Articles in the Governance category

High school yearbooks spark controversy, contrition

1947-yearbook_0028It never fails to amaze me how any little thing can turn suddenly into a big headache for local school board members. A good example? High school yearbooks.

It’s ironic, really. What should be less controversial than a yearbook? It’s nothing more than a bunch of photos of students and teachers, band members, athletic teams, clubs, and sporting events—all worthy of celebration and fond memories.

Yet, every year there’s always a handful of communities that find the high school yearbook a source of controversy.

Thankfully, these are controversies that should be spelled with a little “c”—the kind that are a bit embarrassing, but, in retrospect, can wisely be con-signed to the category of “whoops!” or “doh!”

By way of example, I point you to a recent story in the news blog, The Lookout that offered a few examples:

At Arkansas’s Russellville Middle School, the yearbook’s list of “5 worst people of all time” consigns President George W. Bush to the ranks of such historical bad boys as Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Charles Manson

In West Sacramento, California’s River City High School, the yearbook included a photo of the cheerleading squad with a bit of underwear showing—along with “a screed describing the school’s cheerleading team as being ‘dolled up’ in ‘glorified underwear.’”

Naomi Dillon|June 9th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance|Tags: , |

The suburbs have problems?

HighSchoolClassNewsweek2009I’d been assigned the suburban school district angle. Let me back up. It was March and we were discussing the coverage for our June edition. For those that aren’t aware, the production cycle for magazines is three months ahead of the release. Yes, it’s quite a challenge and a skill to project immediacy from three months ago. Just think of all that’s happened since March, then imagine what will happen in September.

At any rate, we were hashing out the details of our June issue which would feature an in-depth look at education reform through the experiences of three different school districts: an urban, rural, and suburban school system.

My mind went into a tailspin when I learned I’d be profiling a suburban district. Suburbia? What challenges do they face other than population swells and demographic shifts.  It’s rural America and the inner city where cameras always roll and headlines blare “broken system, major disparities.”  Well, I wrong — and right.

By and large, suburban issues tend to center around changes in population, which, in turn, can lead to a host of other issues, not the least of which are growing disparities among their students. These differences can often lead to achievement gaps, which was the case in Montgomery County Public Schools, which I profiled for the cover package.

Montgomery County, the largest school system in Maryland and the 16th largest in the country,  had once been a pretty homogeneous area. The school district was virtually all-white up until 1970.  Today, 37 percent of the student body is white. The rest of the students are a fairly even  mix of black, Hispanic, and Asian students. In addition, the low-income level has risen, as has the ELL population.

Naomi Dillon|June 8th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Diversity, Governance, Leadership, NSBA Publications, Policy Formation|Tags: , |

NYSSBA announces “playbook” to reform state laws for spending and employment

(Republished with permission from the New York State School Boards Association).

Asserting that state law forces school districts across the state to operate inefficiently, NYSSBA unveiled a legislative reform package last month to tackle runaway costs in seven key areas.

The 2011 NYSSBA Essential Fiscal Reform Playbook includes draft legislation to curtail rising health care and pension costs, level the playing field during contract negotiations, impose tighter controls on the teacher disciplinary process, and bring special education costs into line with other states.

“As school districts continue to grapple with the worst fiscal crisis in a generation, they need a new set of rules going forward,” said NYSSBA President Florence Johnson, a member of the Buffalo, N.Y. school board. “Several years of frozen or diminished state aid coupled with the prospect of a local property tax cap call for a new way of doing business.”

“School boards want to optimize resources to more efficiently serve taxpayers and support new practices to improve teaching and learning,” said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer. “Unfortunately, we find ourselves up against outdated state mandates, inflexible rules and expensive procedures that are out of place in today’s world.”

Taxpayers will benefit if these rules are changed, Kremer said. “Taxes are high because school boards are forced to operate inefficiently. Removing barriers to cost-savings is a critical ingredient to reducing school district spending and, by extension, property taxes.”

NYSSBA is looking to reform a provision of a state law to allow school districts to freeze salaries upon the expiration of a contract. The so-called Triborough Amendment would remain intact with the exception of the current provision that guarantees teachers receive step increases under expired contracts.

The Association is also looking to eliminate seniority as the sole factor in layoff determinations. NYSSBA’s proposal establishes new criteria to be considered when making these difficult decisions. In addition to using the “last in, first out” rules, a board of education would be able to consider other criteria under the proposal, such as annual professional performance reviews, the needs of a particular school, and a teacher’s credentials. NYSSBA is continuing its call to streamline the teacher disciplinary process to make it less time-consuming and less expensive.

“School boards are pro-children and pro-jobs,” Kremer said during the news conference. “We want every school to provide a high-quality affordable program, within a safe learning environment, where every employee or volunteer in every school district is the best person for that particular job.”

The 2011 Fiscal Reform Playbook also calls for capping the maximum amount school districts would contribute to a health insurance policy at 85 percent for individual coverage and 75 percent for family coverage. This would bring public employers in New York more in line with the national average across all industries of 81 percent for single coverage and 70 percent for family coverage.

Hoping to cap another rapidly rising expense, NYSSBA has endorsed the Empire Center proposal for New York State to create a Tier VI to the state pension system.

The Empire Center has submitted legislation that would provide new public employees with the option of choosing a pure defined contribution retirement plan or a hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution plan.

And, following the lead of the state Board of Regents, NYSSBA officials said any talk about reducing school spending needs to include a frank discussion about curtailing the costs associated with special education. Special education spending in New York has increased $3.1 billion in just five years, according to the most recent data. There are more than 200 state laws and regulations layered on top of federal requirements. NYSSBA believes an advisory committee should be created to recommend which of those should be continued.

The final piece of the proposal was one that Kremer admitted was a bit “mundane,” but could save schools a significant amount of money – purchasing reform.

NYSSBA wants to see schools given the ability to leverage the purchasing power of large, national procurement cooperatives and contracts entered into by other states and local governments. A national analysis of cooperative purchasing found that “piggy-backing” resulted in 7 percent savings for large agencies and 30 percent for smaller entities. New York is currently one of only two states that do not allow schools to use out-of-state or national cooperative contracts.

“If the governor and the Legislature truly want to make public education more affordable and effective, they should look to enact these reforms as soon as possible,” added Kremer.

The entire playbook can be found on NYSSBA’s homepage at

erandall|June 7th, 2011|Categories: Educational Finance, Governance, School Boards, School Reform|

The week in blogs

It’s the good elementary school teacher who tells her students: “It’s Okay to ask questions if you don’t understand.” It doesn’t mean you’re dumb; there could be many reasons why you’re lost.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a strong advocate for public schools, seems to have taken that axiom to heart. In a sometimes darkly humorous video clip posted on This Week in Education, he shows that sometimes you can’t follow what someone is saying (in this case, someone testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce) because, well, she isn’t making any sense.

“What are you telling me?” proclaims a somewhat exasperated Miller, after a witness attempts to explain that all those ill-defined private Education Management Organizations (EMOs) that are increasingly running public charter schools really are accountable to their public boards (even though they typically withhold the most basic information from them) because, well, they should be accountable — and, doggone it, it’s just the right thing to do. (Or something like that; I didn’t get it either.)

“I don’t understand what you’re telling me.” the congressman deadpans.

Watch it. Laugh. And maybe — weep.

Speaking of accountability, in a provocative Op-Ed in the New York Times, author and education historian Diane Ravitch says that a lot of the dramatic short-term gains of charters “reconstituted” schools, and other highly touted programs “are the result of statistical legerdemain.” That drew a sharp response by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter called Don’t Believe the Critics Education, Education Reform Works.

And what do the kids think about this whole accountability thing? We can’t speak for all of them, of course, but the blogger “Miss Malarkey” has provided a helpful Top Ten list of “comments made by my third graders” during their first ever New York State tests.

My favorite: “Wait, is this the real test?”

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Lawrence Hardy|June 3rd, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Curriculum, Dropout Prevention, Governance, Policy Formation, School Reform, Student Achievement, Teachers, Week in Blogs|

Webinar explains value of local control

Whether you’re talking about raising student achievement, spending local tax dollars wisely, or ensuring that children are educated with a nod to community values, the importance of local school control is all too clear.

But it wouldn’t hurt school board members to speak out more forcefully about this reality.

Those were some of the messages delivered during NSBA’s recent National Affiliate webinar, “We are here to stay! … A discussion about school boards and the importance of local control.”

One of the big advantages of local control—through the local school board—is that it ensures that decisions about educating children are made as close to the community as possible, said co-presenter Anne Byrne, who serves as president of the Nanuet Union Free School District and is a member of NSBA’s Board of Directors.

Local control ensures that the community has a say in how local tax dollars are spent, how much emphasis is put on 21st century skills versus music and drama, and whether graduation requirements will go beyond state minimum requirements, she added.

Local decision-making also means more accountability. Unlike state and federal policymakers who legislate mandates from afar, Byrne said, local school board members “are very accessible … you’re questioned at school events, on the ball field, in your houses of worship, and definitely in the supermarket … Everyone knows your telephone number, and they know where you live. You can’t get more accessible than that.”

It’s also important to remember that local school boards are unique in that their mission is solely devoted to student learning, Byrne added. State legislators, municipal mayors, federal officials, and charter school entrepreneurs can seek a greater stake in education decision-making, but school boards “are unique because education is not just a line item in the budget. It is the only item. We are unique in that we are single-minded and single-focused . . . we are the voice of public education.”

That voice is particularly important when it comes to raising student academic achievement, she said. Using data for decision-making, setting high academic goals and standards, and holding educators accountable are among the many ways that school boards can prove a powerful force in improving a school district’s success in teaching children.

Evidence of that is found in the Iowa Association of School Boards’ Lighthouse Study, which “shows very clearly that not only do school boards matter, but they are integral to student achievement,” Byrne said. “School boards do make a difference.”

For all of that, criticism of local school boards continue, and over the years, state and federal mandates increasingly have eroded the authority of local officials to make decisions on behalf of their schools. To slow that trend, Byrne said, school board members must become more advocacy-minded.

“Advocacy is one of the most powerful tools we have as school board members because we are elected officials—elected by the same people who elected all of our other public officials,” she said. “And we should use that power.”

The problem, of course, is that school boards don’t speak out enough, she said. But there is “strength in numbers,” so local school boards must reach out to their state school boards associations and get more involved. “You must get involved. You must advocate. You must be on the front lines. That is the only way to stop the erosion of local control.”

A school board’s communications effort also must reach down into the local community, suggested webinar co-presenter Steve Lamb, a leadership services specialist with the Oregon School Boards Association. It’s important, he said, that school boards are very clear about what they’re trying to achieve—and about their progress toward that achievement.

School boards also must speak out to their communities about the importance of protecting local control, Byrne added. School boards must “get the message out to the public that it is important to keep things local.” School boards “will be a thing of the past if we don’t get our message out.”

That’s a daunting task, but Byrne said help is available.

“Your state association is the best place to start,” she said. “They are well-versed in just about any topic.” The NSBA annual conference, along with research available at NSBA’s Center for Public Education, also are places to turn for good information.

But use that information, she said. Get out there and tell the world what it needs to hear. “We all know that communications is key to ensuring that the importance of local control is understood by all parties: the local community, state stakeholders, elected federal officials. Communicate, communicate, communicate, and communicate some more.”

An archive of this webinar and related resources are available at:

Del Stover|June 2nd, 2011|Categories: Educational Legislation, Governance, Multimedia and Webinars, School Boards|

Educational content abounds in kids TV shows, really

“That’s a baby show!” my 7-year-old protests as I’m surfing through the kids’ channels and land on something she feels is beneath her.

But studies show you can learn a lot from a “baby show,” especially if you’re a preschooler or kindergartener and a regular viewer of the PBS KIDS series Martha Speaks.


Naomi Dillon|June 1st, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Educational Research, Governance, Student Achievement|Tags: , |

Technology enables Chicago school to take learning worldwide

Newly-elected Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has promised to fix the city’s broken school system. But as this video illustrates, plenty of school successes already exist in the Windy City.

Naomi Dillon|May 31st, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Leadership, Student Achievement|Tags: , |

How ambitious is too ambitious?

SampleIt sounds great in theory: Raise standards—and students will rise to the occasion.

But is that always the case?

That question currently is under debate in Fairfax County, Va., where some parents are challenging the plans of county school officials to phase out many honors courses.

School officials say the move makes sense. They want more students—particularly minority students—to test themselves to the fullest by enrolling in Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

“We’ve found that traditionally underrepresented minorities do not access the most-rigorous track when three tracks are offered,” Peter Noonan, Fairfax County’s assistant superintendent for instructional services, told the Washington Post. “But when two tracks are offered, they do.”

So, in schools where an AP class is offered in a subject, officials plan to discontinue any parallel honors courses.

Not all parents see the decision as that simple. Without that middle ground course offering, opponents say, some students will decide that AP courses are too challenging academically or will demand more work than they’re willing to take on.

For those students, the only alternative remaining will be standard track courses. And some will choose to “dumb down” their education with less-academically challenging classes.

Enough parents are raising concerns that the school board has agreed to review its decision, but it’s unclear whether supporters of honors courses can resist what the Post describes as “a national trend to reduce the number of ‘tracks’ for students.”

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|May 26th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Curriculum, Governance, Student Achievement|Tags: , , |

Schools, the cornerstone of a community

800px-LittleRedSchoolhouse1913-RestoredIf you’re planning on coming to music and arts night at my daughter’s elementary school, better get there early — way early – because it’ll be standing room only.  And that’s five or 10 minutes before the show even starts.

“Parent involvement run amok!” I like to call it, and, of course, I’m being facetious, because it’s wonderful that so many parents in this Washington, D.C., suburb, care so deeply about their children’s education and that of others in their community.

It’s not like that everywhere. And that’s not because parents in inner city Newark, N.J., or Cleveland, or Detroit,  or St. Louis don’t care about their children and their communities.  But it’s hard for many parents to make it to school events when they’re working two jobs and just trying to pay for food and rent.

My point is this: Our elementary school has become a “community school” of sorts by default.  The parents make it that way.  But schools in many areas – the ones that most need to be vibrant centers of their communities – these schools need our help and financial support more than ever.

That’s the message that the Coalition of Community Schools and its supporters across the country will be emphasizing at the National Community Schools Advocacy Day, June 10 and 11 in Washington. The Coalition is rallying in support of three bills in Congress that would make community school principles a centerpiece of any reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

A community school is one that is concerned about the “whole” child and his or her environment. And it either houses or has links to community resources that address family needs.  A model school I wrote about four years ago, George Washington Community School in Indianapolis, includes a health clinic, a mental health clinic and about 50 partnerships to support families and the community.

Naomi Dillon|May 25th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Policy Formation, School Climate|

Life in Real Time

201323_10150163939134893_26415584892_6473475_7572509_oLast month, everywhere I looked during NSBA’s Annual Conference, officials from Missouri’s Joplin Public Schools were talking about Bright Futures. The district won this year’s Magna Award grand prize for the program, which works to build partnerships among schools, community members, businesses, and agencies to serve students in need.

Today, the immediate future is not looking as bright, and the entire Joplin community is in need.

On Sunday, a massive tornado struck this town of nearly 50,000, killing at least 116 people and injuring more than 1,100. It is the highest death toll from a single tornado since 1953.

The event was the latest in a series of devastating spring tornados that have pounded communities across the Southeast and through the Midwest. Just four weeks ago, 315 people were killed when a series of tornadoes struck in five states: Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia.

According to news reports, the late afternoon twister destroyed three schools, leaving two others and the central office seriously damaged as it ripped through the middle of this city 160 miles south of Kansas City. Graduation ceremonies for Joplin’s Class of 2011 were wrapping up at Missouri Southern State University when the tornado struck around 5:30 p.m. The high school itself was destroyed.

Kathleen Vail|May 24th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Dropout Prevention, Governance, NSBA Publications, School Buildings|
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