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John Florez: Utah school boards get an F grade

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Local school boards are important and powerful institutions of our society. They manage and determine the quality of education our children receive, set policy, levy taxes and spend our tax dollars. However, now some seem to have abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities to administrators. Local school board members are elected to serve the people, not the institution.

Jessie L. Bonner, AP

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If Utah's local school boards were graded, they would get an F, or at best an incomplete. Some seem to suffer from chronic public absenteeism and don't do their homework.

When the law went in to effect requiring schools be given a grade for their performance, there was an immediate outcry by school administrators, teachers and some parents for its unfairness. Noticeably absent were the voices of local school board members, the ones responsible for overseeing schools. It speaks volumes about what's wrong with Utah's educational system. Local school boards are important and powerful institutions of our society. They manage and determine the quality of education our children receive, set policy, levy taxes and spend our tax dollars. However, now some seem to have abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities to administrators. Local school board members are elected to serve the people, not the institution.

Utahns are strong advocates for local control, with elected school board members being closest to the people. Yet few of us know the name of our local school board member. Bright and dedicated people run for school boards; however, once elected they are briefed and intimidated by professionals who quickly "educate" them as to the complexity of education and succumb to the language of the enterprise — collaboration, communication and partnerships. As a former school board member, I was briefed on board protocol calling for getting along, cooperating, being "family," and discouraged from speaking out on my own and voicing the concerns of the people I was elected to represent.

Though board members are elected to represent their districts, in many instances they quickly become isolated and insulated from any criticism from the public, so taxpayers never know where they stand on issues. Board meetings often become show and tell, where board members listen to professionals as to what they do, rather than what they are supposed to deliver — well-educated students prepared to succeed in an ever-changing world.

As Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart have pointed out, "School Grading is a transparent and easy-to-understand accountability system that focuses on outcomes instead of inputs ... We believe such a system is necessary for teachers and administrators to focus their efforts, for parents to understand what's happening at their children's schools, and for board members and lawmakers to evaluate policy changes and reallocate resources effectively."

The grading system has shown the need for changes in our educational governance. Currently everyone — legislators, the state board, district boards and schools — and no one is responsible.

As a consequence, there is much finger pointing; school districts blame legislators for school problems, lack of money, a multitude of regulations and needless reporting systems.

As legislative leadership renews education's governance structure (SB169), instead of simply giving school districts more money, they ought to consider having the state contract with local school districts for established education outcomes and monitor for results. This would give school districts greater flexibility and require school districts to publicly show local people the results of their decisions. Once the public sees who is responsible for how their schools are managed, they can vote board members out or keep them in. Board members should be elected for two-year terms.

Once board members remember they are elected to serve the people, not the institution, stop looking for scapegoats, start evaluating their policies and reallocating resources, they will find great support from their local citizens.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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