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Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Why Local Governments Lose Touch with the People, Part III

There's a structural and philosophical reason why the public often feels that its public schools are detached and unresponsive. It involves two different views of the proper role of the people's elected representatives. I'll explain here by looking at my own Alpine School District.

This is the third and final part of my discussion of elected local legislative bodies whose proper role is infringed by the executive branch of their governments. Part I explained the problem, drawing examples from the national level. Part II suggested some symptoms you might see, if it's happening in a local government near you, which is likely.

The classic American definition of tyranny is taxation -- or, more broadly, legislation -- without representation. This can occur where there is no representative legislature at all -- a rare condition in the United States -- but also where elected legislators do not or cannot act in their full representative, legislative, and oversight roles. The latter problem is most deeply ingrained in public school districts.

As we proceed, please do not jump to unwarranted conclusions. I am not about to reveal some deep, dark conspiracy, which hides itself behind closed doors. In my school district, publicly available documents illustrate the problem quite clearly. Nor am I hostile to or critical of all the people who work in my district. Structurally and philosophically, the system is deeply flawed, but there are many fine teachers and administrators in the system, who achieve excellent results despite the flaws.

Case Study: The Alpine School District

I live in Utah's Alpine School District, which is comparatively large. Many good things happen here. My children have had only a few poor or unprofessional teachers; many excellent teachers; and more than their share, perhaps, of the stellar sort of teacher who changes lives. Most principals and other administrators we've encountered have been conscientious and have met a reasonable standard of professionalism.

Yet, somehow, many parents and other voters find district officials to be detached and uninterested in their concerns and priorities. There is a clear structural and philosophical reason for this: The executive branch, the district's bureaucracy, has usurped much of the legislative branch's proper role. The system generally has lost sight of the school board's representative, policy-making, and oversight functions. Small wonder that it feels unresponsive to the people.

This problem is so deeply rooted in the culture of my local public schools (among others) that the following claim is controversial here: The school board is a legislative body of representatives whom the people have elected to govern the public schools in their behalf. Pin them down, and the other side declares that a school board should be like a weak corporate board, which chooses the CEO carefully and helps out where it can, but was never meant actually to govern a school district in any larger sense.

To illustrate the problem in the Alpine School District, we'll look briefly at two documents: the school board's Code of Conduct and an article called "About the Board," both of which are available at the Alpine School District web site.

Code of Conduct

You may want to read the  Code of Conduct before we proceed; it's just one page. As you read, please remember that political power comes from the people. We delegate it to our various governments. We elect representatives to oversee these governments and to make laws and policies and impose taxes. (For more discussion of popular sovereignty, see Part I.)

For this Code of Conduct to be official and binding, either the board itself would have to adopt it on the record in an official vote, or it would have to be imposed by a higher authority, such as the people's representatives in the state legislature. Neither of these ever happened. The administration suggested the code, and it came to be regarded as official, without a school board vote. It has since been amended a few times, also without an official vote.

Since the board itself didn't adopt it officially, and it wasn't imposed by some higher entity with the requisite authority, it cannot be official or binding. This is good, because there's a substantive problem, too.

What the code actually says is not the problem. What it does not say makes it unsuitable for a governmental legislative body elected by the people.

It says that board members are to "represent the Board of Education with dignity and integrity." That's fine. So is the dictum, "Represent the needs of all students." But there's a higher, larger duty which goes completely unmentioned: to represent the people in governing the people's schools. Without this, the code is inadequate and inappropriate.

Board members are to "help focus meetings on important matters, remembering that the student is always our most important matter," and "continually ask what is best for children." In fact, the children are most of the reason we have schools. But a body of the people's elected representatives has several other major concerns: What is the law (or policy)? What should it be? What is best for the taxpayers, the community as a whole, the parents, the teachers, the staff? The people's elected representatives represent far more than just the students. In fact, it's not the students who elect them.

Board members are to speak their perspectives courageously, the code says, but "when the decision is made," they are to "support the Board and Administration." I agree to a point. A legislator who loses a vote generally should not run around actively undermining the body's decision. The most compelling reason for this restraint is respect -- not for the board or administration, but for the sovereign people, a majority of whose elected representatives voted another way. Beyond this, a board member should not feel any obligation to pretend to agree, or to keep silent about disagreeing on an important issue.

The final item in the code reads, "Achieve Unity and Trust," and its first bullet point says, "Show unity as a board." I'll come to these shortly. Meanwhile, two other bullet points merit scrutiny.

"Have faith in the administrators." I'd feel slightly better about this, if the administrators felt and codified a reciprocal need to have faith in the people and their legitimate, elected representatives.

"Have safe atmosphere to express and ask questions." Besides needing some proofreading, this line rings hollow in a district where board members who publicly disagree are reprimanded.

Legislative Unity Is Dangerously Overrated

Back to that unity.

We yearn and strive for unity in many settings. A healthy marriage, family, congregation, corporate board, or athletic team is unified, at least in the essentials. But an elected legislative body -- city council, school board, or otherwise -- which places too high a premium on unity is profoundly unhealthy. Because it is a body of the people's elected representatives, in a sense it should not be any more unified that the people it represents. I once wrote:

In our politics, authority does not come from a single point. . . . It comes from the people -- all the people -- and "We the People" rarely agree completely on anything. We have many different and legimate ideas, values, perspectives, interests, backgrounds, circumstances, and fears. They all need to be heard and considered. When this happens, our complex political processes are surprisingly good at balancing everything to create a more or less functional government.

. . . The people need to see that their views and others' views are voiced, considered, and balanced in a reasonable way. They need to see that they are represented, not just governed. If they don't see this happening, they tend to assume that it isn't happening, and who's to say they're wrong about that?

Civility, decorum, and respect are always in order, but there is danger in demanding unity where it doesn't belong.

It's Not an Accident

The second revealing document is entitled, "About the Board." It both defends and illustrates the problem. It says:

There are many governance models from which the Board could choose to operate. We have chosen a collaborative governance model which means we work together with the Superintendent and Business Administrator while respecting defined stewardships.

There follows some discussion of the meaning and bounds of this "collaboration."

Again, there are substantive problems. The board's role as the people's representatives, elected to govern the school district, is not mentioned. In fact, t his "collaborative model" is what the public education establishment prefers to a proper representative, legislative model. It divides and tames the board. It dramatically reduces the consequences for the system of being unresponsive to the people.

The procedural problem here is almost stunning. This document says, "We have chosen a collaborative governance model" (my emphasis). In context, "we" could only be the board. The only way the board can act officially is through motion, second, and vote. There was never an Alpine School Board vote to adopt a "collaborative governance model."

The choosing was done years ago by the executive branch, the district administration. The choice constituted a fundamental, structural departure from a proper representative form of school district government; it built a barricade between the people's elected representatives and most of their proper legislative role. The school board acquiesced to this bloodless coup. I assume they did not realize that they were abdicating much of the authority the people had granted them.

In the American pattern of government, there is no way to construe a school district's executive branch as having the authority to strip the legislative branch of most of its power and effectively to legislate in its place. Had there been a vote, one could even have questioned the legislative branch's authority to make such a fundamental change in the district's form of government.

What Next?

To describe the problem in three blog posts has taken me almost 5000 words. This is beyond the attention span of some readers, most voters, and many elected representatives. I don't know how to reduce this argument to a sound bite and still make it effective in a political climate where many people perceive any criticism of the public schools as outright opposition to all that is right and good in the world, beginning with their children and their favorite teachers.

Yet we the people need our elected representatives, our school board, to reassert our authority over the school district. This means persuading existing board members, where possible. It means electing and defending candidates who understand these matters and have strong spines and thick skins. Neither finding, nor electing, nor defending them will be easy. The opposition is already strong and well organized, and it is highly motivated when challenged. As the opposition has known for a long time, this is for the ball game.

I hope someday to see the Alpine School Board itself originate and pass a resolution repudiating the collaborative model. This could be combined with legislation explicitly adopting a proper legislative, representative model of governance, acknowledging that the people are sovereign and that the elected board members are to govern the district in the people's behalf. Then the board will want to adopt officially an appropriate code of conduct to replace the inadequate one it never actually adopted. It will also need to modify some rules, procedures, and practices so that they, too, are appropriate to a governing body of the people's elected representatives.

A word to the wise: We who pursue this reform cannot afford to waste time, discredit ourselves, and alienate masses of potential supporters by throwing around angry accusations of socialism, communism, or Marxism. If we solve the problem with representation, other problems will either take care of themselves or at least be much easier to solve. If we don't, any official action to expunge social democracy from the district's official values, for example, will be merely cosmetic.

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