State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman brought school boards to the front of the legislative debate when she started saying out loud what a lot of people had been saying privately for years: Sometimes, they’re the problem.
Eight of South Carolina's tiniest school districts are collectively seeking more than $210 million to consolidate — four times more than what legislators allotted as a carrot for small school districts in the poorest counties to merge on their own before they are forced by the state.
The school district is the biggest employer in many communities, and some school board members see their jobs primarily in terms of securing good jobs for their friends and family, or lucrative contracts for themselves, rather than providing a decent education to all the children. Some simply aren’t up to the job.
Those are the problems behind some of the most controversial parts of the school reform legislation that the House passed this spring and a Senate subcommittee is trying to get ready for debate in January. Chief among them: a plan to let the governor remove the entire school board when the state superintendent takes over the district.
Under the Senate version, once the state achieves its goals, the governor, the state superintendent and the local legislative delegation would appoint a five-member school board, to serve until the state is satisfied that it’s safe to slowly reconstitute the board with elected members. The goal is to prevent the same people who facilitated the district’s failure from taking back over and undoing all the work the state has done to improve things.
We’ve talked about this before, but we haven’t talked about the obvious question this conversation raises: Do we really even need school boards?
It’s not a question that’s come up in the Senate meetings, where lawmakers seem to just assume that of course we need school boards. After all, we’ve always had them.
But when I reached out to Sen. Vincent Sheheen to talk about an alternative to wholesale removal that was being floated by the S.C. Association of School Boards, he started musing about the role school boards play in our state.
Mr. Sheheen, a Camden attorney who serves as vice chairman of the Senate panel, noted that Kershaw County schools don’t have fiscal autonomy because he thinks it’s important for taxes to be levied by the County Council, whose members are better known and which has to balance all the needs of the county. (He’s right about that.)
And if the County Council is providing the local funding for schools, he wondered, how much sense does it make for the superintendent to report to an entirely different board?
“I am not satisfied with the way the system is operated,” the two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee told me. “We ought to look at alternatives. One we ought to consider is kind of a unified governance, where the county administrator hires the superintendents.”
He was quick to say he wasn’t proposing the change. “I’ve never introduced that legislation, and I don’t know if I would,” he said. “But I think it could be considered.”
More than low pay or large class sizes or behavioral problems they aren’t equipped to handle, it's the bathroom break — or lack thereof — that best captures the bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustration that S.C. teachers are feeling.
Of course, it’s already a struggle to convince some legislators that the schools are a legislative responsibility. A change like this could reinforce the dangerous idea that they’re the responsibility of local governments.
Although the school boards themselves will give you lots of reasons we need school boards — the most compelling of which have to do with providing a public forum for parents who want to protest individual and systemic school decisions — the biggest problem with eliminating them might be figuring out how to replace them.
Mr. Sheheen acknowledged the problems with doing anything that could cause the Legislature to take even less ownership of schools. But he might actually have a solution as well.
The first time S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman intervened in tiny Florence District 4, the school board seemed to welcome her.
During a meeting last month of the Senate education panel, he worried that the governor might not know enough about members of the community to appoint temporary school board members in those limited cases where the board would be removed. What, he asked, about leaving that to the state superintendent, who would have been working for years to fix the district, with input from the local legislators?
The suggestion initially sent chills down my spine, because I don’t like the idea of small groups of legislators having any sort of official authority. But as Mr. Sheheen said, they do “play this quasi role between the local and the state.”
Could some version of that idea work as a replacement for school boards? Or would giving more authority to county legislative delegations create more problems than it would solve? Or, perhaps, is there a better idea that we haven’t found yet because we haven’t been looking for it?
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.