New legislation accelerates “micromangement” changes, empowers superintendents
The new legislation builds on the “micromanagement” bill that went into effect last year, but Rep. Stephen Pugh (R-Ponchatoula) would like to carry the reforms a step further. Within the next two weeks, he anticipates the Senate will take up House Bill 292, which would allow voters to set term limits for school board members.
“When you look at where our state is ranked and my parish is ranked in terms of education, it’s clear that we need a new approach,” Pugh said. “School board members exert influence over important policy matters like curriculum and we need fresh ideas. That’s why I like the idea of term limits.”
In 2011, Louisiana was ranked 48th out of all 50 states for K-12 student achievement. Statistics also show that one-third of the state’s students are performing below grade level. Louisiana ranks last in the number of fourth graders who read proficiently and it also has the highest drop-out rate in the country.
Pugh’s bill, which House members passed by a margin of 60-36 earlier this month, would give voters the option to vote up or down on limiting school board members to three consecutive four-year terms.
Dr. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), is not certain term limits will achieve the desired effect. He sees an advantage in having experienced school board members.
“Having an institutional memory on the school board can be important,” he observed. “Each district faces unique challenges, each district has its history and there is something to be said for having people on the board who have the knowledge and experience.”
But Pugh, and other term limit supporters, place greater weight on “fresh ideas” than they do on experience.
“We should make more room for new board members who have a fresh perspective,” he said. “If experience is what really mattered here, we would not be so low on the totem poll.”
Camille Conaway, public policy researcher with Blueprint Louisiana, agrees.
“The challenges facing public education today require new school board members with new ideas,” she said. “We cannot afford to become too closely tied to any particular system, approach or strategy. New leadership will serve to renew the high expectations we must have to succeed, and the legislature should give voters the option to explore new leadership on school boards through term limits.”
Pugh is cautiously optimistic about his bill’s prospects in the Senate.
“We are giving voters the option to support to term limits,” he noted. “It’s entirely their choice, we are not imposing anything.”
The Jefferson and Lafayette parish school boards would be exempt if the legislation does pass since they already have term limits. The Recovery School District (RSD) and the governing bodies of charter schools would also be exempt.
Brigitte Nieland, Vice President of Communications and Director of Education and Workforce Development for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), views the term limits bill as part of a larger effort to set clear lines of demarcation between school board members and local school officials.
“For several years, LABI has pushed legislation to put an end to micromanagement by local school boards,” she said. “Specifically, the goal is to ensure that school boards remain policymaking bodies, hire a superintendent to operate the system, and hold the superintendent accountable for results. The superintendent should be the only position school boards are involved in regarding hiring, or firing, or any other personnel matter. All personnel decisions should be under the purview of the superintendent. Otherwise, school boards become job centers, keeping politics at the forefront and student achievement in the background as a priority.”
Nieland describes the legislative changes included within HB 974 as “micromanagement reform on steroids.” But also said that the additional latitude given to superintendents also comes with added responsibilities and expectations.
HB 974 will:
Mandate that in school districts that receive a “C”, “D”, or “F” grade, the system’s superintendent’s contract must establish performance targets regarding student achievement, school improvement, graduation rates, and teacher quality. Any contract not meeting these stipulations will be rendered null and void.
- Mandate that if the performance targets are not met, the superintendent shall be removed from office.
- Reinforce the board’s role as a policymaking body and, when making policy, prioritize student achievement, financial efficiency, and workforce development during consideration.
- Clarify that the superintendent has the authority over all personnel decisions (but delegate some personnel decisions to principals).
- Establish that employment with a school system will be based on performance, effectiveness, and qualifications. Effectiveness will be the primary criterion for all personnel actions.
- Mandate that in no case will seniority or tenure be used as primary criteria for personnel actions, ending the onerous “Last In, First Out” practice utilized during reductions in force actions.
The school governance changes are not meant to dilute the importance of school boards, Pugh explained, but they will establish proper boundaries.
“This about putting the school boards and the superintendents into their proper box,” he said. “The school boards are responsible for the bricks and mortar of our school policies, while the superintendents deal with personnel and other day to day decisions.”