Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Political v. Professional Models

I've been thinking a lot about school board governance, which seems to me to fall into two models--the political, in which individual Board members are linked to their constituents, and the professional, in which the Board as a whole is affiliated with the administration of the school. I've only served on the latter,* although clearly, philosophically, I tend toward the former. I think Ithaca's Board is a local example of the former, although perhaps there's a tension there, and some parts of the Board lean one way, while others lean the other. Some people view the contentious nature of Ithaca's Board as meaning the Board is dysfunctional. I think, instead, that the Ithaca Board is highly functional and quite effective, and that their public disagreements tend to encourage community participation, which is desirable, not harmful, at least in the long run.

The questions that arise for me are these:
1) Is participatory and/or representative democracy part of the picture? Should it be?
2) Can a professionally-oriented board ever be truly objective? (This is especially important when it comes to contract issues, I suppose.)
3) What does "effective" mean when you're looking at board governance?
I'll be thinking and writing a lot more about this in the days to come.

* I think the fact that we were a professionally-oriented Board made the divisions that occurred during the small-schools debate far more damaging than they would have been otherwise. In essence, the Board fell apart for a few years because the issue could not be addressed using the existing model.


Anonymous said...

When I think of the elected boards (schools, county, city, town, and also legislative)I really believe that the Ithaca board has been the most effective. I really believe that more residents opinions are being voiced. This is evident in the discussions that arrise, the board turnover, and the number of people that come to the meetings (plus the number of people that come out to vote). I get the feeling that most boards would be very happy if no one came out to vote. Many of the local boards are made up of people who (once elected), feel that they are above everyone else and that their opinions are the only opinions that count. They forget that individuals elected them. Decissions are made behind closed doors, events are swept under the table, and nothing ever gets done. Status quo, and get re-elected is the name of the game. Don't rock the boat. There are many local boats that need to be turned over. Term limits for all elected positions.

Simon said...

Temperamentally, I almost always would prefer things to run by consensus, which is usually leads to the 'professional' model you describe.

Unfortunately, I don't think that approach scales well to deal with decision-making that affects lots of people, and you're right that when it breaks, there's potential for a lot of problems - people feel betrayed.

When it works, the professional model can make it much easier for a baord to get along internally and to work with its staff. Unfortunately, there's an inherent conflict between that model and having elected boards (and budgets). When there are constituencies (often called 'voters') and when there are contentious issues, the professional model is way too brittle.

The critical advantage of the political model is that conflict is understood as part of the conversation. People learn that disagreement happens, and regularly, and that it doesn't have to be the end of the world, or of working relationships. (In some important ways, that feels more "professional" to me.)

I also don't think any board can be "objective" - I'd like to see that word disappear from these conversations. Whether a board effective or not seems to me a judgment that their voters get to make regularly.

(Well, they do as long as elections actually function...)

KAZ said...

(Well, they do as long as elections actually function...) And as long as there is actually some competition for seats, which all too often does not happen. The more conflict, of course, the more people tend to want to run. I live in fear of the legislative body that thinks, "All must be well, no one wants to replace us," as though apathy is a positive goal.