Board Blurs Line between Governance and Administration

by Lisa Haver

The Philadelphia Board of Education’s first action at its January 26, 2023 action meeting was to exalt itself. The second was to curb its own power.

The meeting opened with a multi-part ceremony in honor of “Board Appreciation Month”. District administration staffers presented student artwork made for the occasion. Students from several schools appeared on the large screen in the front of the auditorium, literally singing the board’s praises. Finally, a member of Superintendent Tony Watlington’s cabinet read a statement expressing the administration’s appreciation for the board’s dedication and great work.

Even beyond the embarrassing display of self-congratulation, with its questionable recruiting of public school students to deliver a “Dear Leader” ode, this spectacle sends a message that the board is compromising its oversight of the administration. The public must see that the board, while maintaining a cordial and professional relationship, will keep the administration in check and make sure that they are carrying out their responsibilities to the district’s stakeholders. We have seen this line blurred when the board instituted the Goals and Guardrails, setting itself up as another branch of the administration, one that analyzes student data points. The fact is, the board is the governing body of the district. Their duty is not to collect and analyze data, it is to create policies and initiate programs, perhaps based on that data, that make sure that students have everything they need to achieve.

Following the self-appreciation ceremony, the board agreed to limit what it could say and for how long. Following the direction of Board President Reginald Streater, they voted by consensus that their questions and comments to members of the administration during this part of the meeting would be limited to two minutes. Any follow-up questions could be asked in the next round. Should an effort to streamline the meetings come with a clipping of the board’s own wings? When parents who have come to the board, pleading for them to do something about the condition and safety of the buildings, or about the lack of resources in the schools, do they want board members to be cut off when pressing the administration on what they are doing about those issues? Most disturbing, perhaps, was the board members’ compliance in having to obey the timer, displayed on the large screen behind them.

In recent board meetings and public hearings, members have repeatedly the misguided assertion that they are there to support the administration. The board’s responsibility is to hold the administration responsible for its decisions and actions. The years-long debacle at Ben Franklin and Science Leadership Academy shows what happens when the board fails to do that. Students and staff were harmed, and the cost of the project ballooned fivefold.

The stakeholders of the district are not best served when the board diminishes its own power and when the board erodes the checks and balances between itself and the administration it is supposed to oversee.

The board’s actions illustrate one problem with an appointed school board. Board members comply with authoritarian directives from the leadership. They vote in a block, with most official items passed unanimously and without deliberation. They are directly accountable to the mayor, who appoints them after a process conducted in secret by a panel entirely chosen by him.
Board members in districts where voters are not disenfranchised are accountable to the people. They must tell the voters who they are and what their positions on the issues are before they take office. When they don’t represent their constituents, they can be voted out.

When the Board of Education truly challenges the status quo—when it brings back fully staffed school libraries, lowers class size, and hires more support staff—they will no longer need to resort to self-appreciation.