Don’t Blame School Boards

I vividly remember being an invited guest at the San Jose Downtown Rotary meeting last year listening to the luncheon speaker Reed Hastings, Netflix’s founder, blaming the ills of American public education on local elected school boards. I believe there is much blame to go around as we have discussed on this site—parents, administrators, tenure, etc.—but school boards as a systemic cause of school failure did not resonate with me.

Last Wednesday night I stood in pride as a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education for many reasons I will attempt to explain. My board has been maligned in local media and within certain segments of the SCCOE organization. Some perceive that the seven elected members do not govern with an esprit de corps necessary for overall effectiveness. Some criticism of our lack of high-level functioning as part of the governance team is justified. But not last week.

Our efficacy was the filter I used to do some self-reflection last Wednesday during and after the meeting. Here is my attempt at an honest appraisal.

With trying to accomplish many thing on the days of our bi-weekly meetings, a variety of gatherings were occurring simultaneously beginning at 2:30pm, two and a half hours before the gavel. There was concurrent board policy work on revising outmoded policies coupled with one-on-one interviews with all board members by West Ed consultants. In April the board contracted with West Ed for the development of a set of bold recommendations on improving alternative education services to all incarcerated and community school youth in SCC.

Our formal open session meetings begin promptly at 5:00 P.M as gaveled to order last Wednesday by President Song. After roll call and the Pledge of Allegiance we recognized Amy Sinnot as the SCCOE Teacher of the Year.  Then we went into closed session to deal with an Interdistrict Attendance Appeal.

The board voted unanimously to allow a student, for reasons that I cannot disclose, to continue to attend a high school out of her district of residence. Each time an Interdistrict appeal is sent our way all members are very concerned about doing the right thing on behalf of the districts and students. For the several dozen cases I have voted on since my election I have always been impressed with the preparation of each board member with pouring over information in the confidential packet and asking clarifying questions once both sides state their case, sometimes with legal counsel present. Members are thoughtful, sensitive and demonstrate informed understanding of the issues.  We demonstrated a strong sense of team and purpose for this item.

After dealing with a unanimous vote on consent items we heard a study action item on a request by the Santa Clara County Biliteracy consortium to recognize all county students who have mastered standard academic English and any other language by a seal placed on the graduating seniors diploma. We voted unanimously to approve the seal and received a very disappointing report about the second language opportunities for students in SCC. Unfortunately, too many districts only offer Spanish or zero language experiences for middle school students. We agreed that the Office should advocate for equality with second language experiences throughout the county as the biliterate graduates will be the drivers of our new global economy with the highest up potential for salary.

Then on a controversial issue that I thought for certain the Board would demonstrate disagreement we were remarkably united. It was an item I asked to have placed on the agenda for consideration. The item was to delay payment of our $12,693 of dues to California School Boards Association due to the egregious executive director compensation without prudent oversight. We unanimously agreed to delay payment until the findings from an independent financial systems review are made public. Again, we were steadfast and well prepared to ask the right questions of a guest from the CSBA Board.

Next we listened with piqued interest at two reports from our Charter Schools, Bullis in Los Altos and ACE in San Jose.  Both schools have data to demonstrate continued growth for all students and in their instructional models that appear to be flourishing. The two schools are varied in their instructional approaches with Bullis a project-based model and ACE a model that uses individual data to increase scores on standardized test while increasing math and English Language skills.  ACE made the biggest gain of all Santa Clara County public schools in their API for 2010. I would definitely like to see more collaboration between both schools, to date there has been none.

Our final information item was about the SCCOE outdoor education program at Walden West Science Center. There was tentative agreement by the Board to lay the foundation for a potential Proposition 84 grant. We asked the Superintendent to work with legal counsel on preparing the necessary documents so the Walden West Science Center can be the recipient of the grant, if approved as submitted by the Walden West Outdoor School Foundation. The Proposition 84 funds would provide millions of dollars to create a Science and Sustainability Center open to the general public at certain non-school hours.

All in all we were a highly functioning team on behalf of a variety of students and staff from alternative schools to outdoor education, from 2:30 to 10pm.

Therefore, I must disagree with Reed Hastings. School boards that do their homework and work toward continuous improvement in the organization for student gains are part of the solution, not the problem. I do agree with the SCC Civil Grand Jury that recommends a consolidation of districts in SCC and fewer school boards. That is the conversation we should be having for the students.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Perhaps you could evaluate yourselves by some other metric than unanimity?

    It sounds like your meeting consists of voting on the consent calendar without comment, and then listening to reports.

    It’s not as though there are no initiatives you could work on.  You could begin creation of a magnet school.  You could open the doors to some bilingual immersion charter schools.  You could end tenure rules and initiate merit pay at county run schools.

    You could have, but didn’t.

    • Yawn,

      ACE and Bullis Charters were authorized by this Board. Without their approval for their authorization that would not exist, unless approved by the state board of education. I fully support a pay for performance model for teachers mutually agreed to at the bargaining table and a rethinking of new tenure legislation.

      Joseph Di Salvo

      • >  I fully support a pay for performance model for teachers mutually agreed to at the bargaining table and a rethinking of new tenure legislation.

        Joe! Joe! Joe!

        This is the type of wishy washy beard stroking that drives people nuts.

        After thirty years in education, can’t you bring yourself to say something with a bit more decisiveness?

        How about:

        “After thirty years in education, I’m convinced that tenure is bad.  I am personally committed to getting rid of it.  Anyone who disagrees is part of the problem and needs to get out of the way.”

        • TM,

          For the record here is what I wrote two weeks ago on SJI:

          “That is my singular biggest beef with charter schools. The state gives them the same dollars, but they allow them to operate with more flexibility and autonomy. There is not one Charter School teacher in this state, from my knowledge, that earns tenure. I believe tenure, as currently structured, is part of the problem. All teachers in CA Charters are “at will” employees. Rocketship salaries are 20% higher than many districts because they can use their revenue more creatively.”

          Wishy washy I am not. Please honestly represent my positions in the future. Tenure is a part of the problem. Due to the laws of this state, which I agree with, we must amend tenure laws through a legislative process. We have allowed at will employees as teachers in Charter schools with public dollars, therefore I conclude if the courage is there we can do so for all schools.  I do believe teachers and teacher unions need to have a voice in the process toward a final outcome.  

        • >  I do believe teachers and teacher unions need to have a voice in the process toward a final outcome.


          You just can’t help yourself, can you.

          Did I misrepresent what you said?  Did you just say that you want teachers unions “to have a voice in the process toward a final outcome?”

          And what would they be saying with their giant megaphone teachers union voice “in the process toward a final outcome?”

          Would it be “do it our way or we’ll crush your politician ribs?”

          Nothing new here, Joe.

        • > I do believe teachers and teacher unions need to have a voice in the process toward a final outcome.


          Unions have absolutely zero role in the educational process.

          Private schools and parochial schools operate just fine and provide great education without unions.

          President Obama sends his kids to private schools.

          The rights and interests of teachers in public schools can and ought to be represented by their legislators, just like everyone else.

        • > Without a legitimate voice in the process the outcome is doomed to fail.


          What is the “legitimate voice” of unions in the education process?

  2. So you showed up, started the meeting on time, and blew through a routine agenda. Oh, and board members actually “did their homework.” Sorry, I just don’t see anything there that impresses.

    But, to be fair, this month there were no efforts to censure fellow trustees, no race-baiting memos from board members and no call on the Superintendent to defend his job, so I guess that counts as a pretty good month for the SCC Board of Education!

  3. Uh huh.  Now I see what goes on at a typical SCCOE meeting.

    It would be an interesting study in management effectiveness to re-run this meeting with, oh say, T.J. Rodgers presiding.

    “The meeting will come to order.”

    “The first item I would like to address is: ‘Is this meeting necessary?’”

    “Would anyone anywhere on the face of the earth notice if this meeting didn’t occur.”

    “I didn’t think so.”

    “Meeting adjourned. Get back to work.”

    “By the way, what do you people actually do beside go to stupid meetings?”

  4. For various cultural reasons, a large segment of the young people today are basically feral, and seemingly ineducable.  I don’t think that problem, like most of the others we face, is something that our present system has the ability to solve.  If there were a way to solve it, however, you can bet most of your elected school board members would be stridently opposed.

    • > I don’t think that problem, like most of the others we face, is something that our present system has the ability to solve. 

      You’re such a pessimist.

      Joe DiSalvo has been working on solving these problems for thirty years, and I’m sure with another thirty years of his diligent efforts, we will be almost there.

  5. Joseph,

    Thank you for all your efforts to improve our educational system. Perhaps one day we will catch up with foreign countries that comprehend the importance of making education a priority.

    • Kathleen:

      Which is your favorite Joe DiSalvo inspirational moment?

      A. “I fully support a pay for performance model for teachers mutually agreed to at the bargaining table and a rethinking of new tenure legislation.”

      B. “After thirty years in education, I’m convinced that tenure is bad.  I am personally committed to getting rid of it.  Anyone who disagrees is part of the problem and needs to get out of the way.”

    • France gets much better results than we do, and spends much less per pupil.  Its not so much the amount you spend, but its the way you spend it.  Our political system dictates that most of the money spent on education is frittered away on meaningless crap.  In France, they take a much more hard-headed, intellectually serious approach to the vitally important issue of educating the next generation (instead of permitting the political prejudices & preferences of various activist groups to dictate their education policy, as is largely the case here), and they do a much better job than we do, for substantially less money.

      Maybe one day the American political system won’t be in a state of almost near-total paralysis, and we can actually take action to substantively change any of the policies that we adopted 40 years ago or so, but in the meantime, Hell, we’re still fighting the Cold War twenty years after the collapse of the USSR, and people still bring up Bull Connor when you mention that you’re not entirely certain affirmative action is a fair policy, so I wouldn’t expect to see any real policy deviations from how things were in 1970 anytime soon.  I don’t don’t know how this society ever became so ossified, but these days, one is only permitted to tinker with details; all the real decisions were made decades ago, and the fact they aren’t working out for us is something you’re not supposed to notice, I guess.  Politics is basically over, except as some kind of bread & circuses spectacle for the masses.  Its still possible to do some good at the local level, but in the final analysis, as California and the USA go, so goes San Jose, eventually.

  6. Joanne Jacobs has written intelligently about how the school board system perpetuates mediocrity.

    I’m sure that the majority of people who serve on school boards are good public servants, but the system needs fundamental change.

      • District consolidation is a non starter as long as the the ADA funding in each district is based on formulas cast in stone … some 40 years ago. Change the ADA funding to a weighted (ELL, very low-income, special ed) amount per student and a lot of barriers will fall. You will also have a much fairer (and logical) funding system all around.

        Another change in the system would be to reduce the role of the County. Legalities aside, why is the County in the business of overseeing local charter schools? The County doesn’t provide funding, doesn’t raise parcel taxes, doesn’t raise bonds for facilities. All the County does is to move oversight, communication and collaboration away from the local community (where the bills are paid). In fact it would be a very simple change: if an appeal is granted by the County, the local district has to charter NOT the County.

        • SB,

          Not so sure how one puts legalities aside, since the county office of education and the state board if education can be a direct authorized of charters and hear appeals when authorization is turned own by a district by law.

          AS for weighted Student dollar allocations based on student needs I am a proponent of this type of formula.

        • Joe

          I wasn’t suggesting breaking the law but looking beyond the law to see how to improve the system. I do believe that aligning chartering and funding agencies would a positive change. And if it takes changing the law, so be it.

        • > Not so sure how one puts legalities aside,. . . .


          This shows an astonishing lack of imagination on your part.

          Putting “legalities aside” is routine business for the ruling class.  That’s WHY they’re the ruling class.

          Here’s just a sampling of the many, many ways our rulers have for putting “legalities aside”.

          A. Pass an unconstitutional law, say one where there is no Consitutional power to do so, like Obamacare.  It will work just like a real law for decades and maybe even forever if you can keeping throwing enough sand in the gears of the judicial appeals process.

          B. Have a foreign-born constitutionlly unqualified President issue an executive order.

          “Stroke of the pen.  Law of the land.  Pretty cool!”

          C. Simply redefine a word.  “Marriage”: old definition – a union between a man and a woman; new definition – a union between two people, gender unspecified.

          “Tax”: old definition – government extraction of money from citizens under threat of imprisonment; new definition – a voluntary contribution of money to the government by grateful citizens who want government bureaucrats to have high salaries, generous benefits, and comfortable, early retirements.

          D. File a lawsuit setting out what you WANT the “legalities” to be, and take it to a crony federal judge who owes you a favor for his lifetime appointment.

          “Legalities” are mere conventions that the ruling class can choose to enforce or circumvent as they please. 

          “Legalities” really only apply to “the little people”.  Powerful, incumbent politicians can reshape or rearrange the “legalities” as needed to serve their purposes.

  7. So you and your fellow board members decided to delay payment of your $12,693 dues to the California School Boards Association because of your concerns that they are have been wasting your money, not using it for it’s intended purpose, and paying themselves egregiously high salaries.

    Sounds like you have something in common with tens of millions of fed up taxpayers in this country. I never thought I’d hear myself say this but, “Welcome to the Tea Party movement, Joseph DiSalvo!”

    • Elizabeth,

      Most, if not all, school boards receive a small monthly stipend and in some cases health and welfare benefits. I am paid $590 per month and I elect not to take medical benefits.