Public Policy Forum Blog

Pittsburgh's model of school governance reform

In the past few weeks Milwaukee has had numerous town hall meetings, panel discussions, and presentations regarding the idea of school district governance reform. At issue is whether the mayor of Milwaukee should be in charge of the Milwaukee Public Schools, rather than an independent board of directors.

At each of these meetings, accountability has been thrown about as both an argument for and against a mayoral take-over of the district. Perhaps a mayor elected in a higher turn-out citywide election would provide more accountability; or maybe losing the opportunity to elect a school board representative would disenfranchise certain voters, diluting accountability.

In Pittsburgh, civic leaders, parents, and citizens decided to stop talking about accountability and actually implement it. A local nonprofit group, A+ Schools: Pittsburgh’s Community Alliance for Public Education, started an initiative called "Board Watch" last winter. The idea is quite simple: send volunteers to attend every board and committee meeting and have them report to the public whether the board is being effective in meeting the district's strategic goals.

The volunteers are trained to observe meetings and evaluate the performance of the school board on five good-governance practices: maintaining focus on the district's mission, being transparent, conducting meetings in accordance with district rules, having clarity in the role of the board and its members, and competency, including substantive knowledge and preparedness. Board Watch issues quarterly report cards with grades for each of the five practices, as well as overall performance. The reports also include recommendations for improvements.

Board Watch is seen as both a public engagement tool, by creating more interest in board activities and decisions, and as a way to provide the public with a set of expectations for good board governance. Earlier this decade Pittsburgh's board had become so dysfunctional that three large local foundations decided they would no longer donate funds, costing the district millions of dollars in support. Civic leaders decided the community needed to set clear expectations for how the board must function and created the A+ Schools organization to work on reform.

Pittsburgh board members seem to be sanguine about the project, wishing they could also be graded on things like good intentions. But they do acknowledge the merits. Says one board member: “If you watch any school board meeting, whether it’s us or some other board, how often do you hear them actually talk about education? Slowly, I think Board Watch is going to help us focus on why we are there.” Sounds like the kind of focus needed in Milwaukee, as well.

Anneliese Dickman