After several days of public pressure, the Utah State Board of Education this past week released details of an outside study examining the job it is doing and how it is perceived. The reluctance to release details is understandable; the report is sharply critical. But therein lies its real value.
The study by the Hendrix Information Group, Los Angeles, names names and highlights a number of areas where the board has difficulties.The report describes State Superintendent James R. Moss as "strong, outspoken, decisive, abrasive," a style that causes problems with the board and with leaders in local school districts. The board is criticized for interfering in administrative affairs, having a "destructive" relationship with Moss, and being beset by internal confusion and poor relationships between members.
Other criticisms include lack of close contact with local school boards, a heavy-handed approach to local problems, lack of leadership, disunity even after decisions are made, tension and confusion among state office staff, and too much second-guessing.
These observations are not new; complaints about the baord have been going around for some time.
Recommendations of the Hendrix study include an obvious one: Clarify the board's role and role of the superintendent. Right now, the board both dabbles in administration and deals in policy-making. It ought to restrict itself to policy.
The board cannot afford to ignore the report since it includes comments from dozens of community leaders close to the Board of Education. In addition, the public is not too happy in the aftermath of an auditor general's report last year that indicated disorganization and waste in the State School Office.
The divisions on the board and between the board and superintendent are compounded by personality differences in some cases. What can be done about those situations is unclear.
What is clear is that the Hendrix report will provide powerful ammunition to members of the Legislature who want to restructure the State Board of Education system. Unsuccessful efforts already have been made in that direction and are certain to be raised again.
In 1988, there was a legislative proposal to eliminate the elected State Board of Education - a step backward that would require a constitutional amendment. Under the plan, the governor would appoint the state superintendent and the state board would be an appointed advisory body only, giving the governor full control.
In the 1989 session, a bill sought to change the way the board is chosen - without a constitutional amendment - giving local school districts the right to nominate a slate of candidates from which the governor would choose board members, who then would be on the ballot for confirmation.
That might put people on the board who have more expertise than the current system where board candidates are self-selected and largely unknown to voters in their own districts, but it would remove some of the board's independence, making it more a creature of the governor.
Given the huge role that education plays in the state, including the major share of the state budget, Utah needs a strong, well-organized, effective State Board of Education with clear goals and procedures in mind.
If it takes a new way of choosing board members, so be it. But lawmakers should move carefully and not rush into rash decisions based only on information in the Hendrix report.
In the meantime, the state board has the chance to put its own house in order - a move that is badly needed. If it can be seen to do so quickly and successfully, a basic change in the state system may be averted. If not, board members will have only themselves to blame.