"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Monday, December 20, 2010

Proposed Legislation: Superintendent Retention Election

On Monday, Dec. 13, the Daily Herald reported that a Salt Lake legistlator is proposing to create retention elections for local school superintendents.  At first, I thought it wasn't such a bad idea, since it would require people to be more involved.  (I'm big on that parental involvement stuff).  But then, I thought about our retention elections for judges, and started to dig a bit deeper into all the ramifications.  I would like to give you my input on this, as a newly-elected school board member.

Currently, the locally-elected school board is responsible for interviewing, hiring, reviewing, disciplining and firing the district superintendent.  The superintendent works directly for the school board, and takes his/her direction from them.  The school board, being elected, are to take their marching orders from their constituents.  If you don't like the superintendent, you don't re-elect the board members who made the hire. 

This is an important difference between a republic and a democracy. 

In our republic, everyone does have a voice in choosing their representatives.  This is an important part of the process.  However, we delegate our power of decision-making, in specific areas, to those elected representatives.  In a republic, these representatives become informed, study the issues, and make decisions in the way that best represents their constitutents (and their inalienable rights).  If our representatives are not doing this, we do not need to appeal to higher government to make them do it.  We the People have the power to remove them and replace them with someone who will.  We delegate our power to our representatives because we want to have decisions made thoughtfully and with all the facts.  We think it unreasonable to assume that most voters would want to spend time on the important minutia in order to make an informed decision.    And if the decision is uniformed, then it is unfair. 

The voters, even in a group, have much less power to direct the superintendent once every six years, than 5 or 7 members of a school board that are observing, directing, and evaluating the superintendent on matters great and small nearly every week.  Retention elections might get rid of an unpopular superintendent, but it does nothing for day-to-day management.  The problem isn't the system of boards managing superintendents.  The problem is boards not being accountable to the people who elected them.

In addition to the major structural change in our republican system of government, I offer a few items for your consideration should this proposed legislation become law.

First, the board would become irrelevent at certain times. Currently, the board is "the boss".  However, in light of a retention election, once a board appointed a superintendent, the superintendent would need to balance the direction of the board against popular opinion.  Every major decision would become a political one and might require a focus group.  In essence, the superintendent would have two masters: the board and the public.  Depending on how close it might be to the retention election, the board's direction would be superceded. 

Additionally, if the superintendent took direction from the board, and the board was wrong, would it be fair to punish the superintendent?  Would it not more properly be the board's responsibility?  Should the board not face the people and be accountable to them?

What about confidential matters of personnel or litigation?  Since these, by law, are closed to the public, would those records be opened in order to properly inform voters prior to an election?  And if not, this is a huge area of responsibility for which the superintendent would not be held to account.

With all due respect, the problem with a superintendent is not the superintendent; it is the board.  If you are not pleased with your superintendent, I would argue that you are more accurately not pleased with your board representation.  How much have you been involved and been communicating with your board members?  What input has the board received from you?  What accountability do you have from your board member?  Do they have a website or a blog where they can be held to account by their constitutents?  How closely do your concerns and issues match with your board member?  Do you think they will accurately represent you vis-a-vis the district and the superintendent?

By the same token, if you were asked to vote to retain your superintendent, have you attended board meetings?  Have you reviewed the financials?  (If so, I'd like to enlist your aid.) Does the superintendent accurately follow the board's direction?  If the board has given the superintendent direction that you disagree with, will you vote against retention?

If it were your job on the line, would you rather be judged by someone who sees your work up close and personal, who sets your job description and evaluation points, or by the stockholders of your company, based on reputation alone?

In all fairness, I am just starting to understand the job of the superintendent.  I would not yet find myself qualified to accurately determine the fitness of the superintendent.  In two years (when our superintendent's contract is up), I will have a much better understanding of the responsibilities and qualifications for the job.  In two years, if you continue to read this blog, you, too, will understand the issues in the district, my perspective on them, and the roles the superintendent and the board play in those issues. 

Also, in two years, another set of board members will be up for reelection.  Times have changed.  People are more involved in overseeing their representatives.  I expect, in two years, you will see a lot more websites, cottage meetings, and YouTube videos from those wishing to represent you.  Lawn signs and an endorsement from a friend of a friend of your neighbor's will no longer be enough to win an election. 

But most importantly, I expect, in two years, you will find me accountable to you for the direction the superintendent has taken.  You will then know where I stand, and can properly lay the responsibility on me and my fellow board members.  You have delegated to us the responsibility of making those important decisions, with all the information available.

The system isn't broken, it just isn't being used properly.  We are a constitutional republic.  We elect representatives to buffer the sometimes-transient opinion of the majority.  We are seeing changes at the local level to make board members more accountable.  Hold our feet to the fire.  Make us answer the difficult questions.  And see the beneficial results of a constitutional republic over that of a democracy.


  1. Excellent points. I think the most significant is that there are aspects of the superintendents job performance that cannot be made public and so the voters will necessarily be uniformed. I think a smaller group of informed citizens (school) board will continue to be the best way to manage and select a superintendent.

  2. I agree with Wendy's position here. Government show be at the local level. We elect our school board members to represent our values. They are easier to reach than the superintendent who does not have time for everyone. We expect our school board to determine direction and set policy and I think it would be counter-productive to elect (or vote to retain) a school board AND a superintendent.
    Jeff Heuer

  3. I respectfully disagree with Rod. I believe the Superintendent's only feed the board what he wants them to know, and Boards have effectively lost control of the system. In both the Alpine School District, and the Provo School District, the Superintendent's "machine" effectively "took out" school board incumbents who disagreed with him. I agree such a system is less than ideal on paper, but given what we have, it is the only way to hold the Superintendent's accountable.

  4. Also, I believe it is questionable whether our "republic" is functioning with respect to school board elections when the candidate who is first on the ballot almost always wins. Below is a list of the ballot order for school board candidates in the 2010 cycle in Utah County. I believe Wendy (and Steve Staples in Provo) were the ONLY candidate who wwere not first on the ballot who won (please correct me if I'm wrong). Wendy just barely won, and she worked at least five times harder than the incumbent she ran against. In other words, I think well over 80% of the voters who vote in the school board elections have no clue what they are doing.

    Dist Order Candidate
    A1 1 David Gray
    A1 2 Casey Voeks
    A1 3 Paula H. Hill
    A1 4 Donna F. Barnes
    A1 5 Robin Allred

    A2 1 Wesley G. Smith
    A2 2 Chrissy Hannemann
    A2 3 Suzanne Tingey
    A2 4 Wendy K. Hart
    A2 5 Zonda Perry

    A3 1 Kelly O'Neill
    A3 2 John C. Burton
    A3 3 Timothy Osborn

    A5 1 Bradford D. Thompson
    A5 2 JoDee Sundberg
    A5 3 Scott Bell

    N2 1 Jim Larsen
    N2 2 Jeffrey B. Roylance
    N2 3 Kristen C. Betts
    N2 4 Liz Porter

    General 2010 - School Board Placement Lottery
    Dist Order Candidate
    N4 1 Rick Ainge
    N4 2 Cynthia Riley

    P1 1 Jacqueline F. deGaston
    P1 2 Steven Staples

    P2 1 Michelle Kaufusi
    P2 2 Carolyn Wright

  5. The system may be broken at this time,allowing Superintendents to manipulate who the board members are. But I don't believe that we should accept "broken." I believe we should try to fix the problem: by keeping power at the local level, voting for board members to do the detailed observing and directing. Becoming informed at a personal level and holding our board members accountable is the best way, in my opinion.

  6. I agree with Wendy. I serve on the City Council in Cedar Hills, and we have approximately the same scenario with the City Manager. (Joel Wright also served on our City Council - thank you!).
    It would be a worse situation if the Superintendent had to worry about the politics of surviving an election rather than just carrying out the policy set by the School Board and managing day-to-day operations. I could imagine a Superintendent refusing (or stalling) to carry out policy set by the School Board in order to survive an election - which would be dysfunctional.
    The examples you cite are examples of a Board gone wrong, neglecting their oversight role, blindly accepting the superficialities of what they are told rather than asking questions and understanding what is really going on.
    We do this right with our City, and Wendy will do this right (with our support) on the School Board. Push back, ask questions, get details. If the Super isn't up front, the Board should fire this person! Even one Board member can dig in, bring out the facts, and bring public pressure to bear.

  7. @Joel: You make a good point with the ballot position. It makes sense to me that the ballot positioning should switch between Primary and General elections.

    I actually found it somewhat difficult to write this article, as it puts me in the awkward position of defending "power" and the "status quo" that I don't yet possess. However, I think walking through this process is a very good exercise to determine what works, what isn't working, and what could be done about it.

    I am a strong believer in the 'average person' being a representative. We get into trouble when people take the idea that they have 'experience' and that validates them being in public service for long periods of time. My point with representation is not that I have any greater knowledge than anyone else in the phone book, but just that I have committed to digging in and finding out as much information as possible. I welcome every one else's input and review as well. However, having said that, if I weren't a school board member, I wouldn't want to take the time to get this much information. I think the structure is good. We, as board members, just need to be held accountable.

  8. I want to thank everyone for your comments. I would especially like to thank Joel for presenting some counter-arguments. I think it's important to see all the angles of an argument.