: Should We Go Back?

The highest nabobs of the Richmond area’s high nabobs have written to the mayor and council suggesting that we go back to an appointed school board. They call the state of Richmond Public Schools an “emergency” and say that only by eliminating our elected school board can the schools be saved. Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Michael Martz described the letter from our best and brightest as having landed at City Hall “like a bomb.” As I might have expected, His Excellency hailed the letter (might he have been an unrevealed co-author?) Eliminating our elected school board would eliminate all those pesky members who have the audacity to think for themselves. City Council Prez Bill Pantele thought it was a good idea to revisit the issue of elected school boards. School Board Chair George Braxton said that the people must decide.

The letter, signed by 26 of the Richmond Metro Area business leaders, asserts that everything in the City of Richmond is great, with the exception of the public schools. It is the state of our public schools that is keeping Richmond from becoming a world-class place to work and live. The letter repeats the mayor’s assertion that Richmond’s schools are the most expensive and least effective of any in the Commonwealth. The Richmond 26 go on to list the problems of Richmond Public Schools: Richmond spends more per student than do other school districts and a smaller percentage of it goes to instruction; Richmond has the lowest graduation rate of any local school district except Petersburg; Richmond schools have a higher number of “serious incidences” of student behavior than the other jurisdictions.

So far, I have no problem with the letter. I too believe that Richmond can never be a great city unless it has a great school system. Although RPS has made significant progress in recent years, we still do not have the quality of schools that we need. Richmond Public Schools must be so good that residents of the surrounding counties move into the City to get a better education for their children.

Where I have problems with the Richmond 26 is their conclusion that all of the problems of Richmond Public Schools are the fault of the city having an elected school board. Our 26 elite conclude that the wonderful teachers of this city “will not succeed under the management and administration of the current Richmond School Board.” Richmond’s best and brightest provide no support for this assertion. They apparently think it self-evident that the elected school board is the cause of all of RPS’s problems.

In the Commonwealth, our local schools are run by school boards. Further, in every county and city in Virginia it is the city council or board of supervisors, not the school board, that has taxing authority. So, in every jurisdiction in Virginia there is a separation of the taxing authority from the authority to supervise the schools. In every jurisdiction, not only in Richmond, school boards propose budgets but have no control over raising revenue. In every jurisdiction, not only in Richmond, the local legislative body has authority to levy taxes for schools but has no direct control over operation of the schools.

In 1992 the General Assembly granted to the voters in Commonwealth school districts the right to opt for elected, rather than appointed, school boards. The citizens of the City of Richmond chose to elect their school board members. So did the citizens of most other jurisdictions in Virginia, including the seven school districts that the Richmond 26 has chosen to compare with Richmond. According to the letter these other jurisdictions have successful school systems. So, apparently, in other school districts the elected school board has worked fine. However, our 26 leaders have assigned the sole responsibility for the condition of Richmond Public Schools to the elected school board.

So, is it the school board that creates the three problems set forth in the letter? It is true that Richmond Public Schools spends more per student than other jurisdictions. I assume that it is also true that RPS spends a smaller percentage of its budget on instruction than do other jurisdictions. But, is this the fault of the elected school board? No. RPS has these budgetary realities because it has a much higher percentage of at-risk students than do other school districts in Virginia. Many Richmond students have special needs that require RPS to provide services, not directly related to instruction, that many other school jurisdictions do not have to provide. Any school board, whether elected or appointed, will have to budget for these services. Further, we need keep in mind that many of these services are mandated by the federal government and are paid for with federal funding.

If the graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students entering the ninth grade that graduate from high school four years later, Richmond has a lower graduation rate than do the other jurisdictions. Is this caused by our elected school board? No. School Board Chair Braxton has indicated that there are many reasons why Richmond students do not graduate in four years. Some must drop out to find jobs to help support their families; some opt to get a GED rather than continue in school; some take longer than four years to graduate; some are incarcerated during their high school years; some have to drop out or delay their graduation because they are pregnant. All of these causes for a student’s inability to graduate in four years are beyond the control of any school board.

What about violence in schools? Before comparing jurisdictions, we must be sure that each jurisdiction has the same definition of “serious incidents.” We also need to know whether each jurisdiction places the same emphasis on reporting these incidents. I can envision some schools where faculty and staff are not encouraged to report many of these incidents because it makes the school look bad. But even if the statistics from the various jurisdictions are comparable, can we assign the responsibility for school violence on the school board? Our children spend a greater proportion of their lives out of school than they do in school. Many come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and live in neighborhoods where an aggressive attitude is necessary for survival. As the letter recognizes, we must provide social services and public health services, in addition to a quality education to “significantly improve the lives of students who now begin their education destined to failure.”

Of course there is room for improvement, but the Richmond 26 have given no reason that an appointed school board is better equipped than our elected one to make the needed changes. By concentrating on eliminating our elected school board and replacing it with a school board of elites chosen by elites, the business leaders ignore a major cause for what they see as an “emergency” in Richmond Public Schools. From the time that Richmond elected its new mayor, the School Board has had to devote far too much of its time and energy defending itself from a hostile City Hall. It is very hard to do much to fix the problems with the schools if you constantly have to deal with withheld money, lawsuits, threats of eviction from city offices, and other hardships that the school board has had to deal with. Perhaps it is our elected mayor that should bear some of the responsibility for our schools not improving quickly enough.

In Richmond, we have the right to vote for President of the United States; we can vote for United States Senator and Representative; we elect the Governor of the Commonwealth; we vote for Virginia Senator and Delegate; we elect the members of our City Council; and, only three years ago we decided that we wanted to have an elected mayor. Now, the Richmond 26 wants to take away from us the right to elect the members of our school board. And, they want to do it not by the method set forth in law (petition and voting by Richmond residents) but by a request to the General Assembly that it amend Richmond’s charter. For some reason, these business leaders don’t think that we residents of Richmond are smart enough to elect school board representatives. They don’t even think we are smart enough to decide whether we should keep our elected school board. They just want to take that right away from us by legislative fiat. Residents of Richmond must reject their proposal.

I welcome the interest in Richmond Public Schools demonstrated by these 26 leaders. Considering that many of them have chosen not to live in the City of Richmond, are therefore not Richmond taxpayers, and probably don’t have any children or grandchildren attending Richmond Public Schools, or planning to attend in the future, I think they should be commended for their offer of assistance to the mayor and city council in fixing our schools. They say they are “eager and willing” to work in “a positive, productive, and candid partnership” with school leadership to “bring the Richmond Public Schools and the City of Richmond to the world-class level of which it is capable.” I hope that they and the organizations that they lead will enter into working partnerships with Richmond Public Schools. We residents are entitled to the best schools in the country.

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