In any truly public school system, the institution has to answer to the democratically elected school board. That’s the theory. In practice, an institution naturally wants to run itself without interference, and sometimes chafes at the supervision of an elected board. The board, after all, represents everyone in the district, and sometimes the desires of the larger community don’t perfectly coincide with the preferences that win out within the institution. Part of the board’s job—a particularly important part—is to make sure that it controls the institution and not the other way around.
One recent illustration of this tension involved the construction of new classrooms from interior common space at Penn Elementary. The administration asked us to approve a contract with an outside company for part of the work. The proposal (described here) came before the board on July 25—just four weeks before school was to start. The administration told us that the project would raise Penn’s listed capacity by fifty students—from 633 to 683.
I voted against the proposal because I was against permanently raising Penn’s capacity number when it still has the same cafeteria space that it had when the district considered it to be a 387-student school. (I explain my reasons more fully here.) The proposal failed on a vote of 3-3.
Three weeks later, the administration brought back the same contract proposal. At this meeting, however, it came to light that the district’s contractors (as well as district staff) had continued working in Penn even after the board voted down the contract. This naturally raised serious concerns: Did the administration move ahead with a contract even after the board had rejected it?
When I asked about why the contractor had continued working after the board voted down the contract, the facilities director and the superintendent gave what struck me as two somewhat different explanations. (You can listen to the exchange here; the superintendent later clarified his response here.)
In any event, school was about to start, and Penn needed some (at least temporary) space. I moved to approve the proposal on the condition that the project would not raise Penn’s listed capacity number and that any increase in Penn’s capacity would require board approval. The motion passed 5-1.
The next day, a member of the public emailed the superintendent, asking what the district now considered Penn’s capacity to be. Late last week, he forwarded her the response of the district’s facilities department: 658.
Part two here.