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School Boards; Grassroots school government hallmark of nation's strength

By Jim BencivengaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983


The local school board serves as the cornerstone of authority for America's public schools. Nearly 16,000 independent and locally elected bodies are responsible for conducting, equipping, and maintaining the schools in the United states.

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And although schools and school boards are almost totally decentralized, their institutional stamp is visible in the centralized ease with which students can transfer from one district to another anywhere in the country.

Some of the principal responsibilities of any governing school board are:

* Appointment of the superintendent of schools.

* Setting the course of study (the curriculum) the schools will pursue.

* Submission of fund-raising proposals to the voters, supervision of the monies involved and how the money will be used to conduct, operate, and maintain the educational plant.

* Formulation of policy for managing schools and school properties.

* Creation of rules governing the employment and discharge of school board employees.

* Enforcing state law regarding school regulations.

''School boards are the hallmark of our democractic strength. Unique to the United States, they give our education system a built-in diversity and a commitment to excellence at the local level,'' says Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Board Association, (NSBA).

Their jurisdiction rests on the same democratic principles that have given the US universal and free public education.

But just how democratic US school systems are is called into doubt by observers who point out that average voter turnout for a school board election rarely tops 10 percent.

''Low voter turnout is very distressing,'' says Mr. Shannon, ''and school boards are attempting to improve the record. But an average figure can be misleading. It can be interpreted as meaning people are satisfied just as readily as it can be interpreted as peole don't care.''

Since schools are the area of government closest to the people, without widespread community support they run the risk of becoming the whipping boy for frustrations people have with the more distant state and federal bodies, say school board officials.

In a poll of the issues most important to its members, the NSBA lists three that bear out this concern:

(1) Lack of financial support for the schools; (2) declining enrollment with the ensuing problems of school closings and the decline in state reimbursement funds on a per-pupil basis; and (3) the lack of parental interest in schools (with the added challenge of more and more adults not even having children in the public schools.)

''One way to highlight how a local, democratically controlled system of education differs from an authoritarian one is to compare the highly centralized French system with that of the US.,'' says Stan Salett of the National Committee for Citizens in Education (NCCE) and a school board member himself in the 25,000 pupil district of Howard County, Md.

He points out that both France and the US must introduce into the classroom the new educational technology made possible by computers. But the use of computers in schools is so new and the technology is changing so rapidly that no one system of computer-assisted instruction exists.

In the US there already is much experimentation, which educators say is mostly good but does have some completely worthless aspects. Yet out of the collective efforts of thousands of school districts, it is safe to assume, there will be in place ten years from now some very effective ways to use computers in the classroom.