Could ‘the good old boy effect’ return if Kentucky school councils were changed?

Kentucky’s system that gives school councils authority is under fire. Should it be changed?

Kentucky school superintendents once had broad hiring power. Now, Kentucky schools are run largely by councils of teachers, parents and an administrator. This video is of state Sen. John Schickel who is calling for changes.
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Kentucky school superintendents once had broad hiring power. Now, Kentucky schools are run largely by councils of teachers, parents and an administrator. This video is of state Sen. John Schickel who is calling for changes.

Twenty-eight years ago, one Kentucky Education Reform Act change that effected education in Kentucky modified the significant control school superintendents could have on a school district.

KERA allowed school-based decision making councils composed of parents, teachers and administrators to share leadership and make school policy.

Recently, Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe, who oversees the third largest school district in the state, asked state lawmakers to consider modifying and clarifying the role of the school councils in the 2019 General Assembly.

Proponents of the school councils — including some lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Education — said during a robust debate at a Nov. 19 committee meeting that they were concerned that changes could lead once again to too much power for superintendents and school boards.

State Rep. Charles Miller, D-Louisville, a former high school principal, said he worked as an educator before and after Kentucky created school based decision making councils.

“When we didn’t have the council, we had the good old boy effect,” Miller said. “These councils are so important to the schools ... we’ve got to keep them going.”

State Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, has not had success in previous attempts to change laws concerning the councils, sometimes also called site-based decision making councils. But Schickel said he would file a bill in the 2019 General Assembly, though he said he was not yet committed to specific changes.

“The site based council decision making process is not working in most school systems. It has not improved test scores,” he said.

At a school board planning meeting earlier this month, Fayette County board members said that one of their priorities for the 2019 General Assembly would be to allow school boards to suspend school council authority, if warranted, in the interest of student advancement.

One of the greatest flaws in the school council system is that there is conflict over who has final authority — local school boards or the school councils — on issues such as selection of text books and district curriculum, Poe said.

“The rules are not clear cut,” Poe said.

Unless low-performing schools are designated as CSI, or needing comprehensive support and intervention which allows superintendents to take over governance of a school, school boards and superintendents have limited influence, Poe said.

Some school councils don’t take school boards’ recommendations when they are offered resources to improve schools, he said. Some councils don’t agree with the state Department of Education’s decisions that schools should be improved, Poe added.

Regulations are needed so that “when there are conflicts ... there is a clear cut road to the decision-making power,” he added.

Jim Waters, President and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute, an organization that works on public policy solutions, agreed with Poe and told lawmakers that after more than two decades of site-based governance at schools “obviously the chaos and confusion seem to continue about who can do what in too many of our schools.”

Waters said the councils’ effect on school achievement was questionable although others at the committee meeting told lawmakers that student achievement had improved.

Davonna Page, a Russellville Independent school board member who has also been a school council member, said superintendents, not council members, should have the final decision on hiring a principal, although councils could still have an advisory role.

Eric Kennedy, the director of government relations for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said his group does not want to get rid of the school councils, but like Poe and Waters, said there should be a better sharing and balance of authority between school board members, teachers and parents on a school council.

Lucy Waterbury, a parent representative on the Glendover Elementary school council in Fayette County and a leader in a group called Save Our Schools Kentucky; Te’Andra Parker, who said she has served on a Kentucky school council as a teacher and parent; and Woodford County school council parent member Lauren Mitchell, all spoke against taking power away from school councils at the committee meeting.

As a teacher, “I know what’s best at my school,” said Parker. “As a mother, I know what’s best for my children.”

Mitchell said as a school council member she has been involved with hiring administrators and teachers in Woodford County.

“I think parent voice is vital,” she said.

Under the current system, Waterbury said, superintendents still have influence on hiring principals and that student achievement has improved.

“We need to remember why we ended up with school based decision making to begin with,” said Waterbury. “In Kentucky years ago, superintendents wielded an awful lot of power and placed an awful lot of people ...into well-paying, well-benefited jobs.”