Advocacy at Cross Purposes

Superintendent groups work to narrow the divide when finding themselves on opposite sides of contentious issues by Kimberly Reeves

Superintendent Jimmy Cunningham recognized the moment he parted ways with his urban colleagues on just how school funding should be meted out in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Supreme Court had declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional so the Arkansas Association of School Administrators had gathered 10 urban and 10 rural superintendents around a conference room table at the University of Arkansas to hash out a proposed efficiency model that could drive future school funding. This would be the funding model presented to state lawmakers with one united voice.

Author Mary Hughes, an associate professor of educational administration at the university, was outlining the model’s variables. Thirteen of the variables would be cost related. Another 14 would be performance based. Those school districts that met the minimum expectations would be maintained. Those that didn’t would be consolidated with neighboring districts.

Cunningham, superintendent of the rural Plainview-Rover school district of about 300 students located 1½ hours west of Little Rock, realized the 40 districts targeted by the formula were all high-poverty, high-minority districts. Cunningham’s hand shot up. What about family income? What about the percentage of free-and-reduced lunch?

“I remember her answer being, ‘I don’t know if high free-and-reduced lunch is good or bad,’” Cunningham recalls. “Right then I knew we were not on the same page.”

On the other side of the table sat Jim Rollins, superintendent of the growing Springdale School District in northwest Arkansas. Rollins saw the efficiency model quite differently. To Rollins, who led a school district with more than 13,000 students and five National Blue Ribbon Schools, this efficiency model could provide an accurate side-by-side comparison of the use of school district resources.

“I think in my mind, the efficiency model ought to be there in some form no matter what happens,” Rollins says. “We all have to be efficient. In reality, we have been moving to consolidation over time because it’s the best way to serve all schools. Even if this model is not the one used as a means to reorganize schools, it is a tool for school improvement.”

Cunningham and Rollins both serve Arkansas students, but the two found themselves in opposing camps when it came time for a special session on school finance. Issues like school finance, educational strategy and district accountability can pit normally united superintendents against each other when the stakes are high. Superintendents who speak with one voice on issues such as school safety and classroom standards may find themselves at odds over the best way to pay for teacher training or account for meeting No Child Left Behind.

Disagreements among superintendents rarely result in a divide as wide as the one in Arkansas. Most superintendents can usually agree to find middle ground. But especially in the pressure cooker of school funding—more than two dozen states are in the middle of revising funding formulas—superintendents are forced to take sides to protect their own interests. There are groups for rural superintendents and for those who run fast-growth districts. There are coalitions for a state’s largest urban districts and for school districts affected by the presence of federal military bases. All are set up to push the particular interests of school districts among state lawmakers.

In Arkansas, the threat of consolidation came close to tearing the state association apart. While poverty eventually was added as a variable to the efficiency model, Cunningham never could shake the feeling that the most defenseless of Arkansas’ school districts—the ones that never had been funded adequately—were being targeted for closure. Plainview-Rover wasn’t on the list of school districts targeted for closure, but it could have been.

“The 40 school districts that didn’t meet the efficiency model were all poverty schools, and 28 were heavily minority school districts,” Cunningham says. “It just flies in the face of research. These weren’t the schools that needed to be closed. These were exactly the school districts that the Lake View decision said needed additional funding.”

After about eight weeks of heavy negotiating, Cunningham returned to the Arkansas Rural Education Association to take a vote. The association’s superintendents voted 115-30 to oppose a model that shut down rural school districts. Cunningham hasn’t looked back.


A Serious Split

Executive Director Kellar Noggle of the Arkansas Association of School Administrators speaks of the serious split in the superintendent ranks with both regret and resignation. Arkansas already had gone through one round of cost-cutting consolidation back in 1983, reducing the number of school districts from 370 to 308. And Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, had announced his intent to further consolidate to equalize funding. The question for Noggle was not whether the state would consolidate but how the superintendents could minimize the blow.


“The truth of the matter is that the anger and the controversy had gone on for months and months with the small school districts,” Noggle says. “They had such a distrust of government and policymakers by that time that it was almost impossible to get them to agree to anything. The association is put in a hard spot because any position you took on consolidation would risk alienating the smaller districts.”

The best Noggle could do was to make sure the rural leadership was sitting at the table for the discussion. Even the concession that school districts would have a full two years to raise academic achievement could not quell concerns. And the fact Huckabee traveled around the state last summer telling large school districts they would regret they stayed out of the school funding fight and let small school districts run the show didn’t help.

Cunningham saw smaller school districts as the scapegoat for the state’s inability to properly fund its school systems. Rollins saw funding being aligned with accountability.

“The missing word in our contentious debate up to this point has been ‘quality,’” Rollins says. “As we strive to meet the definition of adequacy, it could easily lead to leveling down to mediocrity. My hope is that we can all be strong participants in the process, and at the end of the day we know that we have improved our schools and not in some way weakened them.”

Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association on the University of Oklahoma campus, says school funding is the prime reason rural superintendents part with their urban colleagues. But Mooneyham points out that issues like No Child Left Behind are coming to the forefront. NCLB is often tougher on rural districts because one or two students’ test scores can skew an entire school’s rating.


Sticking Together

Mike Flanagan, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, recently used all the savvy he had gained as a veteran school leader to prevent a potentially devastating split among his members. A legislative proposal was on the table to tap into about $55 million in “hold harmless” funding, which typically had been sent to wealthy school districts. Those dollars could mean a tremendous boon to the state’s poorer school districts.


Flanagan called an emergency meeting of MASA’s Legislative Council. That council included superintendent representatives from the 10 regions, as well as various coalitions. Representation ranged from the urban districts, such as Detroit and Pontiac, to the upper-middle-class suburbs of Grosse Point and Bloomingfield. Sprinkled between were the state’s many rural districts.

“I asked them not to break ranks on this issue, that our unity was the most important thing,” Flanagan says of the meeting back in December “If one group was tempted to go after the money of another group, then it wouldn’t be long before we would be eating each other’s young.”

The Legislative Council voted down the hold harmless measure with a decisiveness and unity that impressed Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. As a result, she passed over the idea.

One of the rural superintendents taking a keen interest in the debate was John Vaara of the Hancock Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula, who says the coalition building through the Michigan Association of School Administrators made it easier to say no to the additional money. The unified front has helped narrow the funding gap significantly between poor and wealthy districts over the last decade.

“We wanted to stay away from the ‘divide and conquer’ philosophy, even though we do have a lot of differences,” Vaara says. “Ultimately, what we want to have is a fair and equitable system, whether you’re an inner-city school district or a rural school district.”

The 600 superintendents in Michigan may not know each other, but the Legislative Council gives them an insight into important issues.

“As you hear the points made by one group, it educates you,” Flanagan says. “You resist throwing hand grenades. What I say to them is, ‘Ultimately we’re in this together. We’re going to be greater together, rather than apart.’”

Vaara, superintendent in Hancock for 12 years, says his membership in the Michigan Small and Rural Schools Association complements his Michigan Association of School Administrators membership. MASA “covers the waterfront” on issues such as administrative certification and No Child Left Behind, while MSRSA focuses on the issues of smaller schools, Vaara says. In Michigan, that includes school funding in the face of declining enrollment.

Holding the coalition of superintendents together is critical, Flanagan says. Michigan, in the midst of its own school funding crisis, is facing a possible income tax rollback. Flanagan wrote to every superintendent in the state, asking for support.

“We want to hold the coalition together for the longer-term success,” Flanagan says. “Long term, we’re looking to come together with one voice on a formula.”


All in the Boat

Donna Boylan, director of governmental relations and communications at the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, says superintendent alliances have formed to address the school funding problems in Ohio but that as resources have shrunk, the problems are universal.

“At this point, everybody feels we’re in the same boat, paddling upstream,” Boylan says. “Things are getting worse, not better, and the situation is going to reach a critical point in terms of school funding in 2005. We all know that.”

Superintendents tend to be most involved in one of two advocacy groups: the Alliance for Fair Funding, which represents the wealthy districts, or the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, a formal council of governments that filed the original DeRolph lawsuit in 1991 and represents 550 school districts.

The DeRolph case has been pursued through four Ohio Supreme Court rulings that found different aspects of school funding to be unconstitutional, declaring the system was “neither thorough nor efficient” as required under the Constitution. Bill Phillis, a former state education agency official, says the intention of the coalition is not to conflict with BASA, but to do what BASA can’t, which is to pursue the funding issue through the court system.

Phillis was the assistant superintendent for instruction for the Ohio Department of Education when the original DeRolph lawsuit was filed. At the time, Phillis was the legislative liaison to the General Assembly and had oversight of both school finance and school facilities.

“It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to fix the system from the inside of a state agency,” Phillis says. “After 34 years in education, I realized if I wanted to make a difference, I was going to have to do it from a different venue.”

At the time, many superintendents did not consider it proper for school districts to file litigation against the state, Phillis says. And other school systems still benefit under the current school funding system. So it made sense for the coalition to break away and form its own council, which has made its only focus the school finance legislation. It took six years to get the case to court, but the result of the coalition building was an additional $2.3 billion in funding for a comprehensive school building program.

“We operate jointly with other organizations like the Ohio School Boards Association and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. They have filed friend of the court briefs on our behalf,” Phillis says. “But we have the narrow purpose of just the litigation. Their concerns are much more broad than just school finance.”

Boylan says no antagonism exists between the associations. In fact, the two groups are rarely far apart on school funding issues. On some issues that the coalition advocates, BASA remains neutral because of its broader membership. But she also recognizes that “rising tides tend to float all boats” when it comes to finding new solutions.

“It really is just a situation where they were organized differently, for a different purpose,” Boylan says. “They serve side-by-side on our executive board, along the representatives from the 10 different regions in the state.”


Reminding Lawmakers

California, with almost 1,000 school districts, stretches from the urban reaches of Los Angeles Unified to the farming country of school districts like Tulare City and Visalia Unified to the eclectic enclaves of Berkeley and Cabrillo unified school districts.


On one side of the equation are the small and rural school districts, with their declining enrollment and high transportation costs. On the other side are the far larger urban school districts with their high cost of personnel and challenges of language acquisition for their growing multinational student population. Each tugs at the California statehouse, seeking funding.

The Sacramento-based Small School District Association lobbies on behalf of 625 school districts, but those districts serve only 12 percent of the student population in California. When David Walrath, legislative advocate of the Small School District Association, does the math, he sees 80 Assembly members and 40 senators. The boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified School District include 24 members in the Assembly and 12 members in the Senate. Small school districts find it hard to compete on their own, Walrath says.

Even with the various statewide associations in California, rarely do school system leaders view it as a choice of one over another, says Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. Most small and rural superintendents also belong to ACSA.

“For many school districts, it never hurts to have two groups pushing for the same thing,” Wells says. “While some of these school districts are participating in our association, they also participate in associations that are uniquely focused on their needs.”


Opposite Ends

National observers see nothing surprising about rural and small school districts parting ways with their suburban and urban counterparts on issues such as school funding. Rural school districts often are lead plaintiffs in school funding lawsuits and frequently organize to protect themselves, says Marty Strange, policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based Rural Schools and Community Trust in Randolph, Vt. Strange says studies from the Rural Trust show that rural schools tend to perform better in most states than their urban counterparts.


“Whenever money gets tight, whomever is politically weakest and considered expendable is the first to suffer, whether it’s state programs or agencies or school systems,” Strange says. “Because rural school districts are frequently plaintiffs in a lot of these cases, as it was in Arkansas, it’s almost an instinctive reaction on the part of the legislature to either close them out of vindictiveness or to conclude that they have high per-pupil cost, and the only way to equalize spending is going to be to consolidate them.”

Rural and urban districts have stood on opposite ends of other issues, Walrath says. Los Angeles Unified teacher unions lobbied for a 5 percent cap on administrative costs. The formula’s impact was intended to transfer all excess funds to urban classrooms, but it was disastrous for rural districts, given the different economy of scale most face. And larger school districts in California also have lobbied for staff development funding on a per-pupil basis, making it impossible for smaller school districts to put together a comprehensive program. Rural school districts countered that funding should be on a per-teacher basis, Walrath says.

But the rural school districts in California have learned to give and take. Urban school districts supported a special transportation supplement for school districts with fewer than 2,500 students. And rural districts agreed to back special aid supplements for urban district challenges.

What complicates that equation in California is legislative term limits. Many lawmakers have not been around long enough to know or understand rural education concerns, Walrath says. One of his group’s biggest challenges has been to educate and re-educate lawmakers, which is vitally important because almost all of a school district’s funding in California comes directly from the state.

“Quite frankly, given the turnover in the Assembly, it was much easier before term limits,” Walrath says. “That’s one reason they reformed the Rural Caucus in the legislature because we simply didn’t have enough time to educate people on the effect of their policy decisions on the rural and small districts in this state.”

Wells, who ran ACSA’s government relations activities before becoming the executive director, agrees term limits have raised the bar for lobbying and reinforced the need for more than one statewide organization to push the interests of district superintendents. While lobbying is a full-time job, given the California Assembly’s year-round schedule, it has been complicated by term limits.

“You can think that term limits are good or you may think that they’re bad, but there’s no question that term limits have made it more difficult for school districts,” Wells says. “You’ve got icons who have spent a career learning about education and perfecting their knowledge, only to get booted out. You end up with people who have a short-term attitude, and it’s been very hard to get them educated. It may be popular with the voters, but it’s tough on policymaking.”

The San Diego Unified School District belongs to a number of additional coalitions, including the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools and the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools which focuses on school districts with military installations and federal land ownership. Lobbyist Miles Durfee says it’s not a matter of belonging to one alliance or another but a need to create alliances for those issues that matter to your school district.

“The real message is that the alliance is whoever is on your side, and those alliances change from day to day,” Durfee says. “Today we might be working on workers’ compensation issues, and I’m aligned with the chamber of commerce. The next day, we might be working on school funding, and the chamber might be against me. The bottom line is you’re really working to push your issue forward with whoever works with you.”

At the end of the day, Durfee adds, the hope is that you end up with enough people in the room that lawmakers recognize the wisdom of your arguments.

Kimberly Reeves is a free-lance education writer in Austin, Texas. E-mail: klreeves@swbell.net