OPINION: School boards need consensus to be effective

Written by Patrick J. Schmidt on .

About the author: Patrick J. Schmitz is a partner with Scott Scriven & Wahoff LLP and an Olentangy resident. He has worked with hundreds of school boards throughout Ohio for almost 20 years and served on the staff of the Ohio School Boards Association. He comes from a family that served on boards for three generations. He also has a bachelors’ degree with honors in political science, worked on Capitol Hill and served an elected term on the Delaware County Republican Party Central Committee.

In response to the unusually harsh tone of this year's election, I want to elevate the debate by looking at what makes a board work effectively. Over the last decade, a troubling trend has emerged among a small group of board candidates. I refer to them as “C-SPAN candidates,” because they campaign by attacking the board in the media and rejecting consensus. For several reasons, C-SPAN candidates cannot serve effectively as board members.

Under Ohio law, school boards manage and control districts by performing legislative or policy-making functions. Boards are ideal examples of local democratic self-governance. Board candidates often are recruited from the ranks of grassroots volunteers who serve on parent-teacher associations, booster clubs and other school support organizations. Board members serve on a part-time basis, but boards must exercise authority over highly regulated, technical and sensitive matters concerning the formation and education of school age children.
Each school board member is an elected official chosen by the district’s voters. However, individual members have no authority to take actions that bind the board. Under Ohio’s Sunshine Law (R.C. 121.22), a board acts as only as a whole through resolutions or motions adopted at authorized public meetings and entered on its minutes. Since most boards have only five members, all board members must work cooperatively and reach consensus-based decisions to be effective. If board members cannot trust their colleagues, or if some distract the entire board with personal agendas, a board will be impeded from considering the business items on its agenda. This environment frustrates a board’s ability to work efficiently, and it may even negatively affect the quality of a board’s decisions.
When C-SPAN was founded about 30 years ago, politicians discovered a model of governing that is neither cooperative nor consensus-driven. In the 435 member United States House of Representatives and the 100 member United States Senate, some legislators became professional “back-benchers.” They did not seek to govern by persuasion or reason with their colleagues. Instead, their audience was the spotlight. The goal of these politicians was not to become effective policy-makers, but to promote personal ideologies. At first, back-benchers did little harm, since they were isolated members of large legislative bodies. But since the 1980’s, these polarizing figures have become influential in both parties and consensus now is scarce. In this environment, is it a surprise that Congress has careened from crisis to crisis, run up an astronomical federal debt, and even failed to adopt a budget for the last several years?
The functional needs of effective school boards are based on their historical evolution and role in policy-making decisions. A cooperative governing model emerged about a century ago. For many years, large politically partisan boards led to patronage and machine-based management of public schools. These practices eventually were eradicated in favor of a governing model featuring boards that were small, selected in nonpartisan at-large elections and independent from control by local politicians. In the late 1930’s, a national education commission concluded board members should serve staggered terms to maintain stability, and boards should function as a “committee of the whole,” rather than with bare partisan majorities on larger legislative bodies. This model encouraged consensus-based decisions with the assistance of school administrators. The commission also observed that “unlike other political structures, school boards exist for the precise purpose of cultivating this consensus and shielding the provision of education from the clash of political conflict.” Because boards operate with a unique model of consensus and coherence, courts typically do not interfere with school management and give deference to a board’s actions.
For these reasons, it is vital for school boards to function cooperatively. There remains room for robust debate, but a board’s effectiveness is hindered when C-SPAN candidates are elected to represent only their personal agendas. At worst, boards with members who refuse to do business through persuasion and consensus may become wholly dysfunctional. When this happens, the education of children suffers. It also is dangerous to elect C-SPAN candidates to a school board, because members serve 4- year terms and may be removed from office only through a cumbersome process that begins with a the filing of a complaint supported by a petition of voters, and concludes with a judicial finding that a member has committed “gross neglect of duty, gross immorality, drunkenness, or other misconduct in office.” (R.C. Sections 3.07 and 3.08.) This process has been successfully used only a handful of times in the last 50 years.
Fresh from the partial federal government shutdown, the public has a historically- low opinion Congress. This dislike extends to the House, the Senate and both parties. School boards such as Olentangy’s, which use a time-tested, consensus-based governing model to adopt balanced budgets and make other business decisions, compare quite favorably to the crisis-driven circus that reigns nightly on C-SPAN. Voters should keep this in mind when they decide who will represent them on the board on Tuesday, November 5.

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