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Commentary: Speciality government bodies are confusing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2009 - Why do school districts, fire districts, sewer districts, art districts, etc., operate outside of the traditional American three branches of government? And is this a good thing?

First the background. We all know the Founding Fathers set up a government with three branches. The legislature makes laws, passes taxes and funds programs. The executive runs the operation day to day. Courts resolve civil and criminal disputes and ride herd on the other two branches.

The voters at all levels of government pick their legislators and executives. Judges, depending on the level and the system, are picked via various opaque mysterious processes involving voters, commissions, elected officials, retention elections, political favoritism and other confusing practices.

We govern at the state and local level with the same three branch system. In St. Louis City, we have Mayor Francis Slay and the Board of Aldermen. In St. Louis County, we have County Executive Dooley and the County Council. Similarly St. Louis' countless small municipalities have mayors and legislative bodies.

The advantages of the system are at least three fold.

  • First, the branches squabble with each other for power and so keep each other in check.
  • Second, while most citizens ignore the goings on of their government officials most of the time, in the occasional crisis the voters can throw the bums out.
  • Third, and critically, the system is sufficiently centralized that if things get fouled up the voters know whom to blame and so whom to throw out.

So, why do we even have school boards, fire district boards, arts boards and so on? And what do these boards exactly do?
School boards were the first to develop power outside of the basic three branch framework. In the 19th century, one Horace Mann from Massachusetts was instrumental in the development of the concept. He looked at the need for education for the general public, he looked at the basically corrupt and nasty political process in the three branch system in the developing big cities of the day, and he concluded that education was so important that the school systems should be run by a separate bunch of elected officials. Thus was born what we now know as the traditional school board.

While the legislative branch still generally retains most of the power to tax to fund the schools, the school board hires the superintendent, sets policy and, through complicated processes such as issuing bonds, raises funds.

Mann's theory made some sense at the time, particularly because he thought well-meaning people would want to get involved in schools, but I believe the outcome has created its own set of problems. In fact, I suggest the problems are so severe that we should rethink the arrangement.

Because it falls to the legislative branch to raise the money but it falls to the school board to hire the superintendent and set policy, the public is confused. Crummy schools? Who to hold accountable? The legislature, which failed to raise and allocate enough money, or the school board members who picked a lousy superintendent and set bad policy?

The public has barely enough energy and interest to know the identity of and keep track of its members of Congress, state legislators and alderman, as well as its president, governor and mayor. How are citizens supposed to also keep track of school board members too?

The result is mischief. While I do not assert that all school boards are naughty, I do assert that this over-decentralization leads no one watching. And when no one is watching, things go awry.

As an overlay let me note that the school district elected board model is repeated in many other government functions. A big example is fire districts. In many areas the citizens elect members of a fire district board and then those board members select a chief and set policy. Recent headlines about a lawyer getting an annual retainer in excess of $100,000 a year to represent some north county fire district are a case in point. The surprise is not that the lawyer finagled a contract for so much money. The surprise is that someone noticed.

The counter argument is that education and fire control are so essential that they can't be left in the hands of "normal" elected officials. I say, why not? If we worry the mayor and aldermen will be corrupt and, therefore, ill suited to be entrusted with those functions, what makes us think that school board members and fire board members will be any better?

The critical issue in government is accountability. If we put education, fire control, parks, sewers and everything else into the basic three branch model I think we will increase accountability.

It is my view that we should back these boards out. Let's put control for all government functions in the traditional three branches.

If this idea begins to take hold squealing will erupt from existing holders of these august positions. All the members of the "Art District Board" and the "Park Board" and the "Sewer District Board," etc. will assert that it is only they who have sufficient wisdom and institutional history to manage such complex issues. Ha. I say they just love their power.

Bevis Schock is an attorney in private practice in Clayton.