The Strong Superintendent school board – Part 2

Published March 27, 2012 by justicewg

A critique of the board’s philosophy

Let’s examine the board’s theory that a strong superintendent is good for the school. Later I will have many examples of how the school board has failed by adopting this theory. Right now I want to have a high level discussion of the strong super. Why would board members want this? What could go wrong?


The Technocratic board

The board might argue that the superintendent job works better as a technocracy. They believe that the superintendent is like a doctor for the school, a highly specialized profession where the correct diagnosis and cure is the domain of the experts.

There is a complete ecosystem of consultants, theorists, and educational gurus who all have ideas about the best way for a super to run a school. The idea that a strong super should run the school is not new, an analogy would be the way that high level surgeons are given special treatment in hospitals.

Letting the experts run the system does provides the best outcome in many technical cases. The complexity of the legal and financial issues that face a school super are not to be under estimated.

There is a large marketplace of experts who consult for school systems and provide everything from legal opinion to suggested wording for school policy. Grandview has long used outside consultants for policy, at the present a company called NEOLA consults for the district.

The down side of technocracy

These consultants companies might be viewed like fast food franchising. Although Grandview doesn’t have a flashing sign in front that says “NEOLA brand education”, it might as well. The student handbooks of NEOLA schools on the whole are like policy manuals handed down from the bosses at the top. Small changes might be present in each school, but the general tone of the policy is as consistent as the french fries produced in a Burger King.

There is a wide variance in what the “right” policy consists of for individual schools. Both the super and board members are supposed to craft policy that fits the specific needs of Grandview. But there is a conflict caused by suggestions proposed by parents, and the legally blessed and paid formulas given by NEOLA. This conflict can be lessened by limiting the input from parents.

If the school board intentionally cut off opinion gathering from the public, in favor of the pre-tested policy created by consultants, they are not serving the community. They have a distorted view of what the community wants, because they hear so little from the community.

All power rests with one person

Imagine if you had a job where the boss gave you pretty much full power to run things as you saw fit, and ran blocking to keep away critics. Sounds good! But that kind of power is not good for the soul.

Instead of working for agreement and reasoning with subordinates, the easy way to end all discussion is just to say “because I said so”. Dealing with critics from outside is simple – they have no power, why bother with more than a cursory reply? And if working for consensus in the community is viewed as “empowering troublemakers” by the board, it will not be done.

Former super Allen was treated with the hands-off philosophy by the board, and although he didn’t have any newspaper headline scandals, the erosion of his judgment was apparent. One example – he felt perfectly fine with proclaiming that income from the cell towers on the football field belonged to the school, not the taxpayers. He thought that the cell tower income was “board money” and could be used for projects without public input. That’s a bizarre argument, but with the full support of the board, he was free to make the claim. I have a feeling more years working with this board would have lead to even more strange actions by Allen.

So far there have been none of the big policy disputes that fill school board meetings with angry parents during the present superintendent’s time at the school. O’Reilly has been a low profile manager, but he has changed his public persona in the short time he has been with the school. His letters to the community during the first year of his employment were filled with requests to hear from the public and assurances they would have his ear. The most recent letters in the papers have no mentioned of listening to parents.

It’s not his money

Keeping costs and the mills down at the school is an important issue for the residents of the city, and it should be a priority for the superintendent. But cutting costs makes a superintendent’s job hard with no upside for him. If the board rewarded the super for making cuts, he would have some motivation, but this board has never done that. It would conflict with the hands-off rule. Is it any wonder that Grandview trades off with Bexley for the highest voted millage in the county?

Part of the SSG’s beliefs is that the super should be highly paid, in order to buy his loyalty to the school. They also push for high raises for other administration personnel, something that is difficult to justify in a small school district like Grandview. Is it any wonder that teachers have felt they deserve equal treatment, and pushed for higher wages in their negotiations (the school had to use a state mediator for the first time in 2003).

Next – documenting the problems in the past

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