Your local school district: An analysis


Sooner or later we all interact with our local school district in a variety of ways; in sports with team participation and associated fees, student registration and lunch fees, attendance and student discipline, PTO and PTA organizations, band and sports booster groups, employment negotiations and many other groups and events.

We all know that a school district is a bureaucracy. But actually in all cases it is a political bureaucracy with a set of constituencies that rule the roost and your approach to the district MUST conform to this constituent influence or risk an unsuccessful encounter with the district. Keeping this in mind will increase your success rate in dealing with your district. Also note that my definition of bureaucracy is all people employed by the district from the board down through the superintendent, principals, teachers, bus drivers, or actually anybody whose livelihood is tied to the district.

Consider the following constituents in an approximate order of importance:

1) Power of the press: For school districts, the monster hiding under the bed is the editorial board of a newspaper who decides to launch an “investigation” of the district. This is treated like a 100 year flood since it goes everywhere, comes as a big surprise, it has no effective counter measure (so your only defense is painful endurance), and does widespread damage to everybody and everything in the status quo. Indeed, these “floods” are remembered and talked about at every level in the district forever. It strongly follows, if your business with the district impacts in any way this sleeping monster, you are in trouble and therefore this entity is treated, understandably, as a special constituency.

2) Parents: This is really a sub-section of item (1 above. To the district it always seems that the parents are on the verge of carelessly and quickly trying to wake up this monster and then stand back and, perhaps, smirk as all heck breaks loose (and perversely take some credit for what happens). The result to the district is that a parental comment or complaint is always treated with gold-lined kid gloves which will continue as long as the parents want it to remain. The district is never quite sure they can, in the end, keep them happy. This, then, is a fragile but important constituency and more pervasive since there are so many more of them (versus the few but powerful members of the editorial board). Therefore bear in mind if your district business impacts parental issues, your work is cut out for you.

3) The Ohio Board of Education and all the federal and local accrediting organizations (including several ad hoc government supported think tanks with grants to confer and, probably micromanage after awarding them). The district does not worry too much about the accrediting agencies (see South Central) which comes in with some fanfare, takes over several offices for a day or so, but in a fairly dependable fashion will grant the accreditation. The ODE (Ohio Department of Education) rating is an important and official government rating issued after each inspection (mostly yearly but can be done anytime). The higher ratings (e.g. Excellent) are highly coveted and something to really brag about. A good rating is used to pat yourself on the back for unquestioned good district performance throughout a wide internal and external audience. The only downside of these ratings is the incentive for the district to fall victim to a self-generated padding of the books to inflate the internal data examined by the raters (see Columbus Ohio Public Schools and many others as well). This internal exaggeration is usually focused on attendance and graduation figures. However, the most damaging exaggeration, in my opinion, is the grade inflation practiced by some offending districts and implemented by the teachers, sometimes under direct orders of the principals (or curriculum directors). This handicaps the teachers, parents and especially the students in too many districts. We then have the embarrassing result of highly ranked graduates who are not nearly as well prepared as their colleges think they should be. This is remembered and accounted for in the evaluations of future student entrance applications from this cheating school which, of course, takes years to outgrow. Still the desirability of a high ODE rating forms a specific constituent mindset that will affect many future decisions by the district (e.g. new hires or current staff contract renewals and evaluations) and cannot be ignored.

4) Sports: The sports community is a well-known group which are their own constituency. What other school groups operate as a complete, highly visible, larger than life extension of the school’s reputation and value. A losing team is tolerated but a winning team is a gift from God and is treated as such. What it wants to do is hard to resist. The extended community loves the winning team while the participating boys and girls hopefully have a positive experience employable for the rest of their lives, but in other cases these kids are marked as self-centered bullies who quickly fade into sad non-contributors shortly after graduating. But as participates, these constituents expect their special status to give them privilege and benefits unearned by any non-athletic activity. The result is that these people represent a nuisance that is encountered often but, at the same time, they are another constituency which must be dealt with when dealing with the district.

5) There are many other constituent entities less important than the above entries which appear as special needs arise, such as law enforcement, construction or maintenance crews, special status granted to leading citizens, etc., but these rarely impact the rest of us and can be safely ignored.

In summary: almost all government organizations are bureaucratic, even politically bureaucratic and, as such, each have their own list of constituents. It is close to a universal truth. So the above points are definitely not pointed at any specific school district. However, it is necessary to keep reminding yourself that these constituents are real and always a part of the district’s daily routine of “what is most important.” They always impact any policy suggestion or attempt to modify current activities from any source. It is smart and wise to understand and use these constituents in any manner which you think is proper and helpful for your individual agenda (which, of course, we hope will make a better district) but still always remember the district does an important job, but they do it as a bureaucracy.

Richard Castle is a former educator and Washington C.H. resident.

By Richard Castle

Guest Columnist