Friday, July 17, 2009

Councils, schools, and judging

In the implementation of school-based decision making, I eventually concluded that we'd never get done wrestling with the word "school." It turns out to be tricky to tell exactly where a given school ends and something else begins. Here are some examples:

School A serves primary to grade 12. The board decides to create a P-8 elementary and a high school under the same roof, each with a separate council. Can it do that? Answer: Yes, because the board still decides when to open schools, close schools, and change school facilities.

Elementary school B serves all the district's primary students and all the district's preschool students. The school's principal also evaluates all the primary and preschool teachers. In effect, it's a seamless preschool to grade 5 school. Do the parents of preschoolers get to vote for parent members of the council? Answer: Yes, they do, because their children are students at that school.

Elementary school C is located in the same building as a district-wide preschool program. Children from that preschool go on to all the district's elementary programs, and the district preschool program director evaluates the teachers. Do preschool parents and teachers vote for the elementary council. Answer: No, even though they share a roof, the elementary and the preschool are separate operations.

High school D is located on a large lot. The sign out front lists only the high school's name. Most classes are held in a large main building. Across the parking lot, some students of high school age study in a separate building, to which they have been assigned after discipline problems. The principal of the school evaluates the teachers of both buildings. Do teachers in the separate building get to vote for teachers on the council, and does SBDM otherwise apply to what happens there? Answer: Yes, the separate building is part of the high school. (That was in the early 1990s. Today, a similar program might be more formally and clearly defined as a separate alternative program under the 1998 School Safety Act.)

High school E is notified that the board of education wants for two classrooms to be used for a family resource center serving all the district's elementary schools. Doesn't that impinge on the high school council's policy authority over space? Answer: No, because the board is still responsible for facilities. The board can decide that the high school is locates in the whole building located at 123 Champion Lane, or that it's located in almost all of that building, but not in the two classrooms it wants for the resource center.

High school F is located on the same campus as a district alternative program. The alternative program has no cafeteria. The district wants the alternative program students to use the high school lunchroom at a time when other students are not there. Can the district do that without council consent? Answer: Yes, just as the elementary and high school carved out of school A share a cafeteria, this board can divide a facility by space and time for two operations to share it. However, the council is entitled to set schedule and space policies for all the facilities its school can use, so the board needs to set a clear timetable of when each operation gets the cafeteria.

Elementary school G has a rundown building. The district builds a new facility nearby, initially calling it a new building for school G. The plan is that all students and teachers from school G will move to that building the next fall, no other students and teachers will move there. Then the board decides to give the new building a different name. Does the council elected at school G in the spring serve the next year, or is it a new school that needs to elect a new council? Answer: No, that's the same school with a name change: the council stays.

In short, the SBDM law's provisions that schools must have councils, that the school's teachers and parents vote, and that the council's policies govern the school seem sharply defined, but the facts can make a person work to apply the law. You have to listen, get the details, get some more details, and think carefully before forming a settled view of how the law applies to specific situations.

This post is my reflection on Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. The "school" questions taught me that one can be rigorously committed to the letter of law and still wrestle with the careful application of that law to complex facts, and also that in the wrestling, wide experience will help one do a better job. (The judge finished law school in 1979 and I entered in 1982, so no, we have not met.)

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