School board members in Iowa—unpaid volunteers who often serve while holding down full-time jobs and trying to raise kids—inevitably have to depend to some extent on information provided to them by others. That’s part of what our paid administrators do: gather information and make recommendations to the board about school issues. The board also sometimes creates committees or task forces to make proposals on particular issues; at our last meeting, for example, we voted to create a task force that would look into possible changes in the district’s bell schedule.
Nonetheless, the final decision on many matters is the board’s. How can administrators and task forces best help the board make its decisions? I’m worried that our board’s approach to that question sometimes delegates too much of its role to these other groups.
The problem is that the help the board gets is often in the form of advocacy for a particular conclusion. I would rather hear a more objective analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of a particular course of action, including discussion of possible alternatives. A bottom-line recommendation can be helpful, but, on issues where there is a potential for differing value judgments, the best thing the administration can do for the board is to give the board enough information that it can reach its own independent conclusion.
An example is the discussion at our last meeting of the ThoughtExchange proposal. The central administration recommended that we adopt the proposal—and again, I appreciate receiving a recommendation. The administration, though, apparently saw its role more as advocating for its recommendation than as providing an objective assessment of the pros and cons. The only material it provided, other than the $170,000 price quote, was . . . promotional material created by ThoughtExchange. Then, at our meeting, the ThoughtExchange vendor was given the floor for over forty minutes to make a video presentation advocating for the proposal and to take questions from the board.
Whatever you think of the merits of the proposal, hearing only from advocates on one side of an issue is never the best way to make a decision. As every law student quickly learns, a good brief is usually very convincing until you read the opposing brief.
One of the things I liked about Director Lori Roetlin’s proposal to create a task force on the bell schedule is that the task force will generate multiple options and that there will be a period of public comment on those options. In other words, the model is less focused on advocacy and more on providing the board with multiple perspectives.
What board members need is good information. What they shouldn’t delegate is important value judgments. A system that relies too heavily on one-sided advocacy makes it hard to draw that line.