SBDM Councils – Wrong for Kentucky Schools and Families

Phyllis Sparks Photo
Guest post by: Phyllis Sparks

“…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.

To recap:

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.


  1. Joseph Smith says:

    I feel for your frustration having to deal with learning disabilities in my own family & being a former SBDM member myself. But, I see no connection with SBDM on this issue. You seem to be blaming the wrong entity here.

    I do see SBDM as a failed program, but for other reasons. One: the parents have little say. The principal makes sure that “yes” teachers are put on the board, therefor any difference of opinion by parents is quashed. Then the principal makes sure that SBDM meetings are not well advertised to dissuade attendance by parents. There is also very little advertising to parents about what SBDM does and how it could be used to address their concerns.

    As far as learning disabilities go, it is a whole other cluster of bureaucracy. Schools are eager to identify children as having a “special need” or learning disability so they can get more funding to the school. The problem arises, however, when it comes to how that funding is used. Once they get it, they don’t want to use it, specifically for special needs areas. For instance, if a child with a disability takes a math class, that is now justification to use that money to buy the math textbooks (for everyone), repair the gym floor, new computer for a classroom, etc….just as long as a child with a learning disability uses the area.
    The schools DON’T want to ensure the child gets the help she/he needs, because then that money would actually go elsewhere (or go to the purpose it was actually attended for).
    Unfortunately parents’ are left on an island to figure out and even fight to get hep for their children. Your district office knows or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN where to get your child help. The individual schools don’t know (and maybe don’t care) because this means their sugar daddy money will be spent elsewhere. It is a sad but true tragedy. You have my heartfelt sympathies for your situation. But, I couldn’t disagree more that this is a problem with SBDM. It was your school’s RESPONSIBILTY to get you help. They failed, probably on purpose.

    • Richard Innes says:

      (Posting for Phyllis Sparks)

      Thank you for your response Mr. Smith. I assure you my frustration is properly directed and was confirmed by the superintendent of my school district. My involvement with SBDM councils have afforded me the ability to get interventions for students with dyslexia in the schools where I have served as parent representative.
      I would agree with you on your assessment on how funding is distributed but that should be a topic for an article all in itself.

      Phyllis Sparks

      • Karl Steutermann says:

        I too can understand your frustration. As a parent of a third grader, we had to go to outside tutoring to get our child up to grade level in reading despite the “Reading Recovery” program at our school. However, I have to agree with Richard Innes. The issue here is not the SBDM. This is the ONLY group in the schools that includes opportunity for parental involvement in curiculum decisions. Unfortunately, the SBDM actually has very limited authority. Let me explain my reasoning. The School Boards set the budgets and hire the Superintendents. The Superintendents approve the Principles. The KY State Education Department, through the State Textbook Committee, produces a list of approved text books that the schools can choose from. The Professional Learning Committees in the schools, one comprised say of all 3rd grade teachers, another comprised of all 5th grade teachers etc., choose text and curriculum from the list and recommend it to the SBDM. If they wish to choose curriculum not on the list, they must fill out a bunch of forms justifying their defiance of the KY State Textbook Committee’s decision to exclude it from the list and why the other textbook is better. The forms must be signed by the Principle AND the Superintendent of the School District and then sent to the Textbook Committee.
        I believe that the better route to go would be to make the SBDM’s more accountable to the parents rather than do away with them. Second, should citizens who pay school taxes but don’t have children being educated in the system be given the same voice as those who pay school taxes AND have children being education in the system? I think not.

        • Richard Innes says:

          Mr. Steutermann,

          Thank you for your comments.

          First, let me point out that both the original blog and a comment above are from Phyllis Sparks, not me. I only posted her comments for her. So, you actually are agreeing with Ms. Sparks.

          Regarding your thoughts about the power of SBDM, I disagree on several points.

          Superintendents do not hire principals. Thanks to a recent change in law, the superintendent chairs the SBDM when principals are being selected, but the vote of the SBDM, which is controlled by teachers versus parents by a legally mandated 3 to 2 ratio of representation, determines who is hired.

          Local boards do set budgets, but once a final allocation is determined for each school, the SBDM has control over how those dollars are actually spent.

          The SBDM, not the local board and superintendent, have total control over curriculum. Superintendents and board members have tested this over the years, and they have been slapped down by the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability and/or the courts every time.

          All of that said, I agree that more parent control over SBDM could be beneficial, but the reality is that parents don’t usually have much grounding in technical areas like curriculum development. Also, the resources available at the school level may be rather thin to engage in such time-consuming (if done properly) activity.

          It probably would be better to pool school-level resources at the district level and make the major decisions about technical issues at that level for the entire district.

          • Joseph Smith says:

            I tend to disagree with you, not based on the technical aspects but the reality. The SBDM technically DOES hire the principals. The reality is that not every applicant for the principal position is forwarded to the SBDM for review. In my experience the applicant list is “screened” before the SBDM sees it (the same being true for teacher hires).
            The same goes for curriculum. The curriculum, is presented to the SBDM as approved curriculum they MUST chose from. Also, that curriculum is a already predetermined and the vote is just a check mark that must be made. It is indeed a rarity that the teachers will not vote for what they have already been told to vote for prior to that meeting. It is not like the teacher reps are getting inputs from their fellow teachers. They are getting their inputs from those above them. Your experience may have been different.

          • Richard Innes says:

            The law gives the SBDM the authority to decide these issues.

            If a specific SBDM choses to be dominated by their superintendent, that is their choice. But, whenever an SBDM has challenged a superintendent or local board member, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability and/or the courts have backed up the SBDM.

            By law, neither the superintendent nor a local board member can dictate curriculum to an SBDM.

            And, if an SBDM is not happy with the first list of principal applicants it receives, it can demand more names. In this way a number of years ago a SBDM was able to rehire a principal the superintendent had fired. The SBDM kept rejecting all submissions until the fired principal had to be submitted as an available, certified principal candidate. The SBDM promptly rehired that principal. Even with the superintendent chairing the SBDM, with three teachers and only two parents on the SBDM, it is possible that the superintendent could be outvoted and a fired principal could come back to a school yet again.