Thursday, September 13, 2007

Democracy Is Messy

Ithaca Democrats will vote in a Town Supervisor Primary on Tuesday. Since the two candidates are pretty close on the issues, the race has come down to a difference in management style that in some ways mirrors the difference between professional v. political described yesterday. Town Board members believe that the Supervisor, Cathy Valentino, has increasingly become autocratic. She is, self-appointed, the only spokesperson for the Town; she works tirelessly and unilaterally behind the scenes and presents issues tied up with a ribbon as faits accompli. Her opponent, Herb Engman, prefers a system of committees--composed both of citizens and of board members--that will chew over issues and advise the board. Obviously, Cathy's way is more efficient. Herb's way is messy, time-consuming, democratic.

I described school board governance to our county chair once, and she commented that it seemed awfully undemocratic. When I look into how school boards evolved that way, it seems to come down to one guy--John Carver. He is a writer and lecturer on what he terms "policy governance"--copyrighted!--which is essentially the professional model writ large and applied to all kinds of organizations that are not corporate, including school boards. He speaks often of the tension between rubberstamping and micromanaging, and I agree that there's a balance to be found there. But his emphasis is on speaking with one voice.

My board training with NYSSBA never once spoke about representation. It spoke about unity, consensus (which I do believe is a sensible goal), leadership. While the NYSSBA lists these roles for a school board member:
Representative - of the entire community
Steward - of the district’s resources
Leader - of the district
Advocate - for public education;
only Steward and Leader are stressed through board training. I think that's because Representative is difficult to incorporate without breaking out of the consensus mold--or becoming an individual rather than part of a whole. I've read several articles (almost all by former superintendents!) that complain about board members who politicize board meetings. Mostly they're talking about city boards that have real campaigns for board seats, I think, but in some cases they seem to be concerned that the Representative piece of the job is getting in the way of the other, more professional, less messy roles.


Simon said...

There's still this technocratic dream out there, a vision that somehow "professionals" have visions that are brighter and better than the people they (in theory) serve. They certainly know more, and their opinions should be heard without political editing, but the decisions need to come from elected representatives.

I think a lot of it today comes from expectations that everything should run like a business, though people seem to forget just how messy even the most disciplined businesses often are.

Politicians often need professional administrators - but the structures need to make clear who serves who. It sounds like the school board training has been captured by the administrators.

KAZ said...

Captured, co-opted, yes. I keep coming back to "Whom does this serve?" And the answer is clearly not "We, the people" as much as it is the administration of the district. Professional boards serve the corporate structure by giving the illusion of oversight.

Whether this is ultimately harmful, I guess, is a question that hasn't been answered to my satisfaction. Carver says that definitive research on governance has not yet been done. I know that administrators stay longer in districts where they have a good rapport with board presidents. If stability is the goal, perhaps that model is better. But what is the cost?

Sadly, I think most communities are happy to let their legislative bodies do the work quietly behind the scenes. It's only when something goes terribly wrong that they're willing to contemplate change.

Irene likes to tell me, "You're not negative, you're activist." Many of the superintendent-penned articles I've read speak disparagingly of the "activist board member" who mucks up the works. Sigh.