Sources of Priority Conflict on City School Boards

City school districts are different animals. The socioeconomic challenges students face, the special interest group pressures, the spill-over effects of city politics, and countless other factors combine to make urban school district governance unique. Doug Ihrke and I wrote a bit on this topic last year. Basically, we found that poor governing dynamics have a particularly negative effect on city school boards. This begged the obvious question, what are the sources of conflict on city school boards? In a new paper just published in Urban Education entitled “Determinants of Priority Conflict on City School Boards,” we work to answer that question.

We draw on data from our 2014 national survey of school board members, specifically focusing on 72 boards classified as “City” by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES defines city as being:

  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population of 250,000 or more.”
  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population less than 250,000 and greater than or equal to 100,000,” or
  • “inside an urbanized area and inside a principal city with population less than 100,000.”

In previous work on board conflict we simply asked board members their perceptions of several negative conflict types. In this work we tried something new, creating a variable measuring the extent to which board members serving together differ in their governing priorities. Board members were asked to rank, from 1 to 10, the following priorities:

  • Strategic planning
  • Setting academic standards
  • Hiring the superintendent
  • Monitoring fiscal performance
  • Holding school staff accountable for district performance
  • Making assessment policies
  • Making student behavior policies
  • Interacting with the public
  • Collaborating with interest groups
  • Board development

Next we calculated distance scores to determine the level of priority conflict present on the board. We developed and tested several hypotheses, but here are the two main findings:

  • Boards serving districts with higher percentages of ELL pupils, and higher percentages of male students had more priority conflict.
  • Districts with lower-levels of funding had less priority conflict.

Interestingly, some of things we expected to impact priority conflict, including the quality of board member-superintendent relations and good board development practices, did not. So why what is the contribution here? As we conclude in the paper:

  • First, by focusing on urban school boards, the study speaks to the growing recognition that urban board governance is a unique case that demands to be understood in its own context.
  • Second, the creation of an independent priority conflict variable based on school board member priority rankings is an improvement over previous work focused on conflict perceptions.

Our hope is to use this piece as a basis for measuring board conflict in new ways, and for further exploring the unique context of urban school boards.

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