The Clark County school board heard an exhaustive evaluation of its policies and practices on Wednesday as part of ongoing governance training led by Balanced Governance founder Thomas Alsbury.
Board members agreed in September to bring Alsbury in to evaluate them after a tumultuous year that has seen school closures due to COVID-19, a tense meeting on Superintendent Jesus Jara, interpersonal conflict between board members and the resulting renewed calls for an appointed school board.
Alsbury, a professor of educational leadership at Seattle Pacific University, evaluated the board through a combination of observations and self-evaluations, comparing the Clark County board to effective school boards throughout the country.
In the self-evaluation portion of Wednesday’s presentation, the seven board members and Jara gave themselves a 5.8 out of a possible 24 points on a series of standards meant to gauge their effectiveness, like community engagement and accountability.
It’s a notably low score, according to Alsbury, but one that’s encouraging as well.
“I’m encouraged because you are in complete agreement with each other,” Alsbury said. “This shows that you were in fact transparent and honest.”
Among the areas in greatest need of improvement are the relationships between board members, Alsbury’s team found, as well as a greater focus on instructional topics rather than managerial questions.
Ultimately turbulence at the board level echoes at the administrative level, Alsbury said, and trickles into school buildings, where it leads to turnover among principals and teachers and impacts student achievement.
“Nobody wants to work under those conditions. The goal posts are always changing,” Alsbury told the board.
In an interview, Alsbury said the most effective school boards strike a balance between the board members’ roles and the roles of district staff, with trustees neither disengaged nor micromanaging. It’s likely that every individual board member falls at different points on that continuum, Alsbury said, and would need to be willing to change.
Part of the evaluation included quizzing board members on how to phrase questions and directions to the district in ways that don’t broach micromanaging or inappropriate advocacy.
The talk of taking over school boards is not new, nor unique to Clark County, Alsbury said.
Local school boards are foundational institutions in the U.S., with roots in the debate between the Founding Fathers about federal control.
“If you watch an old Western, some community member is going to the train station to pick up the school marm — that’s pretty accurate,” he said. “The citizen committee was responsible for hiring a teacher, providing a house, providing supplies.”
As school districts grew in size, they hired a lone employee — the superintendent — to function as the secretary of the board. But that dynamic began to change, Alsbury said, particularly under the model that schools should be run as a business with the superintendent as CEO.
In recent years, some cities have pushed for mayoral control, with the intention of centralizing decision-making and reducing conflict. But in practice, the model didn’t increase student achievement, and the community felt silenced, Alsbury said.
Other communities have adopted models of holding boards accountable for the performance of schools, Alsbury said, with failing schools leading to state intervention or even takeover.
Alsbury said he ultimately believes elected school boards are critical to maintain a direct channel between the community and schools.
“Local boards are local democracy in action. We don’t have a lot of that left,” Alsbury said. “I’m very passionate about maintaining local control, but we have to do it well.”