Wednesday, June 15, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.
With the beleaguered city of San Diego embroiled in fiscal and legal controversy and a paralyzed mayor leaving office next month amid charges of irresponsibility and incompetence, the idea of having big-city mayors appoint school board members seems almost laughable.
Yet, the proposal is gaining momentum in California, as supporters point to other major cities in the United States – including New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland – that have adopted the plan and as a result have seen some degree of success in raising student achievement, increasing accountability and providing fiscal stability.
Proposed legislation to allow large urban centers in California to adopt the plan is being sponsored by EdVoice, a powerful statewide organization made up of wealthy philanthropists who seek to promote education reform for California’s public schools through grassroots efforts and the legislative process.
Only those cities with a strong-mayor form of government, with populations of more than 400,000 and with school districts of more than 50,000 students would qualify, under the proposed plan.
“The focus is on the largest cities in California that have strong-mayor forms of government,” said Christopher Cabaldon, president of EdVoice. Initially, EdVoice hopes to convert Oakland, Fresno and Los Angeles, all of whose mayors support the idea.
Although certainly worthy of inclusion in the plan, San Diego is not being considered at this time because of current political upheaval at City Hall and an as yet unimplemented strong-mayor form of government, Cabaldon said.
State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). is said to support the proposed legislation, and a newly formed Select Committee on Urban School Governance, chaired by Romero, is now holding hearings on the matter. Select Committees study specific California policy issues and problems in order to develop long-range solutions.
Other members of the senate committee include Abel Maldonado (R-San Jose), George Runner (R-Antelope Valley), Jack Scott (D-Pasadena) and Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch).
Cabaldon said the committee held a hearing in Sacramento last Thursday to learn about the status of urban education and the relationship between student performance and governance. And the committee has scheduled a second hearing in Los Angeles this Friday that will focus on governance solutions to the identified problems facing urban school districts.
According to Cabaldon, who is also the mayor of West Sacramento, education leaders asked to speak at the hearings include University of California researchers and educators, officials from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell’s office, former and current superintendents, out-of-state mayors, school board members and representatives from the school boards association and the teachers’ union. Former San Diego Unified School District trustee Ron Ottinger has been asked to appear at the second hearing in Los Angeles.
EdVoice was founded by some of California’s leading education philanthropists, including Southern California members Eli Broad of Los Angeles’ Broad Foundation and Buzz Woolley of San Diego’s Girard Foundation. Other members of the EdVoice board include Wal-Mart Stores director John Walton and Silicon Valley-based Netflix chief executive officer Reed Hastings. Hastings, a Democrat and former president of the state Board of Education, was recently denied reappointment to the board by the Senate Democratic Caucus.
The proposed legislation, which Cabaldon said is still in its conceptual stage, would give mayors the authority to appoint school board members from names submitted by a group of education experts, business leaders and community members. Implementation would be gradual. As each elected board member’s term expires, the mayor would appoint replacements who could be dismissed by the mayor at will. The mayor would also appoint a superintendent, after the existing superintendent’s contract expires or is bought out. Current superintendents and board members would be eligible for mayoral appointment.
Boundary issues complicate the legislation. In some areas, the school districts include parts of other cities and municipalities. In this case, voters in those adjacent cities could choose to opt out of the school district and form their own school district, join another school district or stay with the urban district.
In the reverse case, where some cities extend into other school districts, the mayor would not control those districts. This is the case, for example, in Carmel Valley, which is part of the city of San Diego but its schools are in the Del Mar Union, Solana Beach and San Dieguito Union High school districts. The governance of these schools would be unaffected by the change.
Cabaldon said the proposal is on an accelerated timeframe, because EdVoice is hopeful that legislation can be enacted this calendar year.
“Cities aren’t run perfectly, but they are far more efficient than school districts,” said Broad, in a recent Los Angeles Times interview.
Voters are generally more aware of mayoral issues than of school board issues, Cabaldon said in response to the charge that the mayoral appointment system severs direct voter involvement with school governance. “It’s a fallacy to say that voters don’t control fire, police and other public services. The whole community is more focused on student achievement this way.”
Cabaldon also said this plan gives one person the authority to implement change and the sole responsibility for success or failure, and voters will know whom to hold accountable. With elected school boards, supporters of the measure say no one person has the authority to make changes and blame is too easily passed among the players who are often indebted to special interests that paralyze efforts at progress.
Proponents say the idea has merit because it can eliminate duplication of effort and improve resource efficiency by linking urban school issues with other city services like budgets, crime fighting, safety and security, parks and libraries, capital improvements of public facilities and other infrastructure concerns. They also believe it would ensure that school board members are knowledgeable about a wide range of education issues, having been screened by a panel of experts.
However, John de Beck, trustee for the San Diego Unified School District since 1990, said school board members can be voted out of office whenever the public disapproves of the job they are doing. “I’m accountable to the public right now,” he said, calling elected school boards an American institution. “If you believe in local control, you believe in school board elections.”
Labeling the idea “an East Coast thing,” de Beck said this was not a viable solution for urban school districts. He worried that “if you get a lousy mayor, you get a lousy school board.” He said if San Diegans were asked whether the mayor should have the power to appoint school board members, “they’d laugh you right out of town.”
De Beck also raised the specter of cronyism, saying, “People are not ready for a one-man show.”
Opponents of the proposal point to mixed results in New York and the failure in Detroit to implement a successful state takeover in 1999 of the 140,000-student district. Cabaldon said the Detroit effort fell short because of a lack of mayoral authority and a unique political situation between the state and the city that made it impossible to achieve the necessary level of reform. Nevertheless, the experiment did fail and the city’s appointed school board is now being replaced by elected officials.
New York City’s success since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the school district’s 1.1 million students in 2002 has been questioned by some who say that school morale has plummeted as a result of micromanagement by the mayor’s team. But Bloomberg dismisses that assessment and claims he has made a dysfunctional system more efficient and accountable to the public.
Boston made the switch to mayoral control in 1991 and hired like-minded school district superintendent Tom Payzant in 1995 to reorganize the district. Observers credit Payzant, who was San Diego’s superintendent from 1982 to 1993, with making much-needed progress in closing the achievement gap and say the improvements were made possible under Boston’s mayoral appointment system.
In 1995 the Illinois legislature granted the mayor of Chicago the authority to appoint his own school board and take sweeping control of Chicago’s school district. Since that time, many education leaders say the changes have been dramatic, with rising test scores, stiffer standards for grade promotion and high school graduation, a budget deficit reduction and restructuring of the city’s lowest-performing schools. “Chicago’s success demonstrates that a centralized system with a strong mayor can improve an urban school district,” said a Philadelphia-based group of education leaders during their push to adopt a similar system of governance for their city in 1997.
Read part two.
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