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.