Thursday, May 13, 2010

Anchorage School Board Member Jeff Friedman Thinks The School Board Should Be Superintendent Carol Comeau's "Cabinet"

During his successful campaign, newly-elected Anchorage School Board member Don Smith ran on the premise that the school board, in his perception, was little more than a rubber stamp for Superintendent Carol Comeau, basically acting like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

As a result, when recently asked to sign a copy of the National School Boards Association’s Code of Ethics, he refused to do so. This was further reported by Alaska Ear on May 1st. Anchorage School Board policy Section 158 says this Code of Ethics will guide the Anchorage School Board, and Board members routinely sign this document annually. I can recall no prior instance since I moved here when a school board member refused to sign this document. Don Smith's objection was to one sentence in the code, which states that a Board member will “Take no private action that will compromise the board or administration.” Smith believed this would prevent him from publicly arguing against a decision of the board. For example, the board may vote to ask the Assembly to place bonds on the ballot, and if Mr. Smith disagrees, he may want to give public testimony to the Assembly encouraging them to reject the request.

This apparently occurred during the April 26th Regular Meeting. While written minutes are not yet available, MP3 audio archives are accessible HERE.

One longtime Anchorage School Board member has now spoken out on this issue, and provides us a valuable window into school board thinking. Mudflats has posted the response of Jeff Friedman, who's serving his third term on the board and who disagrees with Don Smith's position. In his response, Friedman is speaking strictly for himself, and not for the Board or the District. Despite the fact that School Board members are elected by the general public, he believes the School Board should be an executive body rather than a legislative body. This certainly comes as a surprise to me, and I'm sure others might be equally flummoxed. Here's the pertinent part of Friedman's response (after the jump):

The nature of a School Board — or any governing board – is very different from a legislative body such as the Anchorage Assembly. The Anchorage Assembly enacts laws that that govern the entire community, but it is up to a separately elected Mayor to decide how to implement those laws. When an Assembly member states his or her opposition to an adopted law it does little to hinder the Mayor’s ability to implement that law. When School Board members publicly oppose a Board decision, it does hinder the Superintendent’s efforts to implement that decision.

School Boards should not have majority and minority factions. Legislatures can survive just fine with members trying to reverse prior decisions because legislators do not have to enforce any of the laws they pass. Enforcement is the role of the executive branch of government. School Districts do not have the luxury of separate branches of government.
Instead, School Districts are a part of the executive branch with the delegated duty of providing education to the community’s children.

By comparison, if the Governor meets with his or her cabinet to discuss a policy issue, there is nothing wrong with having a full, open, and honest debate about that issue. Once the Governor has made a decision, however, individual cabinet members should not publicly argue against that decision. The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation would be another example. The directors of that corporation set investment policy for investment managers to follow. However, those managers might be tempted to resist that policy if several individual directors continue arguing for a different investment strategy after the full board of directors has made a decision.

For much the same reasons, once the School Board makes a decision by majority vote, no individual Board member should argue against that decision. When a Board member continues to dissent from adopted policy, employees are uncertain as to whether the District is really committed to a particular policy, and may not effectively to implement that policy. What has occurred consistently in School Districts around the country is that without a clear commitment to educational policy, student achievement does not improve.

So basically, Jeff Friedman is saying that he looks upon the School Board as an ex officio cabinet of Superintendent Carol Comeau. In a subsequent comment, Friedman amends that assessment, instead comparing the Board more to a corporate board of directors. Other Board Members obviously share that perspective, which is one explanation why it frequently appears that the Board is a "rubber stamp" for Carol Comeau.

But should the School Board be strictly an executive body? There are reasons why it should be considered a legislative body as well:

(1). School Board members are elected by the general public. In contrast, a corporate board of directors is generally elected only by shareholders. Chugach Electric and MEA's boards are elected only by rate-paying shareholders. Governors' and Presidents' cabinet members are elected by no one.

(2). School Board spend public money; corporations spend mostly private money (unless they get into trouble, then Democrats and RINOs team up to bail them out). Thus School Boards need to be held to a higher standard of accountability. It should be noted that the Anchorage School District does gives the public ample opportunities to be involved in ASD operations, not only through public testimony, but also through service on various committees, to include recurring budget review teams. In my observation, ASD is one of the more transparent bodies in Alaska.

But the Anchorage School Board should neither be exclusively legislative nor executive. Instead, it would function best as a hybrid, incorporating the most applicable aspects of both roles. I can certainly accept Jeff Friedman's contention that it would be odd for a dissenting Board Member to publicly urge the Assembly not to accept a school bond that the Board already approved.

By refusing to sign the ethics statement, Don Smith has shown that he is committed to ensuring he is an independent voice on the School Board. He has satisfied me that he will not automatically be part of the choir. But now that he's made his point, he should go ahead and sign the ethics statement. His role on the School Board should not be merely to serve as an "opposition backbencher", but to also be a source of consistent and articulate fiscal conservatism according to his campaign promises, persuading colleagues through the power and logic of his discourse. He can mobilize others to testify publicly in support of his positions at School Board meetings if he wants to flex political muscle; conservatives showed impressive political muscle during the Ordinance 64 debate. But opposition merely for the sake of opposition could undermine and marginalize his position.


  1. It seems to me that our positions aren't all that far apart. I agree that it is appropriate for board members to fully engage in debate prior to a vote. That could include letting others know that testimony is needed. I welcome Don Smith's viewpoint on the board because it will help us make good decisions. My main concern has always been with what might happen after a decision is made. It would be odd for a board member to ask the Assembly to reject a board decision.

    I do find it difficult to view a school board as a legislative body because we do not vote on ordinances or statutes. We do not legislate. But we do spend public money and we are elected by the voters. So it is important that we debate in public, be as transparent as possible, and do what we can to publicize our decisions. That is why I send out an e-mail after every board meeting discussing our actions, and that is why I submitted a guest blog (and am responding here).

    Ultimately, however, I stand by my original view that an organization can not function effectively if its leadership is working towards different goals. I think that is true for General Moters and Exxon. I think it is true for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. And I think it is true for school boards. Others are free to have a different view, and the debate about this issue can be helpful to the community at large.

    Jeff Friedman
    Anchorage School Board Member
    (speaking for myself only)

  2. Jeff - Thanks for your response and your contribution to this debate. I have to admit I am intrigued by your definition of "legislate" to be restricted to voting only on ordinances or statutes. That's a standard I hadn't considered.

    I do agree that an organization cannot function effectively if its leadership has contradictory goals.