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BOEHM: Mayor's touch is key to IPS improvement

July 9, 2011

Ted BoehmThere seems to be nearly unanimous agreement that the Indianapolis Public Schools are not achieving the results we want for our children and not meeting our need for a competitive work force. There is no consensus as to what to do about this. It is time to address this problem from the top down. Whether it is manufacturing pharmaceuticals or serving hamburgers, excellence in a product or service requires a quality process, and leadership begins at the top. Top quality education requires the best process for selecting and retaining the leadership of our school systems.

A few columns ago, I argued that we should forget about electing officials like the auditor and treasurer of the county or the state. The recent election for secretary of state demonstrates that the quality of the candidate has little to do with the result of elections in which most voters know little or nothing about the candidates or what the office actually does. Party affiliation controls the outcome. We are at risk of similar bad outcomes from the way we choose the top leadership of our school systems.

We currently vest responsibility for policy decisions affecting IPS in a school board of seven members elected by the voters, each with an equal vote on whatever decisions the board chooses to address. There are several problems in this method of governing the school system.

First, and most important, turning the system over to an elected group is appropriate for a legislative body, but it leaves no one ultimately responsible for the operations of the system. Second, school board elections rarely involve candidates known to the general public, and there is no realistic prospect of raising the funds necessary to reach the public in a large metropolitan area. The result is a largely uninformed choice and an election driven by widespread ignorance of either the problems or proposed solutions. This is no knock on the many hard-working and serious people who have served on school boards. It is a knock on a system that makes it difficult to implement serious reform.

Several large cities—including New York, Chicago and Boston—have turned the governance of their school systems over to the mayor. This move has two advantages. It puts the public debate over the direction of the schools in the public eye, and also places ultimate responsibility for the system on one person—the mayor—instead of a committee.

There is one significant difference between Indianapolis and most other cities, where the school district and the city share identical boundaries. Here, the IPS school district is the pre-Unigov city of Indianapolis. The mayor, however, is elected by all voters in Marion County.

Despite the difference in boundaries between the city and IPS, the mayor should be able to give direction to IPS, either by directly selecting the superintendent, or by appointing the board. The health of the entire county, indeed the entire metropolitan area, depends on the success of our schools, and there is no single visible officer other than the mayor to accept that responsibility.

Moreover, we have a history of success in relying on city government to lead Indianapolis’ emergence as a city that works. For decades, our mayors have attracted talent to the key positions in city government. The upcoming election between Mayor Ballard and Melina Kennedy gives us reasonable assurance that that tradition will be maintained.

Allowing the mayor to appoint the IPS board is a minimal step to achieve accountability for the board’s performance. Because the mayor is elected from a diverse population, there is reasonable assurance that a diverse board will be chosen. Mayors will know they will be held responsible for the success or failure of their administration, and will do their best to recruit talent and energy and a process for vetting the candidates for both integrity and ability. Appointees accountable to a single person will be much more likely to be able to adopt and implement serious reforms.•

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Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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