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School Board for Sale

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A few weeks ago, I wrote that it may be time to think about abolishing school boards. I want to start this post by calming anyone who was alarmed by it: I'm putting away my magic wand, and postponing my plans to abolish school boards indefinitely. No, really. The idea was to get us all thinking, not to necessarily start a political movement to abolish school boards. It's not like I started a political action committee or anything to carry the idea to the masses.

Then again, maybe I should. 

Ever since I made a failed effort to join my local school board, I've been watching the coming election for additional openings on the board with an even more watchful eye than usual. The more I find out about this election the worse I feel about it, mainly because even here, in a small local election, money is being used to try to change the outcome.

Here's my position on school boards in the 21st century: they don't do anything that couldn't be done just as effectively, or more effectively, by a committee of concerned parents, teachers, and administrators representing the local schools. When I wrote my earlier posts on school boards a few commenters assumed that I must be advocating for centralizing responsibility in the hands of a mayor or maybe a state official, but that's not what I'm after at all. I'm also not on board with people like Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, who wants to see school boards abolished because he sees them as obstacles to the growth of charter schools. I'd like to see responsibility for school governance pushed down, not up—in the direction of the school itself—and I definitely don't want to see school governance made less democratic just because a CEO thinks it fits his social engineering plans.

Yet, I am not convinced that the Great American School Board is the primal example of democracy that some of us would like to believe it is. At one time it may well have been, though I suspect, given the way power and wealth have been so unevenly distributed throughout our history, that school boards never really reflected the needs and interests of the people they served as well as they could have. If anything, they add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy atop schools. I'm just not convinced that the school board, as it is currently conceived, is the place to do the work that most needs to be done to help schools get better. Actually, the school board seems, in many communities, to be in a position of actively undermining the work that needs to be done. 

I offer my community as a case in point: here an election looms in which several seats on our nine member board will be up for grabs. The biggest story in this election is not about standardized testing or opting out or even Common Core—topics that are as important and contentious here as they are anywhere else. Instead, the key issue, you will not be surprised to know, is taxes. And it's not about figuring out a way to ensure that we have the revenue we need to give our kids the education they deserve. 

That's because the push and pull between development and preservation is probably more powerful here than it is in most places, and it's coming to a head. In this election, five candidates for school board are running as a "team"; their names and faces have been above the masthead of the local paper every day this week, and they have purchased huge signs declaring that it's "Time for a Change" in our district leadership. Together, if elected, these five could constitute a voting bloc—a majority on the nine-member board. Do we know they would all vote together? They say they won't, necessarily. Are they representing someone's interests other than their own? They say they aren't, necessarily. But how can we be sure?

We can't, because their funding comes from a group called "Control GASD Taxes" (GASD is an abbreviation for the name of the school district), and that's exactly what they aim to do. The group is bankrolled by a local developer who wants to turn a farm on the outskirts of town into houses for 2,000 new residents aged 55 and older. But he doesn't want to pay for it himself, at least not exactly. He wants to invoke a scheme called "tax increment financing," which, in a nutshell, enables him to turn "blighted" property into a new development by rehabilitating it with the help of a bond provided by local taxpayers and issued against the unrealized future taxes that the new development is expected to generate. He needs the school board's vote to go forward since it has taxing authority. It's an open question whether or not the property is question is actually "blighted" (it's mostly just undeveloped grass), and definitely an open question whether or not the school district should front the money for a private development in the hopes that it will generate more tax revenue later. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. 

What seems clear, though, is that this developer is trying to buy himself a school board. According to the local paper, he plans to spend as much as $19,500 on the election (his group has one other contributor—someone gave $100—but even the developer says he doesn't know who that contributor is), and it shows. There are signs everywhere. Turnout will probably be low, and it seems likely to me that the lucky five whose names will show on both the Republican and Democratic ballots, and whose names and faces will have graced the newspaper's front page for several days, and who promise to stop the runaway spending train that is the local school board, stand a good chance of winning at least a few seats. If nothing else, the election seems destined to deliver several more years of discussion about taxes and development and budgets—everything but actual school issues. 

This is not Horace Mann's dream to save the republic come to fruition. It's not Jefferson's dream of the yeoman bringing common sense to the dirty world of politics. It's not the wise leaders of a New England village putting the interests of the local youth first. It's post-Citizens United "democracy" hitting us right between the eyes. And this is not just happening here. Big money is making its way into other school board elections as well. Money talks in elections these days, and it talks more, and more loudly, and more rudely, than it ever has before. More brazenly, too. In some sense, it doesn't even matter if this developer is trying to buy the school board to get his project greenlighted; what matters is that he's this close to buying a school board at all. Am I being cynical? Maybe. But how could I not be? You can buy a lot of yard signs for $20,000, and in a small town where information is not as readily available as it should be, and where the medium is matched to a message that appeals to many voters' base instinct to look out for themselves first, that means a lot. 

Operating public schools will always be political work. When people receive an education they become empowered, and that can have an impact on the distribution of power in the larger society. But there's a difference between that kind of power and the kind being exercised by a wealthy businessman who can write a check and have outsized influence on the agenda of an elected board of education (a businessman, I might add, who isn't even running for a spot on the board). As my mother used to say when we tried to put one over on her as kids: I wasn't born yesterday. I don't believe for a minute that these five candidates, if elected, won't owe a debt to their benefactor. At the very least, they seem to share a reactionary anti-tax sensibility that's bad news for supporters of our local public schools. Well, anti-tax in the sense that the term works rhetorically; the whole campaign to "control" our taxes seems based on the idea that tax money ought to be used to subsidize development which will, in turn, generate even more tax money later. That sounds like magical thinking to me. 

We need a better solution. Why not take the power to decide how local school funds are spent out of the hands of whoever has the resources to win a local election and let the professionals make the important decisions about distributing school funds instead? I don't have a quick solution bouncing around in my head, but I do suspect that the antiquated system of basing school funding on local property taxes has to go. More equitable funding formulas are long overdue as well. I don't know if statewide sales taxes, income taxes, or other fees will do the trick, but I do know that it takes money to run schools, and charging tuition would be tantamount to turning our backs on the least advantaged among us. We have to do something. Provision of education is a shared social responsibility that we ought to take very seriously. All of us.

As for me, I have decided that I don't plan to spend anything close to $20,000 on this local school board election. But I do have to wonder what I could accomplish if I did.

 

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