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John Florez: Are school boards too insulated?

Published: Saturday, March 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Michael Clara, left, takes part as a new member of the Salt Lake City School Board at their offices in Salt Lake City Tuesday, January 8, 2013.

Brian Nicholson, OKespa–ol

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Sometimes the cover up is worse than the problem. School boards often appear to avoid dealing with serious policy matters.

At Salt Lake school district meeting last week, board members were listening to a presentation by their staff regarding the district’s Student Achievement Plan. One of the presenters noted a correlation between student achievement and teacher effectiveness, which prompted newly-elected board member, Michael Clara, to ask why schools in the west side area he represents have a disproportionate number of “ineffective” teachers. The presenter replied that it was, “One of our big problems with our distribution system for teachers, is that we have a lot of new teachers in west side schools every single year ... ” She went on to point out that the west side students may not be “ ... with the most effective teachers ... we need to do something to turn around that very pattern that you can see … as a district, I really hope we have the will and resources to carry this process forward.”

Later in the discussion, the cover up seemed to start. A seasoned board member jumped in and said, “You cannot take teachers in a school of primarily children who don’t speak English at home ... and compare them to a school in another part of the ... district where practically all the children were raised speaking English.” The board vice president tried to move the discussion and just wanted the presenters to continue on. The district superintendent attempted to end the discussion by saying the presentation was about student assessment, not teacher evaluation. The presenter got the message and stopped talking about teacher effectiveness. However, Mr. Clara pointed out that student achievement is related to the “quality of instruction” and wanted an answer, but never got one.

The whole discussion points out one of the reasons our schools are faltering: school board members are discouraged from discussing critical issues, such as why some students in some school neighborhoods may not be doing as well as those in different neighborhoods. The presentation raised the question about a pattern of disparate treatment that was ignored, which shows how a school board appears unwilling to tackle the serious problems it is elected to solve. The culture created throughout public education boards seems to be one of getting along with each other rather than working in the public’s interest. And they made “rules” to make sure nothing happens.

School board members are elected officials sworn to do their duty; however, they are quickly “educated” by district administrators as to how to “get along with” other board members. Elected officials are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents. Democracy requires openness, public debate and working in the public’s interest. Officials must exercise their duty as policy makers in overseeing that all students receive a quality education and be sure administrators carry out their directives. Often it seems it’s the other way around.

Since Mr. Clara tried, and never got an answer to the question as to the correlation between student achievement and ineffective teachers in different school neighborhoods, he was prompted to file a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, alleging a pattern of discrimination and a violation of the district’s policy of equal opportunity.

Let this be a wake up call for all school board members. They have a duty to be stewards of one of our most important institutions and to represent the people — not the institution.

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