School Beat: Strong Schools Need Strong School Site Councils

by Don Krause on January 22, 2009

San Francisco’s school site councils, the legally mandated site-based governing bodies, could receive an unexpected gift, compliments of the worldwide financial collapse. The California Department of Education is under pressure to rein in spending, and state compliance officers are unlikely to cut any slack when the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) undergoes a monitoring of its moribund School Site Council (SSC) program next year. A negative assessment of site council compliance could underscore the need for reform.

An ailing SSC program in the spotlight could be a public relations gaffe for a new District administration intent on establishing its reputation as fiscally responsible, accountability-centered and parent-friendly. And while this might sound like bad news, such scrutiny could breathe new life into site councils that are often little more than rubber stamps for principals, especially if policymakers take the opportunity in repairing a failure of the insular Ackerman era.

SSC documentation, painstakingly provided by district officials in fulfilling recent public records requests, shows the vast majority of school communities without adequate representation. Although the value of the procedural requirements to lawfully constitute and conduct councils is often underestimated, more importantly, school principals too often fail to meaningfully engage their communities in the planning process. This is where the rubber meets the road and where quantitative compliance reviews cannot adequately address the performance of site councils and school leadership.

Measurement of site council performance is a tricky business. Recent SSC document analysis was made by three individuals (two District officials and the author of this article), reading thousands of pages from over one hundred schools in an attempt to gain insight on the District’s overall performance. Despite some variation in the three results, it was mutually agreed upon that there is a significant need for District SSC reform. What shape should this reform take?

The true barometer of an SSC is in its ability to positively impact academic achievement, even while many other factors come into play. The principal is the key player in openly recruiting candidates for SSC elections and making the council’s work authentic and integral to the academic plan or Balanced Scorecard, as it is now known. The work of the councils should be an important part of regular communication between the school leadership and the community in newsletters, at staff and community meetings and in the halls.

Properly constituted councils should have ten members at the elementary level, five staff and five community members, and twelve members at the secondary level, also evenly divided. (There are other specific legal requirements and variants beyond the scope of this overview.)

Principals and chairpersons must strive to ensure full participation by representatives and encourage the larger community to attend meetings, making sure to create bylaws, post agendas and to keep meeting minutes, sign-in sheets and election materials. But the real test and the true business of any council is its ability to openly and objectively discuss the issues at hand and to vote on and implement them. These qualitative aspects of site council performance are not easy to analyze. They derive from the character and policies of the primary decision-makers at our schools and at the central office and are typically reviewed best through the prism of retrospection.

An example of a recent failing of District policy is illustrated in its irresponsible intention to further dilute the already limited influence of parents. District officials want to solve the parent participation problem on most site councils by decreasing the minimum number of parent representatives necessary to vote on action items from the legally mandated amount of five (at the elementary level) to as little as one, citing the use of a quorum. (Most schools don’t have bylaws by which to employ a quorum). They intend to do this, ostensibly, to prevent a dearth of SSC parent participation from impeding the conduct of business.

This policy supplants State law which requires parity of staff and community and a minimum of ten members for adequate legal representation. The use of quorums, in this way, negates the very purpose of site councils, which is to give a legal voice to the stakeholders for the benefit of student outcome. The right way to solve this problem, rather than throwing in the towel, is for the District to support and promote their principals’ efforts to engage their school communities and create greater SSC participation, while simultaneously fulfilling the goals of the Balanced Scorecard of responsibility and accountability. In effect, parent participation via site council reform should be a major part of the District’s Strategic Plan.

For years, SFUSD delegated the job of the site council mandate to its school principals and turned a blind eye to any further District accountability. With principals left to do as they may, parent activists should take umbrage at such unmanaged authority in their children’s schools, where District supervisors rarely tread.

Varying only to the degree that a school principal welcomes community involvement, site councils are most often a formality in the bureaucratically arcane and boilerplate academic planning process, with parent input sidelined as advisory in nature. This is a far cry from the grassroots reform that was envisioned when education researchers first promoted school governance through site councils as the front line in education reform. In the late1970’s the legislature, citing this research, created school site councils as part of the School Improvement Program and, since then, repeatedly renewed it.

Thirty years later, most parents have little understanding or interest in site councils. Few have ever read an academic plan. This unfortunate state is the result of years of distrust of parents by school officials who did little to implement the law or, more importantly, to encourage parent participation; it is no secret the District resisted strong school site councils (read parents) challenging its authority. To disabuse parents of any notion of a power grab, they were benched to do yard duty and PTA bake sales.

Parent involvement via Site-Based Management (SBM) and its backbone of local councils has been extensively studied and is, in its theory, widely regarded to be a capable model of decentralizing reform. In practice, on the ground success requires staff and community committed to working collaboratively and versed in the language, principles and practices of the education establishment. Too often principals view parent involvement in school governance as a challenge to their professional judgment. Community members are often inadequately trained in the challenges they face and too quick to find fault when confronting difficult problems. Site councils can invigorate schools. But if parents want a voice, they must lobby for it.

San Francisco is decades behind some other Districts that have integrated parent involvement into the machinery of school government. In Chicago, local school councils have convincingly demonstrated that real reform must include authority to evaluate principals, who, as school leaders, are central figures in promoting or discouraging parent participation, particularly on the councils themselves. Recent attempts to strip Chicago parents of their hard earned authority have failed in the courts.

If grassroots action is an objective of the District, as alluded to in the yet to be explained Strategic Plan, perhaps the Superintendent will embrace site councils and rightly so, as he has promoted himself as a bottom-up manager. Yet the Plan makes no mention of them in its overly-generalized big-on-goals-low-on-details fifty-three page glossy brochure, a telling omission that does not bode well for parent involvement.

In lieu of District action, parent pressure via public records requests in conjunction with uniform complaints has given impetus to some district officials who realize they must provide fixes if the upcoming academic planning process is to pass muster. But swift transformation of site councils is unlikely given the hard work involved in creating and sustaining them.

An analogue of the parent-child relationship, school success hinges on creating partnerships between staff and community. We cannot expect our poorly funded schools to do the entire job of educating our children.

The endless discussions on education under-funding have belabored the point that any progress is going to have to come cheaply, if it comes at all. Ironically, the most cost- effective reform is through parent involvement. The District needs to fill in the blanks of its beautifully rendered, but mysteriously lacking call-to-arms that is the Strategic Plan with the letters SSC.

Don Krause is a past SSC member and current SSC activist, as well as being the father of two boys at Alamo and a former high school teacher.

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