“…there are limits on a board’s authority and we are not permitted
to usurp the authority of site based councils.”
– Boone County School Board Member Ed Massie
On behalf of the Board and Superintendent, December 2014
We often hear that local control is better. I firmly believe that government decisions are best made at the local level. Having input from residents and elected officials within your community presents an opportunity of leadership by those who understand the people, culture, and regional political landscape. That said, I also believe it is possible for control to become too restrictive, and would like to share my experience with just such a scenario. This is a challenge we currently face with the Site Based Decision Making councils (SBDM) that provide oversight of our Kentucky schools.
The SBDM pose an important problem for quality education. In the end, it is clear that the elected district board members have little control over their school system. It is also clear that parents have a limited voice at both the district and site-based council levels. Worse, due to a lack of sharing and coordination, students can become isolated and left behind under the current Kentucky school governance structure.
In 1990, the Kentucky General Assembly –in response to a court decision – passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act, also known as KERA. This education reform dramatically altered funding, curriculum, and governance of public schools in our state. KERA legislation mandated the creation of SBDM councils.
SBDM councils are small boards within each school that provide policy, programs and curriculum for that school. It is composed of the principal, three local teachers, and two parents of current students, also allowing positions for minority parents and educators when enrollment dictates such.
The design was intended to circumvent political control by powerful families who either work for the school district or live within the community. At the same time, the design excludes various constituencies, including community leaders, classified staff, and taxpayers without enrollment in the school. They have no active voice. Unfortunately, this severely restricts the degree of open discussion and willingness to address educational decisions.
An intentional side effect of this type of governance was to foster competition between schools within the district, aiming to drive a competitive focus on education, presenting results in the form of improved test scores. The actuality is this competition has created silos of secrecy. Schools are not obligated to compare notes on programs that have worked or that have failed, at the expense of our children.
My first experience with public schools was when our oldest daughter enrolled in 1999, followed by our twins in 2002. Our address allowed us the choice of attending the well-regarded municipal school system, or the district county school. Entering the second grade, my son began to show signs of a learning difference. The municipal school, where all of my children had been attending, was unable to facilitate the necessary learning environment. Their solution was to recommend sending him to the county school for additional resources.
With much frustration, after completion of his fourth grade year at the county school, I sought an outside diagnosis for our son. This was when I first learned of the severity of his learning challenge and was advised our best course of action was to pursue a multi-sensory instruction methodology known as Orton-Gillingham (OG). Our son was diagnosed with dyslexia.
To my surprise, no one at the county elementary school was familiar with OG methodology – not an administrator, teacher, or special education teacher.
Not long after we had received the diagnosis, in a per-chance conversation with a co-worker, I learned that the OG method was not only in use at an adjacent elementary school in our district; the program had been established for 2 years!
Learning this, I promptly contacted the instructor from the adjacent school to set up a classroom visit. After the visitation, I began asking hard questions:
“Why does a school only six miles from my son’s school have this valuable program and his school does not?”
“Why is there only one school in the district with the OG program when hard data shows improvements for dyslexic readers?”
“Why wasn’t this success shared with other schools? What do principals talk about during principal meetings?”
The principal at my son’s elementary school, by her own admission, had never heard of Orton-Gillingam. The principal therefore, who is also the chairman of the SBDM council and the individual who oversees programs, curriculum, and controls the school’s budget, could have never brought OG to the council for consideration because she had never been exposed to it herself. It is noteworthy that principals are also hired by the SBDM.
Each school principal meets weekly with the superintendent to discuss activity. Why was the information about OG not shared between all facilities, if the educational needs of students the primary topic of conversation?
I believe this lack of communication was a direct result of Site Base Decision Making councils. Where countywide oversight would align the educational resources for the entire district, the silo effect created by SBDM effectively denied my son and other children years of his education. Resources should not be contingent upon zip codes.
As parents, we do not receive training on curriculum, nor do we know the multitude of programs readily available to children. Consequently, does parental service on these councils provide appropriate educational insight that is not being contributed by school staff or administration?
Are the three teachers who serve, and who are very much aware they still work for the principal, willing to challenge their employer? The Kentucky SBDM councils are by design, weighted in favor of school administration, which are isolated from other schools. Are the two parents aggressive and informed enough to challenge the educators, who effectively control the councils anyhow? Is this really the best form of school governance?
In the end, it is clear that the elected district board members have little control over their school system. It is also clear that parents have a limited voice at both the district and site-based council levels. Worse, due to a lack of sharing and coordination, students can become isolated and left behind under the current Kentucky school governance structure.
Our frustrations did not stop at the elementary level.
With both the move to middle school, and then again to high school, the processes started again. Each school he entered had to adopt the OG program, train the educators, and facilitate the needs. As a parent, had I not been leading the charge and in a state of continual advocacy, nothing would have been done to accommodate the needs of up to twenty percent of our population who have dyslexia.
I have served nine years as an SBDM parent representative. I have seen, first-hand, how parents are forced to go before this council. Imagine seeking answers to why your child is failing due to the weighted grading system of the school, and then having to challenge that system, which was specifically put in place by the SBDM council of the school in the first place. Again, the elected county or district board will not get involved in such affairs; it is all handled by the SBDM.
These duties and more should be the responsibility of the superintendent and elected school board members who can and should be held accountable by the voters and taxpayers of that district. The SBDM council is not accountable to the voter or the taxpayer.
With SBDM, only parents of each school can elect a parent representative to serve on the council. Registered voters within the district have no input, if they do not have a child enrolled.
Additionally, fellow teaching staff elects the teacher members of the SBDM council. It is not a requirement that the teachers selected for the council, or even those voting for the council, have residence within the district. Even without residency, they receive the ability to determine how the local tax dollars are being invested, and choose whom will be making the educational decisions for children within the district.
It is also not a requirement for the principal, who presides over the council to reside within the district. Of all the principals with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, I have not encountered one that resided within the same county, let alone the district of the school.
Prior to SBDM implementation, the elected district school board had final authority across the entire district, on all educational matters. Since SBDM implementation, these elected positions have effectively been reduced to oversight of taxation, budget, transportation, and are now only responsible for staffing decisions at the superintendent level.
My experience both as a parent, and as an SBDM council member has been that increasingly, the board is now very quick to dismiss any parental inquiries from the district level, and direct them to the localized SBDM councils. No statement echoes through the council chamber halls more frequently than “That is an SBDM issue.” Parents seeking answers are frequently trapped in bureaucracy, created by the divide between the district school board and SBDM. If they don’t like a decision made by their local SBDM, they approach the board, which in turn, sends them back to the SBDM.
SBDM councils have proven to be uninformed on successful educational practices.
SBDM council logic is an obstacle to sharing of successes and failures within our schools, even within the same district.
SBDM councils create a teacher-dominated decision making body with final authority where parents are explicitly designated as a voting minority.
SBDM councils have rendered the elected district school board and superintendent impotent regarding most important educational matters in our schools.
SBDM councils do not provide the best method of ensuring our students are afforded every available opportunity to succeed.
The Kentucky State General Assembly is in session for the duration of February. Please reach out to your state representation and voice your support in favor of returning authority to our central, elected school boards.
Phyllis Sparks has experience as a SBDM Parent Representative at the Walton-Verona Elementary, Gray Middle, and Ryle High Schools. She is a Commonwealth Institute of Parent Leadership (CIPL) graduate (2009) and a past president of the Kentucky branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She is a recently elected Boone County Magistrate.