Shimek Elementary School playground, 2017
Should elected board members automatically approve decisions that are recommended by district committees?
At last week’s meeting, the board considered a proposal to replace the play structure at Shimek Elementary School. The proposal was recommended by the district’s central administration and endorsed by a Shimek PTO committee, but some Shimek parents raised objections. They argued that the proposed play structure was not sufficiently accessible to disabled students—one of the speakers was accompanied by her son, who was in a wheelchair—and that the district had, in short, given them the runaround in the way it handled the proposal.
Board members didn’t receive the parents’ objections (which were lengthy) until less than twenty-four hours before the meeting, which was fairly understandable, since the item didn’t appear on the agenda until a few days before that. So I suggested that we table the issue for two weeks to give us more time to consider the objections that parents had raised.
During the discussion, my fellow board member, Brian Kirschling, argued that when there is an internal process in place for developing a proposal, the board should defer to that process and accept its outcome. Though I’ve seldom heard this argument made so explicitly, there’s little question that some version of it seems to drive many board decisions. Once an administrative recommendation has been made, it often seems as if some board members are hunting for ways to justify it and reject other possibilities.
I very much disagree with this philosophy. There’s no question that board members do rely on administrative recommendations all the time—as a practical matter, we have to. Moreover, committees and task forces play a valuable role in evaluating the options for addressing a given issue. But when someone raises plausible objections to a recommendation, the board should not just rubber-stamp the recommendation without exercising independent judgment. It’s the board’s job to provide oversight and to be a conduit for community input, not to simply let the institution run itself.
Many of our committees, for example, are composed mostly of district staff, and even when they aren’t, they often have to rely on staff for the information they need. It certainly makes sense to draw on the insights and knowledge of staff in any kind of decision-making, but it would be unrealistic to ignore the fact that staff members have to worry about pleasing their supervisors—especially in a district with a reputation for having a retaliatory culture where dissent is often unwelcome.
And many times it’s the our administrators who determine committee membership in the first place—which can certainly have a big effect on what a committee ends up recommending. Even when all of the committee members are working in good faith and bringing valuable knowledge to bear, this kind of process can end up being used to give a veneer of community input to what are actually predetermined outcomes.
The hands-off approach seems particularly unwise on an issue involving the needs of disabled students, who make up a small fraction of our student population. The mere fact that a proposal wins majority support of a committee does not mean that the needs of a small minority have been fairly considered.
None of this means that the Shimek playground proposal was a bad one or that the process leading to it was faulty. But the board owed it to the public to take a closer look than it did.