Commentary

How to Bring Accountability to Public Schools

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“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” – Albert Shanker – President of the United Federation of Teachers [1964-1984] & the American Federation of Teachers [1974-1997]

(There is some dispute over whether Shanker actually said this, but there is no arguing with the thought. To think otherwise would be to believe that United Auto Worker union members organized to advocate for the interests of American car buyers.)

In the last week of April, 2016, Dr. Bill Beardsley of the Maine Department of Education spoke on education policy at the MHPC luncheons in Portland and Auburn.

During the Q&A period that followed his remarks at each event, it was observed that while there are numerous organized professional groups that advocate for adults in the school establishments, yet there is not a single one that advocates “for the children,” otherwise known as the students, and their parents or guardians.

At the state level, we have the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Education Association (the teachers union), the Maine School Management Association, the Maine School Board Association, and the Maine School Superintendents Association. Nationally, there are the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, both of which are teachers unions. Who knows how many others there might be working the hallways of their respective state capitols and the US Capitol in Washington.

The only opposing force I can recall is one that was formed by Michelle Rhee some years back called “Students First.” Michelle was a uniquely courageous and principled school administrator appointed to the position of Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, widely recognized as one of the absolute worst in the country.

As Michelle began working to reform the system, she inescapably found herself getting cross-wise with the teachers themselves, entrenched school administrators, and numerous members of the public and District government. Embarrassment on a major scale was a regular occurrence, and this could not be countenanced. Ms. Rhee “resigned” her position after only three years when the mayor who appointed her was thrown out of office, largely on the basis of her aggressive approach to fixing things. Shortly afterwards, she announced she would be forming a national group to advocate for the students.

Reflecting on the luncheon discussion, I began to ruminate on school system accountability.  Here in Brunswick, the school budget represents approximately $37 million of total municipal expenditures of roughly $60 million, or more than 60% of total spending in spite of the fact that school enrollment has significantly declined in recent years.

I pay $700 a month in property taxes, for which the ONLY directly provided municipal services are trash collection (plus ‘pay per bag’ charges) and winter road maintenance. The 13 houses on my rural lane pay roughly $10,000 per month in property taxes. Out of the 13, only three have school-age children, and one of those sends their children to private school.

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Given those details, I began to ponder ways in which local citizens might begin to push for greater accountability and transparency in their individual school systems. For a few microseconds, I considered approaching a supportive legislator in Augusta to talk about developing and sponsoring legislation that would require this. Given the teachers union and education lobbyists strangle hold on the hallways of our Capitol, I threw cold water on that idea, knowing it had an ice cube’s chance in Death Valley.

The only chance to make headway, I’m afraid, is to work the situation locally, which is likewise a tremendous uphill challenge. So here are some thoughts for discussion on what such a proposal might look like.

To begin with, school unit management (the superintendent and key staff) and the school board chair should be required to make an annual report to the municipal governing body and town citizens in a scheduled, public briefing roughly 3 months before approval of the budget for the coming year. This meeting should be well advertised, and scheduled to accommodate the majority of town residents; not during typical business/working hours.

The following components, as a minimum, should be included in their report:

  • A ten-year financial summary showing total budget amounts; school specific mil-rate and total mil-rate; total enrollment; total spending per-student; teaching staff head-count and total head-count; and reserve fund balances.
    • Summary status of employment contracts and negotiations underway or upcoming. Include head count for health, social worker & counseling staff.
    • Total cost of free/reduced price meal service, and total student count receiving such service.
    • Enrollment projections in use for planning purposes.
  • A detailed review of the physical assets belonging to the school unit and/or used by the school unit, including all educational buildings and attached real estate with related recreation provisions, school buses, and any other assets under use for education purposes.
    • Age and known status of assets
    • Known items of deferred maintenance; upcoming needs
    • Plans for new construction, major renovations, and other capital expenditures
    • Status of all major systems: heating, ventilating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, food prep/service
  • A five-year summary of all measures of student performance and teacher performance that shows trends in each
  • Projected budget levels and capital expenditures for the next five years

In conclusion, it’s safe to say that taking on the extremely powerful education lobby with legislative initiatives is a fools’ errand. They’re a major source of donations supporting political campaigns, and there is no hope of countering the money they spend, which of course, derives from taxpayers.

I want to think that a better informed town council and public, especially when year-to-year trends are reported on, will eventually lead to more rigorous oversight and involvement in school system decision making. Especially when combined with those responsible having to get up in front of their sponsors to advocate for their spending and what it buys.

Perhaps eye to eye contact at a very personal level can have a transformational effect.

About Pem Schaeffer

Pem Schaeffer is a retired engineer who progressed to a position in business development leadership in defense electronics. He lives and writes in Brunswick, Maine, and blogs at: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/ He can be reached at pemster4062@yahoo.com or you can always buy him lunch at an MHPC luncheon. He's easy that way, and he'll still respect you if you do.

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