'Local Control' in Reopening Debate Puts Scrutiny on Elected School Boards

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Demonstrators in a car caravan during an 'Open Schools Now' rally on Feb. 15, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 86 into law on Friday, he marshaled the state's mighty resources to facilitate a return to classroom learning in thousands of public schools.

His signature also ends, for now, the state government's direct involvement in California's clamorous school reopening dispute — the latest skirmish in a decades-long debate over whether school policy in California should be driven by state or local officials.

Under the legislation, the state is paying for improved school ventilation, cleaning, tutoring and counseling needed to bring the state's youngest kids back to class in the next month.

But the bill does not force districts to bring back in-person education, thus leaving the most important details for many parents and students (reopening dates, school-day length, classroom setup) in the hands of locally elected school boards.

Legislators of both parties hailed AB 86 as a victory for local control, the concept of leaving decision-making power to officials closest to the voters.

"Everybody loves to talk about local control, it's kind of like something sacred, like motherhood and apple pie," said Gloria Romero, the former Democratic chair of the state Senate Education Committee.

But critics of the approach believe many school boards are proving ineffectual in the face of competing local pressures. In San Francisco, parent groups want to change how school boards are constructed, arguing that a switch to mayoral appointments may produce more competent boards.

Others think that the decision to reopen schools is simply too important to delegate to an entanglement of forces working between the Capitol building and California classrooms — what Romero calls the "Byzantine labyrinth" that includes elected school boards, powerful teachers unions, county and state offices of education and the independently elected superintendent of public instruction.

"We're finding out that local control ... there are so many fingers in the pot stirring it, blocking it, adding in poison pills," said Romero, a longtime charter school advocate. "Despite how convoluted that is, the governor has the bully pulpit."

Fear of Local 'Brush Fires'

Critics of Newsom have for months called on him to use executive authority to force teachers back into the classroom — potentially by suspending collective bargaining at the local level.

"He should have shown leadership," said Romero. "He was just, I think, embarrassingly weak and without a backbone."

Now, the fate of reopening will likely be decided through the contentious negotiations taking place between school districts and unions representing teachers, bus drivers, custodians and administrators. Many large districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, are unlikely to reopen by April 1, after which, the amount of grant funding in AB 86 starts to decline.

"Having individual school districts try to negotiate with their labor partners in the thousand-plus school districts in California, from my perspective, is like setting off a bunch of brush fires across the state," said Pat Reilly, a Democratic political consultant and advocate with the group OpenSchoolsCA.

After months of distance learning, legislative leaders grew impatient with the progress of local reopening talks. Some appeared flummoxed that districts hadn't done more to resume in-person schooling when infection rates ebbed in September and October.

"I am normally a huge proponent of local control, but this year, local control has been a complete failure," said state Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, in a hearing last month on the school reopening plan.

'A First Step'

In the end, however, local control carried the day. Lawmakers hailed AB 86 for setting a uniform standard of "flexibility."

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But without a mandate, the bill might not move the needle in the most stubborn negotiations. And the legislation has no effect at all on the vast majority of middle and high school students. The plan only provides grants to bring back elementary school grades, along with one grade of middle or high school.

At Friday's virtual bill-signing ceremony, Ting was left to describe the bill he authored as "a first step."

"We're going to go home to all our districts and beg all our districts to open up, use this money," he added.

To be sure, the deference that Newsom and the Legislature have given to local decision-making is borne of the vast differences in public schools throughout the state.

"When you look at 58 counties, a thousand-plus school districts, this truly is a challenge at scale that no other state in the country is faced with," Newsom said as he signed the legislation.

By comparison, former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat who gained national recognition for her work in reopening schools last year, dealt with roughly 60 districts — and the state already had control over its largest school district, in Providence.

California's new legislation ensures the state will not be a hurdle for districts keen on opening their doors: There are no mandates to vaccinate teachers or reach collective bargaining agreements with unions — and districts located in counties outside of California's purple COVID-19 tier will not be required to test students and staff for the virus.

Ultimately, the bill's guarantee that 10% of the state's vaccine doses be set aside for school employees (codifying an earlier promise made by Newsom) may be the most important provision in nudging teachers back into the classroom. In just the last week, an increasing vaccine supply and the hope of a continued decline in infections has accelerated the progress of reopening schools in large districts like San Francisco and Fresno.

Republicans are generally supportive of handing authority to local governments; the leading Republicans seeking to challenge Newsom in a potential recall election this year said they would also not have suspended collective bargaining rights to force reopenings. Just four GOP legislators in the state Senate and Assembly voted against the plan.

State Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, argued that "it is essential that we have local control."

She recalled a recent meeting with constituents, when a frustrated audience member asked her who bears responsibility for the decisions being made at his local school.

"I said, 'You are, you are ultimately in control of your local schools,' " said Ochoa Bogh, who served on the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District before her election to the Senate last year.

"If you're not happy then, lo and behold, go ahead and find candidates that reflect your values and your vision of education and get them elected," she said.

Attention on School Boards 

In a number of cities across the state, many parents aren't waiting for the next election to decide the fate of their school boards. Recall campaigns against individual board members have been launched in Benicia, La Mesa and San Ramon. And in San Francisco, critics of the board are pursuing a recall and a wholesale change in how members are selected.

Facing both impatient Sacramento lawmakers and exasperated parents, "school boards have really been stuck in the middle," said Troy Flint, senior director of communications for the California School Boards Association.

"They're dealing with parent communities which are often rife with division on this issue," he said. "And they don't really have the framework needed to effectively pursue negotiations on reopening, because there hasn't until now been the standard for the state on what acceptable measures of safety are to reopen."

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By and large, parents furious with the lack of progress on reopenings argue their elected boards are too aligned with local teachers unions — and thus more likely to prioritize the safety of educators over the education and mental well-being of students, which have suffered greatly during the pandemic.

That perceived imbalance is likely a result of shifts in education decision-making over the last half century, said Gary Hart, the former state secretary of education under Gov. Gray Davis.

Until the 1970s, school boards had greater control over decisions to tax and spend on local schools. That provided an incentive for business-minded community members to run for seats on the board to provide a check on members more sympathetic to teachers.

That began to change in 1971, when the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's education funding scheme disadvantaged students in low-income neighborhoods where fewer local taxes could be raised to pay for schools. Then, in 1978, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 13, the landmark initiative that dramatically shrunk the amount of local property tax revenue that schools had traditionally relied on, forcing districts to feed from the trough of state revenue controlled by the Legislature and governor.

"School boards no longer had much overall control of their school budgets, particularly as it related to increases in spending," Hart said. "So as a result of that, I think there was a diminishment of civic leaders serving on school boards."

In their place, he said, emerged increasingly diverse school board candidates who were more aligned with the California Teachers Association.

Mayoral Involvement

Beyond recall campaigns, parent advocates and some supervisors in San Francisco say the answer is to move away from a citywide election of school board members — either by splitting the election into districts, or by giving the mayor direct power to appoint the board.

"I think that there needs to be some change, what that change is, is yet to be determined," San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a recent interview on KQED Forum, when asked about the possibility of appointing the board. "I know that folks who don’t even have kids in the school district are paying very close attention to the fact that the leaders of our school district are not up for the task of doing what’s necessary to get our kids back in school."

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has joined parents at recent rallies to support reopening, was reluctant to endorse more mayoral control over schools. She told KQED she believes "shared governance in our city is the best model right now."

Mayors in cities such as Chicago and New York (where schools have opened) appoint a controlling share of their local school boards. But in California, efforts by mayors to play a larger role in school policy have largely fallen flat.

In 2000, then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown convinced voters to pass Measure D, giving him three appointments to the school board. But still lacking a majority, Brown wrestled with the board for the next few years before turning his attention to creating his own charter schools.

And in Los Angeles, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an adamant proponent of charter schools, received permission from the Legislature to take control of individual schools and hire the district's superintendent. But months after those changes were enacted, they were ruled unconstitutional by a Superior Court judge.

In recent years, school boards have trended toward even greater localized control — with hundreds of districts switching to electing members from individual geographic districts, rather than through citywide elections. Most recently, voters in San Diego (who rejected the idea of appointed school board members in 2010), opted to move away from at-large elections altogether.

The debate over reopening schools brings to a head the conflicting feelings of voters, said Larry Tramutola, a political strategist known for his work in school campaigns.

"People would like to have school boards to be more competent and represent all people," he said. "But on the other hand, they want district elections, where school board members are elected by basically small neighborhoods, so it's often difficult to find quality people — experienced, knowledgeable — to run for these seats."

Those school board seats often become launching pads for elected officials aspiring to reach higher office — though the reopening debate is certain to test the veracity of that narrative.

"They can be a stepping stone," Tramutola said. "But it can be a step into quicksand, too."

KQED's Sara Hossaini contributed to this report. 

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