The Importance of Governance in Public Schools

Image by  Daniel Bone  from  Pixabay

Image by Daniel Bone from Pixabay

The Importance of Governance in Public Schools

While leadership in public education is regularly studied as a critical factor in school success, discussions about leadership seldom include school governance. However, effective governance by a traditional school district or charter school board is a necessary foundation for a well-functioning, high-performing system. School districts and charter schools in Missouri have different board structures that impact the way members are selected and may influence how they approach their governance responsibilities.

Traditional school district and charter school boards govern as representatives of the public interest. School board governance differs from day-to-day management. The key governance responsibilities of school boards include setting policies, selecting and evaluating a superintendent or school leader, and overseeing the financial health of the school district or charter school. 

The importance of strong governance has been captured in Missouri news from reinstating an elected board in St. Louis Public Schools to charter school boards making difficult decisions to close poor-performing schools to a school district changing the method of electing members to create a more demographically representative board. In this blog, we examine the responsibilities and composition of Missouri charter school and school district boards and consider the broader issues of representation, accountability, and board effectiveness. 

Board Powers and Responsibilities

Boards of charter schools and school districts share similar responsibilities such as fiscal oversight and selection of the charter school or school district leader. One significant distinction is that school districts are political subdivisions and the taxing authority for local funds supporting all public schools, including charter schools. Any tax increases or rollbacks initiated by a school district also apply to the local revenue of charter schools within the boundaries of the district. On Wednesday, the Kansas City Public Schools board of education voted unanimously to maintain the current tax rate, which will result in increased revenue for the district and for area charter schools due to a recent reappraisal of Jackson County home values. The ability to issue bonds to fund capital improvements is only available to school districts.

Charter school boards have different powers and responsibilities than charter school sponsors. The charter school board sets policy, hires the school leader, and is legally and fiscally responsible for the charter school. A charter school sponsor ensures compliance with state and federal law, monitors the performance of the charter school, and holds the charter school accountable to the specifications within its charter. A charter school board may recommend revocation of a charter to close a school, but it is the sponsor that has the authority to revoke a charter.

Board Composition and Selection 

In Missouri, traditional school districts are governed by seven-member boards of education elected by voters of the school district. School board candidates must meet age and residency qualifications. The State Board of Education can temporarily put in place an alternative form of governance, such as an appointed special administrative board (SAB), in unaccredited school districts.

Charter schools in Missouri are organized as nonprofit corporations and are required to have a governing board of three or more directors. Board members of charter schools must meet many of the same requirements as district board members. For example, they cannot be employed by the school and must file a public financial disclosure. However, state law does not specify age or residency requirements for charter school board members.

Concerns about the use of public tax dollars to support independently-governed charter schools have been raised by critics and merit consideration. Yet it is also worth noting that tax dollars provide operating revenue to other public nonprofit entities governed by appointed boards, such as library district boards, which are not elected by voters of the library district but are instead appointed by the county commissioners or mayor. 

Is There a “Best” Governance Model?

As mentioned, one key criticism of charter schools is that they have unelected boards. Yet while the elected board system allows for direct citizen participation, it rarely functions in this way. Turnout for school district board elections is often quite low. Many school board elections are uncontested, and there is little active participation in school board meetings.

And having an elected board does not ensure that the board is demographically representative of the students in the district. In January of 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which had been sued over issues of political representation. At the time, over 75 percent of the students in the district were black, but six of the seven elected board members were white. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri claimed that electing school board members at-large prevents black voters from participating meaningfully in the political process.

This scenario is not unique to Missouri. On the 2018 National School Boards Association survey of board members, 78 percent of respondents were white, 10 percent were black, and 3 percent were Hispanic, while the incoming class of PK-12 students in 2017-2018 was estimated to be 48 percent white, 16 percent black, and 27 percent Hispanic. 

Elected and appointed board members may come into their roles with different expectations and priorities. However, in the end, good governance requires leaders of character who have the judgment and information they need to make good choices, as well as the autonomy and control they need to act on those decisions. Many different types of boards can be effective in bringing about good outcomes for students. However, it is worth considering how structures and policies impact citizen participation and shape the way board members define their constituency, thus setting expectations for whose interests are considered in board decision-making.


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