Too many changes leave Palm Beach County School Board vulnerable

One of the biggest knocks against the Palm Beach County School Board is its mindless need for change. In just a couple of years, this board has had three superintendents, four chief academic officers, three legal counsels and a revolving door in almost every major administrative position in the district.  And unlike past boards, this panel continuously berates standards, accountability and, now, charter schools.

Often, new boards feel a need for change. Fine. But when boards are compelled to make change for change’s sake, it is a recipe for disaster. Students are leaving district schools in escalating numbers for charter schools because of the negative perception of the Palm Beach County school system, exacerbated by the School Board’s endless changes. School Board member Marsha Andrews’ solution is to ask constituents “what they think.”  Well, it is pretty clear what parents think by their mass exodus for charter schools.

At a recent meeting, School Board member Jennifer Brown, previously an unyielding advocate for class-size amendment compliance, changed her mind. Why? Apparently, the reality of losing tens of thousands of students to charter schools trumped her previously unassailable thinking. So concerned is the School Board about the loss of students that board members have explored every reason except one — their own negative messaging to the public. The School Board simply does not have the self-discipline to stop complaining and bickering, and its behavior has been a windfall for charters that shrewdly publicize that their schools support high standards, provide more time on task, use more data to make academic decisions and generally outperform their public school counterparts. Parents only hear one thing from charters: “Enroll in charters. It is all good!”

To counter these negative perceptions, School Board member Mike Murgio continues to urge the board and district administrators to improve marketing and rebrand the public schools “to let the public know how good we are.” The reality is that the school district already rebranded itself several years ago, when Frank Barbieri, the board’s chairman at the time, urged his colleagues to take the district in a “new direction.” And that direction has not worked. The ill-tempered Barbieri for years championed charter schools from both professional and personal experience, then changed his tune and sent a message to the Florida Legislature that “we hate charters” when it became evident that district schools were losing ground to charter schools.

Some Palm Beach County School Board members realize the stakes are high. Recently, School Board member Karen Brill quoted Jim Peters’ book, “Good to Great,” saying that the district has made “too many changes.” In high-performing school districts, according to the research of Council of Great City Schools, stability is the single greatest predictor of sustained improvement in student achievement. Hence, lack of stability blurs the district’s mission and is extremely disconcerting to the teachers and staff who educate our students.

Perhaps the best change will come in the upcoming election cycle, by voting in some new School Board members.

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