Across the United States, virtually all charter school authorizers are organized around a staff/board model: a professional staff prepares recommendations on such matters as new charter approvals, charter expansions, and charter renewals. Volunteer board members, who may be elected or appointed, then take these recommendations into account when making decisions.
The strength of the relationship between board and staff has a major influence on the quality of charter school authorizing. Authorizer staff members tend to be “tougher” on school quality than board members are, so maintaining high authorizing standards requires that board members buy in to the staff’s recommendations. Board member buy-in depends on the quality of the staff’s work and the staff’s ability to understand and account for board members’ values. This, in turn, requires frequent, open communication between the board and staff.
At the DC Public Charter School Board, we believe we’re getting this relationship right, and we have some insights to offer based on our work. Our exceptionally tight alignment between staff and board has contributed to a very strong authorizer environment. PCSB has overseen the closure of 18 charter schools or campuses in the past three years, or about a 6 percent closure rate per year. Beyond closures, PCSB has supported innovative school takeovers; developed rigorous accountability systems for early childhood, K-12, adult, and alternative schools; and led the creation of a district-wide common lottery. None of this would have been possible without the close working relationship between our staff and board. We’ve built and cultivated this relationship on the basis of five essential practices.
First, staff members constantly communicate with the board. When staffers are deliberating a difficult decision, they bring the board chair, pertinent board committees, or the board executive committee (the three senior members of the seven-member board) into their deliberations. They speak frequently with board members to let them know about developing issues, and share their rationale for how to address them. When producing key written materials, staff members share drafts with board leadership—or sometimes with the whole board.
The result is that staff recommendations reflect the nuanced views of board members. Often the staff finds that board members are aligned on the need to hold schools to the highest quality standards, but some board members want to be sure staffers haven’t overlooked issues related to treating schools fairly or minimizing impacts on families. When these issues are addressed in staff recommendations, the board is more likely to hold together on the most important core issues involving school quality. Frequent interactions between the staff and board members also allow for more efficient public meetings. Staff experts are alerted to come prepared with data-intensive answers to board questions to inform deliberations.
It is worth noting that PCSB is subject to an open meetings act, as are many other authorizers around the country. In such an environment, it’s essential to get good legal advice about what can and cannot be done when communicating with board members outside of public meetings. While we can’t speak to how each jurisdiction’s law works, it has been our experience—confirmed by legal counsel—that maintaining strong communications between staff and board members between meetings can be done in ways that are entirely consistent with our responsibility to keep the public aware of our actions.
Second, PCSB clearly articulates and reinforces its mission, which helps to create alignment between board and staff. Our mission includes the goal of “transforming public education in the District of Columbia.” Senior staff and board members developed the mission at a joint retreat and each year we hold a follow-on retreat to revisit our mission and develop or refine related goals. We also call attention to our mission when recruiting and orienting new staff, so that every person on our team is fully aware of our goals and direction.
PCSB’s goals reflect the evolving priorities of the board and staff. For example, in the past few years we have become as concerned with equity issues as with school quality. This focus was the result of many discussions between board and staff, and it led to PCSB’s creation of a separate staff team focused on equity issues, which has further enhanced the quality of the staff recommendations delivered to the board.
Third, the PCSB staff tries to play a strong role in the selection of our board members, who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the DC Council. We work hard to support the mayor’s decisions by providing the mayor with names of potential candidates who have confirmed their interest in serving on the board and earned our confidence that they will be strong board members able to honor often-substantial time commitments.
Of course, in some places it will be impossible for an authorizer to contribute to the process of selecting board members. But even in a city or state where the authorizer reports to an elected school board, there may be options for greater involvement, such as meeting one-on-one with members that take the lead on chartering issues.
Fourth, board members take time outside of formal board meetings to bond socially, with each other and with senior staff. Because of DC’s Open Meetings Act, the board doesn’t make decisions on specific items outside of public meetings. But bonding socially, and having open conversations about values and priorities, can improve understanding of each other’s views. This strengthens collegiality, deepens understanding of community history and dynamics, and fosters the ability to integrate different perspectives into board decisions.
We also encourage our board members to attend the NACSA Leadership Conference. We find board members return from this conference with a stronger perspective on their role, and on the importance of a quality-focused board in the authorizing process.
Finally, the staff has established regular processes that ensure board members have all of the materials they need far enough in advance of public meetings to make good decisions. All materials lead with clear staff recommendations. All are posted in draft form to an electronic “binder” 10 days in advance of the board meeting. Board members may review and request changes or additional information to the draft materials prior to when the materials are released to the public, usually four days before the board meeting. If board members have questions or concerns, the staff augments its recommendations to address them.
As a result of the work the staff and board have put into communication and relationship-building, some critics have said that PCSB board meetings are too collegial, with too many unanimous decisions. The reality is that there are frequently dissenting votes. But solid communication between staff and board members has led to strong alignment on the core issues of school quality and equity. Our authorizing and our schools are better for it.
Naomi Rubin DeVeaux is the Deputy Director of PCSB.
Scott Pearson is the Executive Director of PCSB
and Vice Chair of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Don Soifer is Vice Chair of PCSB.