Common board well worth experiment

Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice/AP

Pennsylvania’s 500 school boards regularly prove that it’s overly optimistic to take nine people off the street, put them in a room, and expect them to run enterprises that spend more than $33 billion a year in local, state and federal money.

It’s difficult to calculate how much, but a large amount of that money certainly is wasted on duplicated services. There is scant doubt that the state, which had nearly 2,800 school districts before a wave of state-mandated mergers in the 1960s, does not need 500 school districts now.

Eric Haywood speaks about Title IX during the public comment portion of Red Lion Area School District’s Board of School Directors meeting at Red Lion Area Education Center in Windsor Township,Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. A state senator from Monroe County has proposed that Pennsylvania — like Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, South Carolina, and West Virginia — convert to county-level school boards. She also has proposed that board members be paid and full-time.

Many adjacent small districts have separate expensive administrations. The state grapples with a teacher shortage as teachers in some districts teach to half-full classrooms.

Republican state Sen. Rosemary Brown of Monroe County, who also represents the eastern half of Lackawanna County in the reconfigured 40th District, has asked a different question. Rather than questioning whether the state needs 500 districts, she asks whether it needs 500 school boards.

Brown has proposed that Pennsylvania — like Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, South Carolina, and West Virginia — should convert to county-level school boards. She also has proposed that board members be paid and full-time. If that were to happen Lackawanna County, for example, would have one school board rather than 10, with nine rather than 90 members.

That doesn’t mean that there would be fewer schools, or even districts depending upon county-by-county circumstances, but it would ensure a more professional approach to school governance, better allocate resources, guarantee greater efficiency and lower costs from the administrative level downward, and diminish political interference at the hyper-local level.

In a bit of parochialism of her own, Brown called for a 10-year pilot program involving only fourth-class counties. There are nine such counties in Pennsylvania, including Monroe. Lackawanna is a third-class county.

The Legislature should take up the idea. In addition to states that have uniform county-level school administration, some have hybrid models. Illinois, for example, has 102 counties but 10 county-level school districts.

Pennsylvania’s school structure long has been outdated, surviving massive changes in technology and culture that affect most other areas of governance and culture. Brown is on the mark in advocating change.

— From the Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice/AP.