WONK TODAY: Grow the School Board

A semi-regular deep dive into city policy and arcana. Today's question: "Can the Asheville City School Board be expanded to include more diverse voices? What other changes could the city make?"

(Rich's boy, doing his thing)

Thirty-seven people applied for three open seats on the Asheville City School Board last week. (Well, thirty-eight, but that's another story.) In coming weeks, city council will select candidates from the pool to interview; then sometime in late February or March, they'll pick three of them to join the two remaining board members. Together, the five will have broad authority over hiring the next superintendent and new administrators at Asheville Middle and Asheville High to how to handle upcoming school reorganizations, what to do about SILSA and the middle school in Montford, and much more.

Which made us wonder: Why are there only five people on the board? Other city boards with (ahem) considerably less power have a dozen or more members. What would be different if the school board were bigger?

To answer the hard part first: The board could be more diverse and representative of the city. Of the five committee members at the start of this year, four are white and one is African American. There is no Latino member or other ethnicity represented. Two who are leaving are parents of children in the school system. (Shaunda Sandford, who remains on the board, is also a parent. Departing Vice Chair Matt Buys says he's leaving due to the time commitment. nb: I feel ya.) Two board members are retired teachers. None is or was previously an administrator in the school system. None live in South or East Asheville.

All of that is fairly common for Asheville committees, including city council. The city struggles to recruit volunteers from low-income neighborhoods, younger candidates, parents and people of color, to work that carries heavy time commitments and many daytime meetings. Applicant pools tend to skew to retirees and professionals from North and, lately, West Asheville. In this regard, the school board, which until recently counted Gene Bell and now-commissioner Al Whitesides as members, does better than most.

(It's worth saying here that the average U.S. school board size is 5 to 7 members. There's some research, too, suggesting a 5 to 8-member board is the most effective. More members may mean scheduling problems or extra organizing work for the Chair, or that not all members get time to have their views aired. Also worth noting the effectiveness of school boards in general is up for debate. School boards admit to "not functioning well as strategic-planning or goal-setting policy bodies," according to an IEL study. Proponents of school board reform say boards should focus more on curriculum, overseeing reform efforts, and equity in school experiences, with less focus on the nuts and bolts of management.) 

Yet the new school board is to be seated in a period of unusual flux. Superintendent Pam Baldwin is leaving for another school district after only three years in Asheville. Several challenged city schools have suffered recent losses of their principals, including Asheville High, Hall Fletcher, and Asheville Middle (whose principal left to fill the Hall Fletcher post.) The county has been engaged in an unprecedented period of new building, with new facilities opening at Isaac Dickson and Asheville Middle this year. And a restructuring that changed grades and schedules at Hall Fletcher, Asheville Preschool and others has stirred criticism in the community.

A bigger school board could bring in a broader range of voices befitting a district with 4,500 students and a diverse student body. It could ensure places at the table for residents in public housing, South and East Asheville elementary parents, experienced administrators from both inside the school district and the broader corporate and nonprofit world, and many others. It could make the big decisions facing ACS more democratic and representative of the range of views. It could help next waves of education activists get a toehold and orient new leaders in the system.

All of that sounds good, right? So what's the hangup? Well, state law, for starters. The school board was created by the state legislature in 1947. The law says the board is to be "composed of five members" and, North Carolina being a Dillon's Rule state, the city doesn't have the authority to change that.* It would take another legislative act. With the current legislature and the City of Asheville regularly clashing of late, there's no guarantee we could get that on terms we would want. (See also: Senator Apodaca's thwarted district election bill from last year.)

But the city does have a path forward that's legal and simple enough, if it wants one. It would look like this: Using city council's basically free reign to create boards and commissions, the city would create several new appointed commissions around education issues. These could be given any designation, but let's say they're three-member commissions called

  • Elementary Caucus
  • Middle School Caucus
  • High School Caucus
  • Faculty-Staff Caucus
  • Public Housing Caucus

The new commissions could have any number of members, in truth, appointed by council or the school board itself, with one member of the five-member state-created school board on each. Before being appointed to the "official" school board by council, applicants would promise to vote according to their caucus's choice on any issue. They couldn't be legally required to vote after the majority of their caucus, but they could be legally replaced if they didn't. They would all meet concurrently, at the regular school board meeting, at the same table, and discuss matters together. The result: a de facto 15, 20, or 30-member school board with representatives of elementary, middle, high, administration, and low-income interests. Only five members would have "real" votes on decisions, per state law, but everyone would get a say and the range of inputs at the table and in discussion would make sure issues at every level are raised and new ideas come forward. We could have the retired executives and the PTO dads without having to choose.

After a few years of this shadow school board, who knows? Maybe the legislature could even be persuaded to make it official. Crazier things have happened. The real power of this group, though, comes from city council's commitment not to appoint school board members who won't vote after their caucuses, and their willingness to empower other community members to take part in decisions. That shouldn't even be controversial at this point.

Would it solve every problem? No, of course not. And yet, whatever solutions we need for complex problems, we know they have to come from the biggest representation the community can muster, the largest number of empowered citizens, every time, full stop. Maybe you don't even have students in the school system. (If so, congratulations on reading so far! You're a prize wonk!) But you have some other concern, whether jobs or affordability or park space or parking. We'd say more representation by empowered citizenry wins there, too. If recent events have made one thing clear, it's that a tiny, cloistered group of decision-makers won't cut it. The messy, open, small-d democratic process, the directest of democracies, has to carry us through now. The city has the chance to make it happen with the school board and on a number of other fronts. We should give it a shot.

* This highlights a couple of frustrating things about city council. First, unlike more progressive states where cities are free to experiment with sweeping initiatives like local minimum wages or nondiscrimination ordinances, local governments in North Carolina can only act on authority specifically given to them by state law. Second, changing the composition of the school board is one of the few levers city council can directly pull to influence schools. Decisions like restructuring, changing administrators and new facilities are usually made by the board itself or the county. Council could also affect the use of police discipline in schools, I think, which disproportionately impacts minority students with lifelong repercussions. It could use its partnership funding to bolster afterschool programs, which desperately need it. But school board makeup is the big one. (Back to the paragraph above)