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From Don’t Meddle:

My question: Did the Board of Education give away too much control when it agreed to insert a “no meddling” clause in Cohn’s contract? The problem with this clause is that Cohn gets to define the term “meddling.” Whenever Cohn feels the Board is getting too much into his affairs, he can say “If you meddle too much, I can quit and collect my entire salary through 2009.” And of course, the Board doesn’t want to have that egg on their face. Interestingly, Cohn’s “no meddling” clause up until now has resulted in a rubber stamp board. But it seems like the Board is getting irritated and starting to push back. Is that your sense, too?

The no-meddling clause refers to a portion of Superintendent Carl Cohn’s contract that prohibits the school board from micro-managing the district.

It’s what Cohn referred to during the budget fiasco when he said:

“I’m very concerned about anything where we return to an era of the board directing the work of the staff. I believe that is a fundamental violation of [my] contract,” Cohn said of [school board member John de Beck’s] plan [to approve every part of the budget separately].

It’s also probably what he was referring to in the e-mail exchange with de Beck I mentioned earlier:

As long as I’m superintendent here, you don’t get to direct the work of the staff…That’s it! Carl

To answer the question, school board members de Beck and Mitz Lee do believe that the board has become a rubber stamp. But the superintendent and Board President Luis Acle believe that things are as they should be.

In Acle’s mind, the board has three jobs:

  • Hire and fire the superintendent (he’s the board’s only employee, Acle maintains);
  • Enact board policies;
  • Pass (but not formulate) the budget.

The other two board members, Katherine Nakamura and Shelia Jackson are somewhere in between. Jackson is closer to the Acle/Cohn side, and Nakamura leans a little toward Lee/de Beck, though there is plenty of bad blood between them.

Is the board “getting irritated and starting to push back?” Well, de Beck and Lee were always irritated. And Nakamura and Jackson have gotten irritated before.

The real shift that we saw, I think, was the budget. The board’s vote to reject it the first time around was historic. But it probably had more to do with the media attention and pressure from the Taxpayers Association than with any sort of change of direction on the part of the board.

And I don’t want to miss this point: The superintendent has a perfectly legitimate right to not want micromanagement. Can you imagine if a school board member, entering a re-election year, ordered the staff to spend all of the its time trimming the hedges at the schools in his or her district? That’s why the school board hires the superintendent: to manage.

The problem is that there is no clear line between where policy-making (the board’s prerogative) becomes management (the superintendent’s). And we see these sort of debates everywhere.

Take, for example, the controversy over how much power Mayor Jerry Sanders has to trim portions of the budget passed by the City Council. Or President Bush’s signing statements.

At their root, these controversies are over the same issue. Fortunately, we have the city charter and the Constitution to at least guide us on the latter two. We don’t have anything like that for the school district, other than the general board policies that the school board itself has written.

Many months ago, Lee had drafted a sample document outlining the role of the board, the board president and the superintendent, to sort of serve as the district’s constitution. It was never taken up by the full board after Cohn pooh-poohed it.

VLADIMIR KOGAN

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