How to Fix a Broken School District


Whether academically or financially distressed, repair of a school district is a long term complicated job. The nature of the problems, in a general way, might be similar in many cases. However, the solutions are most often specifically designed for that entity. In these cases, one size never fits all.

Successful transformation from a non-functioning school district to one of efficiency and effectiveness relies on a series of steps that must take a portion of time that may not be accepted by the local community or school boards. Parents, in most cases, want their children to get the best education possible in the shortest possible time. Unfortunately, turning such a large vessel around cannot happen quickly.

Are there schools and school districts that have changed the culture and the workings in a short time? There most certainly have been. We will explore those organizations in some detail in a succeeding chapter on “quick fixes.” Most distressed schools or districts have a habit of hanging on to old and failing ways.


Since almost all residents of the United States have had some sort of schooling, the populace has some ideas about how important their experiences were. Without an education, the citizenry is disadvantaged to the point of not being able to hold a job or to improve themselves over their lifetimes. Most people understand that and are willing, to some degree, to support local school districts with cash contributions called taxes.

The support of school systems from the state varies wildly across the United States. It travels from 31% in South Dakota to 70% in New Mexico and Minnesota. Although Hawaii funds it schools at 87%, it is an anomaly because it has only one school district1. Interestingly enough, the federal government, which appears to have a large role in education in current times, represents only a small part of any school district’s budget. Education is a state function and the federal government is a late comer to funding programs in public schools. According to a well-known Supreme Court case, Rodriguez v. San Antonio (1973), the word education does not appear in the federal constitution. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision that education was neither ‘explicitly nor implicitly' found anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. It was therefore, not protected by the Constitution. Hence, no suit in equity relative to school funding can be heard in federal court.2 All judicial activities could only then be accomplished within a state.

Adequate funding for school systems has been at the forefront of argumentation about how money affects outcomes for children. The Money Doesn’t Matter folks reared their heads in the 1980’s when the economy tanked and states looked for ways to diminish participation in funding education. An example of this diminution was the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the 1974-75 school year, the state funded their schools at 54%. In the 2013-14 year it was 30.8%.3

Where then can one look to begin a rehabilitation of a school or a school district? That will be the subject of this monograph. There are explicit steps, in some order, that will, in most cases, lead to a transformation of a failing entity to one that succeeds for the children. There are very few of the usual educational panaceas involved in this activity. Most of what we have learned is the product of uncommon sense and a large dose of humanity. The secret to change is steeped in applied human relations, a product of the 1940’s National Training Labs (NTL).

Kurt Lewin developed the program at NTL to delve into how intellect and environment act on each other to produce human behavior. His philosophy was that actual human interaction was more important than lecturing and reading. His T groups (T is for training) were a way to afford participants to learn about their own beliefs and also listen to others, sometimes antithetical beliefs, to understand interactions.4

Co-Author Arnold Hillman was part of one of these T-groups at Boston University in 1970 which was led by Kenneth Benne, one of Lewin’s colleagues. By that time Lewin had passed away at an early age in 1947. Hillman returned to his position as Human Relations Coordinator in a racially conflicted school district outside of Philadelphia. He was taught to run T-groups in the local community.

The success or failure at an attempt to change the direction of a school district is totally a human effort to modify certain behaviors. As we understand social psychology in the 21st century, there are both positive and negative ways to do this. As with the use of the predictive analysis approach used by Cambridge Analytica to narrow electoral choices by using corrupt techniques, there are certain accepted, and positive ways of changing an environment and therefore modifying behaviors.


When the new leader of a school district or school is tapped for the job, he/she should acquaint themselves with the history of the school district or school. This probably should begin with the moment one applies for the job and ramp up to the first interview. Whether head hunter, school board, or human resource head, a future leader should know what she/he is stepping into.

Yes, there a places that will not suit. There are situations where ones skills are not a good match. That is the premise on which decisions about employment lay. None of us have the overarching skills that can fix everything. As a matter of fact, when you hear or read about, “How to fix education in America,” or “How to Repair our broken system of education,” shut your eyes or your computers. There is no such thing as fixing a whole system at once. It has been tried and all the panaceas have failed.

Where success has been most achieved, it has been through leadership in one school or in one school district. Those are the stories that you should read or listen to. When you hear about how a school or school district has been turned around, ask a myriad of questions about what variables folks are looking at and how these positive results have been accomplished. We can predict with certainty that it began with leadership.

Schools, and we are going to use school and school district interchangeably, most often. When we need, we will diverge. The clear question is “How did this place get that way?” That question can be divided into a number of pieces. The first null hypothesis is that you should not come into that question with preconceived notions. Each school district has its own history and its own story of failure. The nature of the failure begins with a look at the long term history of the community and its public education system.

What does it matter if 50 years ago a school district was doing quite well financially and academically? How does that impact what is happening today? The answer is that it does impact current problems. There has got to be a baseline if you are going to seek to improve the school district. The choice of where to begin the search is different in each school district. In some cases, a change in demographics, the economy, the nature of housing, the ups and downs of local businesses have a large impact on what has happened.

Let us suppose that the community was, at one time, a thriving coal producing area. Jobs for youngsters straight out of high school were plentiful. The salaries were above average, and the town thrived on local businesses, and people coming from large companies to stay for days at a time. The town even had to extend the runway at a local airport to accommodate executive jets.

Then the coal industry sank because of new regulations and power derived from other sources. So many of the local establishments went out of business and the town became just a lunch stop on the way to a big city. The jobs for the kids dried up, as did a whole generation of workers. Poverty started to creep into people’s daily life. Welfare was now seen as a necessary part of existence. The brain drain affected the community as young people, as well as other workers, looked to other places for a living.

The schools reflected the decline in the community. As financial hardships hit the district, the schools felt it. The state may have participated in sending revenue to the district, but local taxation fell off the end of the table. Not only was raising taxes counterproductive, but percent’s of collections began to shrink. In states where county governments are the distributors of local taxation, the problem is heightened.

As the outside world saw the school district deteriorating, it affected the ability to recruit quality teachers and then teachers in general. As test scores diminished, and graduation rates declined, going on to college rates reduced. All of these variables were available to those applying for jobs, including school superintendents. State departments of education, statewide organization, the internet, colleges certifying teachers and administrators were all good sources of information.

The question then arises. Do you apply for a leadership job, such as a school superintendent, in a failing school district? Since the outsiders have given you information, the next step could be phone calls to teacher association heads in the district and other teacher leaders. Remember, as you are checking on the school district, others are checking up on you.

There are, of course, other reasons why both academic and fiscal problems are present. In the financial realm mismanagement is always possible. Misreading of local state and sometimes federal revenues are most often the case where a district winds up without enough funds to cover expenses.

In some cases, funds derived from one-time funding, such as grants that end in one year or two, run out, and budget creators are unaware that the funds are no longer available. They therefore put those erroneous conclusions into the revenue section of the budget and programs continue with no funds. In a large school district, with many grants, this happens more frequently.

Then there is the issue of skullduggery. There are bad people everywhere. People are often shocked that there could be financial manipulation in a school district. With state, federal and local auditors looking over the district’s shoulders, nefarious business can still go on. Therefore, it is always wise to ask for an audit of funds by an outside firm with no ties to the district. Many a time this audit can be the beginning of a repair of the financial controls needed to fix the district.

Academics are another story. It begins with levels of expectations. As we have seen in many school districts across the nation, once a district is labeled as, “Failing,” it remains with that word despite improvements to its educational program. The community’s view of the schools, parents and non-parents, is one of the most important tasks in fixing the district. People have to believe in the progress and participate in the repair. Chapter 3 will explain how one might do that.