How I’d Fix the School Committees
We have a problem in many towns with how our governance is set up. Towns have an executive and a legislative body that assist each other in running the town. Those two manage the municipal affairs including the Town Hall, police, fire, public works and almost all other parts of the town. However for some reason, we don’t trust them to run the schools. Instead, we elect a completely separate body to run that one department. Why?
Along with this setup, we let the school committee negotiate contracts on behalf of the school system and they are responsible for the budget for the schools. However, the school committee has no ability to generate their own funding through taxation. Instead, they rely upon the town council to give them enough money to run the schools. But in most towns (all?) the council and executive have very little to no say in the budgeting and contract negotiations. It’s kind of like the school committee is going shopping with someone else’s credit card. And then what happens when the town council doesn’t give the school committee the amount of money that the committee wants? The school committee sues the town council under the George Caruolo Act. When that happens, you have one group that represents the town’s taxpayers suing another group that represents the town’s taxpayers. In this situation, only the lawyers win.
Add on to this, the mayor and town council have very little say over how the schools are run and managed. The mayor stands out in front, creates a budget, sets a tax rate, the town council approves it and then just hands the money over to the school committee. When people aren’t happy with the schools, they complain to the mayor. When people aren’t happy with their tax increases that may be due to budgets created by the school committee, people complain to the mayor. There’s little the mayor can do about the complaints.
So here’s how I’d fix it. Maybe this change would require a change of the state charter, but whatever it takes, this is the change I’d make.
First, abolish the school committee as it exists today for all the reasons I wrote above. At least to eliminate the ability for one town committee to sue another town committee. That’s just ludicrous.
Basically what I’m going to do is make the school committee a hybrid sub-committee of the town council. First, pick a number of members for the new schools sub-committee. For my example, I’ll pick seven. I will let the chair or president of the town council appoint three members of the town council to the schools sub-committee. Town councils already have various subcommittees, so this isn’t a big deal. Doing this guarantees that the town council has oversight into the schools and is involved with their budgeting and contract negotiations. If they’re going to be involved with funding the schools, I want them to have some oversight as well. I can also see where this could be a lot of work and we may want to have some people who are focused on the schools. I am also going to add three at-large seats. These are people who will be on the schools sub-committee but will not be members of the town council. They will be elected by the voters, much like today’s school committee members are elected today. So that’s six members that I’ve added. The seventh and the chair of the committee will always be the mayor or town manager. Now the person who frequently receives the questions, complaints and frustrations with the schools will have direct oversight of the school system.
There we go, a whole new school committee system. It seems to work well. It allows the town council to have oversight without burdening the entire council with school management responsibilities and it also dilutes the power of the town council by having an equal number of people specifically elected to the committee. It also has the same people creating the budget and negotiating contracts that have to set the town’s tax rate. Best of all, the person who many already believe runs the schools actually does get to do just that.
Why can’t this work?