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Missing: Checks and balances for school councils

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute

By JIM WATERS

The Bluegrass Institute

Masterminds of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) intended by choosing to establish School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils as schools' governing bodies to deal with nepotism primarily in rural areas.

Such favoritism did result in abuse of power, often in smaller districts which some superintendents treated as their own personal fiefdoms by hiring family members and doling out jobs as a form of political patronage.

Little whistleblowing usually occurred considering school districts are the largest employers in many smaller communities; locals fortunate enough to get hired by these districts kept their mouths shut and families fed in areas where jobs were scarce.

But how does it help improve our students' educational opportunities if we merely trade in an old form of dysfunction for a replacement policy that breeds a different kind of fiefdom by removing proven chains-of-command or any semblance of checks-and-balances on these decision-making councils?

KERA gave control of most critical decisions regarding personnel, curriculum and how schools' allocated funds are spent to SBDM councils, which, by law are controlled by teachers and staff.

That same law relegates administrators and parents to minority status.

Teachers even get the final say regarding the hiring of their own bosses.

Office of Education Accountability (OEA) edicts regularly reprimand superintendents and even elected school-board members just for commenting on personnel or spending decisions.

Board members have no say in such matters.

Garrard County school board member Larry Woods was called out in an OEA report in February for "overstepping his authority as a school board member" simply for passing along constituents' comments about who should fill open positions in the district.

So, while Woods is expected to cheerlead for the district, heaven help him if he tries to have any input into the hiring of a new coach or expresses his constituents' desire that a Garrard Countian be hired to fill a guidance-counselor position.

Fayette County school board member Melissa Bacon's proverbial knuckles got rapped like the Sisters used to dole out to misbehaving miscreants in Catholic schools for wanting good people hired and poor performers fired in a district with years of huge achievement gaps between poor minority students and their middle-to-upper class white peers.

Bacon's fellow Fayette board member Amanda Ferguson in November resigned after serving 10 years following an OEA report taking her to task for criticizing the work of that failing district's employees based on her constituents' complaints.

If elected officials can be thrown under the bus with little, if any, consequence or accountability, why even have an elected school board?

The answer, of course, is that the commonwealth's constitution requires an elected entity to collect all those school taxes extracted from hard-working Kentuckians each payday.

However, local citizens are â more likely to reach out to their elected board members with concerns about schools than to some internal bureaucratic council few know about or even consider legitimate.

Besides, isn't it unfair to hold superintendents and school board members accountable for funding, personnel or curriculum matters while denying them the authority needed to address those situations, or at the very least having some reasonable input?

By denying school board members' input, the system, by proxy, denies parental, citizen, taxpayer and voter participation.

Kentucky's current system forces superintendents and board members to lead from behind as they are prohibited by law from influencing SBDM prerogatives unless and until a school sinks all the way to the bottom and becomes a "Priority School."

Charter-school debates often include opponents calling for freeing existing public schools from regulations that tie the hands of teachers and administrators."

Legislators should call their bluff, rid the state of the scourge of KERA's SBDM and reemploy the chosen-leader-answers-to-the-board model used by successful charter schools nationwide.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky's free-market think tank.

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