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A look at pros and cons of an elected school board

Selma will soon vote in an important referendum to decide whether to accept or reject a plan to make its school board elected rather than appointed. Citizens need to know the facts and the pros and cons of their choice.

Alabama law, with some exceptions, made county school boards elected and paid and city school boards appointed and volunteer. The distances between schools and communities in the counties probably explain the difference. Counties also are more likely to elect their superintendents, something that no city systems do. In recent years more city boards have changed to be elected and/or to be paid. Currently, according to Alabama Association of School Board statistics, 27 city boards are paid and 38 are volunteer out of 65 reporting. Four city boards have recently changed to being elected and eight have voted not to become elected for a total of 20 elected city boards, leaving 48 of 68 city boards appointed. Selma is one of ten boards whose members are both appointed and paid.

Nationwide, over 90% of school boards are elected; over two thirds are unpaid, volunteer boards, with board members paying for their own election campaigns. Board members tend to be professionals and business leaders who appreciate the importance of education for their communities and also realize that playing the role of civic leader may gain them new customers and clients.

A study of elected versus appointed boards found the method of selecting board members made no difference in student achievement; the same held true for elected or appointed superintendents. Teachers make the difference, and a great teacher will learn to surmount difficulties posed by a poor superintendent or school board. Both elected and appointed boards may be either good or bad; both may be subject to political influence and may have members more eager to give political rewards than to provide the best education to children. Having good school board members means having enough community members who go beyond wishing for an excellent education system to really working to ensure that the board, superintendent, teachers, and curriculum are the best possible.

What are the pros and cons of an elected versus an appointed board? An elected board has the advantage of making would-be board members seek out the opinions of citizens concerning education and schools and work on communicating with the community. Some believe the elected board member may be somewhat less apt to openly discuss difficult decisions, yet in my experience, appointed board members also respond strongly to public opinion. The community may pay more attention to school issues if citizens must vote on the school board. However, studies show that if board elections are held separately from city, state or federal elections, the turnout is very low and limited mainly to teachers, administrators, PTO leaders and Education Association leaders. Usually citizens can vote for a board member who will advocate for the school their children attend; however, this has the disadvantage that board members may be too turf-oriented, holding other parts of the budget hostage to demands for the schools in their own wards.

Appointed boards have the advantage that each candidate is vetted by a city council committee and must turn in a resume and submit to an interview that they cannot control; the process focuses on qualifications for the job more than on popularity or where in the city the candidate lives. Also the committee is apt to consider the current needs of the board in choosing candidates, making sure, for example, to include some parents and a financial expert. However, it is still possible that candidates may be appointed to the board for political reasons having nothing to do with educational concerns. While both elected and appointed board members serve until their term is up, barring felonies or grave incompetence, the appointed board member is slightly more insulated from political pressure. However, citizens who are unhappy with an appointed board member need only to convince city council members not to reappoint him or her; they have no influence over elected board members who come from other wards.

What are the pros and cons of the proposed election of Selma school board members?

First, the facts: the board members will not be selected according to school zones but according to city council wards with two council wards making one school board ward. Thus, there will be four school board wards; in addition, a chairman will be elected at large, providing a fifth board member to avoid tie votes. For some elementary schools, the majority of students will live in the ward their school is in; for others, such as Edgewood and Payne, the majority will live in other wards.

The school board member districts will be as follows. District 1 will be the West Selma ward 1 and 2 containing Meadowview School. District 2 will be the central and east North Selma wards 4 and 5, which include Selma High, Payne School, and Cedar Park. District 3 will be the old Selma ward 3 and 8, which include Byrd School, School of Discovery, Clark, and Kingston. District 4 will be the Jeff Davis-Summerfield Road wards 6 and 7, which include CHAT Academy, Knox and Edgewood.

The first election will turn out the appointed board and elect every board member, making possible an entirely new board. There will be no term limits as at present. Each board member will serve for four years after the first elected board comes up for election/reelection in two years. Elections will coincide with city council elections, thus assuring greater turnout than is likely for the first election.

There are some disadvantages specific to this plan. First, the current practice of having the board elect its chairperson each year helps insure cooperation between the board and the chair and even between the board and the superintendent. The new plan makes possible a chairman who is at odds with both the rest of the board and the superintendent, but the chair remains in office for four years unless he or she resigns from the board. Second, the purpose of ward elections, to give local people the control of the schools their children attend, is not well served by this proposal since voting districts do not correspond to school districts. (Some might argue, however, that this plan forces board members to care equally about all the schools almost as much as the current plan of appointing board members does.) Third, the timing is bad as we have a new superintendent who is trying to bring about needed improvements to our school system during a time of proration and long-term financial uncertainty. Dr. Obasohan needs some continuity and stability to succeed, and, if retained, the current board will keep some well-trained and experienced members even after the few whose terms are up are replaced (or they may be reinstated).

If the city chooses the elected board option, the current board will continue to serve until the new board is elected; the city council will set the election date, allowing time for qualifying and campaigning. If an appointed board is retained and continues to be a paid board, concerns about the cost of the eleven-member board could be addressed in a later referendum to reduce the size to the normal five members.