President's Corner

Who Would Serve a Dysfunctional Enterprise?


Within 15 minutes after his ship hit an iceberg, Captain Smith of the Titanic knew that the ocean liner was going to sink. The evidence was clear and conclusive.

The evidence supporting the contention that the structure by which American public school systems are governed is dysfunctional is equally clear and conclusive. In increasing numbers, highly capable educational leaders have no interest in being superintendents of schools. In almost equally increasing numbers, citizens otherwise committed to serving the public have no interest in being members of boards of education.

Membership on school boards has become unattractive because all too frequently, boards become bogged down in discussions about matters that are strictly managerial and about matters that involve the hiring and evaluation of staff members other than the superintendent. Many citizens have little interest in deciding building maintenance priorities. These citizens also realize they have neither the knowledge nor experience to make informed decisions about hiring and evaluating professional educators.

The superintendency has become unattractive because all too frequently superintendents are held accountable for producing results, yet not given sufficient authority to bring about those results. Educators who would otherwise be interested in school system leadership want no part of being expected to increase student achievement while being told whom to hire to produce that increase.

None of this is good news. Public education is being expected to change radically so that, in turn, it can improve student learning significantly. This expectation cannot be met if the governance of the enterprise is dysfunctional or, even worse, if precisely those who should be board members and superintendents are dissuaded from serving in these positions.

There is, however, a bright side. The remedy for what ails school system governance is as clear and conclusive as the ailment itself. That remedy is a revision of statutes in each state so that the respective roles of boards of education and superintendents are defined clearly in a manner befitting the expertise and function of each.

Specifically, boards of education should be limited by statute to the following responsibilities:


  • Hiring, evaluating and, if necessary, firing the superintendent of schools;



  • Adopting policies for school systems to the extent those policies do not constrict the statutory responsibilities of the superintendent; and



  • Adopting an annual budget for the school system.


    Superintendents should be given complete authority by statute for meeting the following responsibilities:


  • Making all final personnel decisions except for those related to the superintendent's employment;



  • Making all final instructional program decisions;



  • Administering the budget established by the board;



  • Making all final decisions regarding all other management and administrative matters;



  • Assisting the board with the development of policies by making recommendations for policy adoption, deletion and revision; and



  • Assisting the board with the establishment of the annual budget by presenting to the board a recommendation as to what that budget should fund.


    If these statutory changes are put in place, the governance of a school system would become attractive again for capable citizens and educators alike. In addition, the changes would help establish collaborative relationships between the board and the superintendent and between the school system and the community that will ensure the system's abilities to meet the new expectations of our schools. As a result, public education in the 21st century will keep the promise to the American people that it kept in the 20th century.