Sunday, October 25, 2015

Government ≠ corporation

It is striking how the establishment view of school boards differs from how we ordinarily view elected governmental bodies.

What I’m calling the establishment view is that school board service is no different than service on a corporate board. That view does make sense in one way: the relationship of the school board to the superintendent is very analogous to that of a corporate board to a corporate CEO. In each case, the board has to decide just how much it wants to delegate to its chief employee and what boundaries to put on his or her authority; that chief employee then makes the day-to-day decisions about how to run the organization within those boundaries.

In other ways, however, an elected government board is very different from a corporate board. During our recent orientation to board service, for example, our school board members discussed the “norm” that once the board makes a decision, the board members will unite in support of that decision, even if the initial vote was not unanimous. I think it’s true that this is very much seen as a norm of good governance on corporate boards.

Elected governmental bodies, though, strike me as a very different matter. No one suggests that the Democrats in Congress should unite in support of the Bush tax cuts simply because Congress at some point passed them. I certainly wouldn’t want the Democrats in our legislature to unite behind Governor Branstad’s approach to prioritizing tax cuts over school funding just because he got his way this past year.

Sure, constantly changing course can be a way to get nowhere. On many matters, an out-voted minority might decide it’s better not to pursue its disagreement with the majority. But it’s quite another thing to think that “good governance” obliges it to do so.

There’s a good reason for distinguishing between corporate and government boards in that respect. If a corporate shareholder dislikes the direction of the corporate board, she can always sell her shares and buy shares in a different corporation. It’s a very different thing to suggest that a voter should “love or leave” her country or state or school district. Voters (and thus their representatives) are entitled to try continually to bring the government around to their point of view.

Moreover, in the corporate context, there is typically a shared underlying goal: maximize profit. In the governmental context, there is no similar agreement about fundamental values. That’s what elections are fought over, and then fought over again. The ongoing debate about those value differences is exactly what elections are for. When important value differences are at stake, the minority shouldn’t be expected to close ranks around the majority’s decisions.

Yet somehow, the idea persists that good governance requires school board members to rally around their board’s decisions. In any other governmental context, such a “norm” would be seen as transparently a device to protect the status quo and stifle dissent. What is it about the school context that elicits a different response?


pooter said...

"Unanimous" board votes portray a fiction to the public.

Chris said...

Thanks, pooter. I think it's one thing to strive to get to unanimity through compromise on the substance of a particular proposal, but another thing to suggest that the minority should change their votes just to give a semblance of unity. Can't help but think of Regent Sahai's recent disclosures about the University of Iowa's presidential search as showing an apparent example of the latter.

That said, I don't think that any of my fellow board members were suggesting that we should never have split votes -- but I do think there was at least some sentiment for the idea that once the vote is over, the minority should support the decision.

Amy Charles said...

Uh, nothing? I used to cover school boards in PA, and there was none of this nonsense about consensus votes; votes were often contentious. Maybe they just skeert and it's less front-unifying than wagon-circling. And maybe, too, they don't want to fight the same battles over and over -- though the important ones do tend to get fought over and over, for reasons.

Anyway. I hope you don't go along with it. Supreme Court seems to manage just fine with open dissent.