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New York City
May 2001

Boards of Education Presidents Across the Country
by Sarah Elzas

School Boards are institutions that can conjure up plenty of images of political squabbling, forced ideologies and bureaucracy, especially in large, urban cities. While these systems sometimes seem to have a life of their own, they are still made of up individuals—superintendents, chancellors, board members. Each person may have his or her own agenda and wants to see children educated in a certain way. It is these different approaches toward what constitutes “good” for children that make urban education reform so complicated, but also what makes the debates so complex and intriguing.

“Whose children do we cherish?” asks Genethia Hudley-Hayes, the President of the over 722,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) since 1999, putting into emotional terms the questions facing large school districts: How are programs going to be funded with limited resources? Whose programs will be funded? And ultimately, who is going to decide?

In New York City, Ninfa Segarra, a Board member appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in May of 1994, was voted by the Board in a contentious election in which two of the seven members abstained, to fill the remainder of the term that expires June 30.

The election of Segarra and the ensuing drama—Queens and Manhattan borough presidents asking their appointed members to step down because of their voting—underscored the highly charged, political atmosphere that characterizes the New York City BOE these days.

But in some other large school districts across the country, consensus rather than conflict seems to be the order of things. Run by people who are or have been CEOs or managers in other companies, districts such as Houston and Boston have been able to come to some sort of agreement.

Jeff Shadwick, president of the Board of Education of the Houston Independent School District (HISD), likens his organization to that of a corporation. “All employees work for the CEO—the superintendent,” he explains. The School Board, like a board of trustees, appoints the CEO and “holds him accountable.” They stay out of the superintendent’s way because, “when trustees take control, that’s when things go bad.”

Shadwick, a business bankruptcy specialist lawyer, describes his nine-member board as very diverse—racially as well as in experience—yet able to come to agreement. “We are very deferential to each other,” he says. Houston had its “era of disagreement” about five or ten years ago, according to Shadwick, when battles were fought over privatization, decentralization and organization. But things settled down “once people saw that these things worked—privatization saved money, decentralization gave parents a say. We are going through an era of harmony.”

In Boston before 1992, School Committee members were elected by districts at large, explains Dr. Elizabeth Reilinger, the Chair of the seven-member Committee and CEO of Crittenton Hastings House in Boston. Then, a referendum was passed giving the mayor the power to appoint members from candidates presented by committees of teachers, parents, the teacher’s union and members of the business community.

“In the past, an elected School Committee position was seen as a first step towards a political position,” says Reilinger. “Now there is more opportunity and incentive to come to consensus than there would be on an elected committee.” She stresses that consensus does not mean the Committee always votes the same way, but “a thread of pragmatism runs through the Committee. It is important to understand that you aren’t going to make changes overnight,” she says. Reilinger runs her committee with a “facilitative rather than an adversarial” approach.

Like Houston, Atlanta has an independent school board which, according to Dr. Mitzi Bickers, President of the Board, is key for them to dedicate themselves on the “education of children,” a “core business” that is too important “to be part of a larger puzzle of urban issues.” Being independent allows the Board to avoid being “put in the position of having to compete for attention and budget dollars with other important functions of government, such as public safety.”

Already, on a the basic logistical level of school board organization, different cities have completely different approaches. While Reilinger says that mayoral appointment avoids the politicization of school board positions in Boston, Bikers says that an independent school board “draws individuals specifically interested in serving the needs of children.”

If consensus is the goal, it is the President’s role to make it happen. For five years before joining the Board of the LAUSD, Hayes was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles. There, she learned “coalition building” and “collaborative engagement with a variety of stakeholders to develop common purpose.”

But she describes herself as “collaborative to a point.” As president, she uses her leadership to build coalitions in order to accomplish stated goals. “Building consensus on a board with a 7-0 voice is important,” explains Hayes. “It sends a good message to the system that the board is committed fully to any policy it creates.” During her presidency, Hayes says she has managed to find that agreement about 75 percent of the time, and on important issues, 100 percent of the time.

Ultimately, all the coalition building amounts to one thing: “How does this help us do a better job of educating students?” asks Hayes.

Beyond their structure and organization, school boards deal with implementing policies, from bilingual education programs, to teacher salary contracts, to testing plans and school choice—charters and vouchers. Testing is a hot issue all over the country. Only recently has New York state required all students to pass the Regent’s exams to graduate high school. New York City school children take a variety of assessment tests through elementary and junior high school.

In Boston, this year marks the first year that results from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System Test (MCAS) are counted towards students’ graduation. Opponents predicted a surge in the need for remediations and holding students back for the tenth graders who do not pass the test. Last year, 34 percent failed the English portion, and 45 percent failed the math section, according to the Boston Globe. Despite these statistics, Reilinger supports the tests. “It has never been a requirement before, so it was not taken seriously,” she explains. The test, she says, is “an invaluable assessment test, a way to get a handle on where our students are.”

Houston has also embraced testing. Two years ago HISD started testing each grade beginning in the first grade. Students take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a “norm-referenced test,” meaning that students must achieve a certain set standard, not based on relative scores. If a student does not pass, he or she will attend summer school. “We have found tests to be helpful,” says Shadwick.

Shadwick feels that along with testing, decentralizing individual schools’ budgets has provided insight into schools’ performance. “We are turning our 285 schools into 285 private schools,” he explains of HISD’s new decentralization plan. “Their budgets are set by how many students they can attract.” Each child has a money amount attached to him or her, with special needs students—special education, bilingual—getting more funding. Thus, if a school does not attract enough students, it loses money, and this also alerts the system that the school is not meeting parents’ or the community’s expectations. “In effect, this is the public school option of vouchers,” says Shadwick.

Vouchers are another hot topic in education—one that makes Hayes, among others, upset. “I am not in favor of vouchers, brought forth in any form,” she states firmly. “Once money is lost from the public school system, it will never be returned.” LAUSD does have one of the most extensive magnet school programs in the country, she says. “This is one form of parental/student choice within the public school setting.” The district has also embraced charter schools.

School Board presidents are often not the ones in the spotlight—or put on the hot seat, depending on the issue—when the media or the public looks at a school district. Usually the superintendent—or chancellor—gets the attention. But it is important to remember that the superintendent is there because of the Board, and ultimately (we hope) the Board is there because of a commitment to children.

Segarra, in a statement she made about the NYCBOE election, said “The most important part of our work is not down here in this election, it’s the work we do to make sure that our children have the best education possible.” And even in this contentious election, Board members abstained from voting all together rather than vote against the new president.


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.


©1997 Susan May Tell,
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