SBDM concept failing schools, students

Published 8:39 am Monday, August 28, 2017

By Jim Waters

Guest columnist

While no consequential research on Site-Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils has been conducted since former University of Kentucky professor Jane Clark Lindle’s analysis 16 years ago, evidence abounds that this abnormal approach toward governing public schools is doing little to fulfill its mission, which, according to state statute, “is to improve student achievement.”

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Academic improvement across Kentucky isn’t nearly rapid enough to prepare students for the future global marketplace.

Given the missing research, even the progress that’s been made cannot reliably be attributed to this school-governance model.

The SBDM concept was the brainchild of Kentucky Education Reform Act geniuses who seemed mostly concerned about minimizing the influence of parents, administrators and locally elected school-board members regarding curriculum, finances and personnel.

Their success, however, has offered little in the way of positive results.

After more than 20 years of these councils – where teachers always have the majority vote and parents just as often sit in the minority — federal tests indicate fewer than three in 10 Kentucky eighth-graders do mathematics at a proficient level.

Since teachers are in firm control, one must ask if they’re adequately trained for such additional duties as making the complex and sophisticated decisions required to properly handle local, state and federal dollars.

Is it reasonable to expect that each of the commonwealth’s 1,253 public schools has the personnel required to manage curriculum and the hiring of staff effectively?

Do teachers really have adequate time to satisfy all SBDM demands and responsibilities while teaching a full class load?

As the Common Core wars have demonstrated, curriculum decisions are crucial to properly preparing students for their future.

Does a high school without anyone qualified to teach physics – as is the case with several Kentucky high schools – have the staff expertise required to develop an adequate science program?

Can a school without a qualified art teacher develop good artistic programs?

The six hours of training required for new SBDM members hardly seem adequate to prepare them to make informed decisions regarding finances, much guide complex curriculum options, which are becoming more intense as digital learning programs replace traditional classroom approaches.

Consider recent sanctions handed down by the Office of Education Accountability against former Superintendent of the Year Randy Poe — a longtime Kentucky educator who now leads the high-performing Boone County school district — and two of the county’s middle-school principals related to a troubled adoption of a new digital learning program.  

After more than two decades of SBDM governance, chaos and confusion continues – even in high-performing schools with award-winning leaders — about where the authority exists.

While serious issues linger regarding how Poe’s team implemented the program, lowering the hammer on an accomplished educator and administrator like Poe confirms: this weird approach toward running schools is off-target but its supporters will go to the mat to keep it.

SBDM defenders won’t like my idea of weakening SBDM councils’ authority by relegating them to an advisory role.

But the dustup with Poe confirms and reinforces past calls in this column and elsewhere for a clearer chain of command in school districts.

I’m told repeatedly by SBDM defenders wanting to lower the volume on calls for reform that councils really don’t have much flexibility regarding the spending of dollars or hiring of personnel.

Perhaps so for salaries and staff.

However, it’s obvious SBDM defenders want to retain the capacity to lower the hammer on any administrator getting in the way of their curriculum choices.

Since curriculum is where the education rubber meets the road for our kids, we must end the SBDM-created chaos and return the authority in — and accountability for — our school systems to superintendents and the elected board members to whom they answer.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.