The Influence of Site Based Decision Making Councils on the Work of Principals in Jefferson County Public Schools
Hughes, Gary Dean
Strawbridge, Nancy Sharp
Bercaw, Jamin Lane
Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) is the public school district serving Louisville, Kentucky. With an enrollment of approximately 99,000 students, JCPS is Kentucky's largest public school system. Each school in JCPS has a Site Based Decision Making (SBDM) Council. This exploratory project was designed to understand how SBDM Councils in the Jefferson County Public Schools affect school level policy and the work of principals. Researchers addressed two project questions. First, researchers asked, "How do JCPS principals perceive the impact of SBDM Councils in the mandated areas of curriculum, instructional practices, personnel, scheduling and student assignment to classes, use of school space, student discipline and school safety, procedural concerns, extracurricular participation, alignment with state standards, and program appraisals on their work as school leaders?" Second, researchers queried, "How do JCPS principals perceive the impact of the SBDM Councils on their day-to-day responsibilities as school leaders?" Goals of SBDM Councils include decentralizing school control and involving members of the school community in making decisions for their school. While some evidence, primarily qualitative, exists to bolster claims of increased stakeholder engagement from participation in SBDM Councils, there is virtually no research on the types of policy decisions influenced by SBDM Councils. Researchers sought to understand how legal mandates governing SBDM Councils affect principals' workloads. Second, researchers examined principals' perceptions SBDM Council influence on policy decisions at the local school level. Data were collected along two strands: a comprehensive survey and six school qualitative interview sites. A survey was created and distributed to all 132 JCPS principals. In addition to demographic data that included experience, length of time as principal, and tenure at the school, survey questions focused on task requirements of the SBDM Councils and perception queries concerning the intersection of council work and the duties of the principal. Structured qualitative interviews were conducted at six school sites, selected in conjunction with JCPS Accountability, Research, and Planning Department staff. The data collected through principal surveys underwent descriptive analysis to capture a view of principal perceptions on how SBDM Councils shape policy formation and influence decision-making. Trends in the data were explored. The data collected from qualitative interviews were analyzed to ascertain contextual factors that may affect SBDM Councils according to members from all levels. As noted, 132 principals from the elementary, middle, and high schools in Jefferson County were asked to complete the principal's survey. There were 111 principals who chose to take part in the survey. Of this group, 20 principals answered only the first survey question that requested their consent to participate in the survey; after giving consent, they answered no further survey questions. Four other principals answered questions in the first four sections of the survey but declined to answer any of the demographics related questions in section five of the survey. Of the 87 principals who completed the survey, 40 of them completed the survey online and the remaining 47 completed the survey during their respective principal's meetings in December 2008. In all, 54 elementary school principals, 15 middle school principals, 16 high school principals, and 2 special school principals completed the survey. It is clear from survey and qualitative interview data that the principal is the primary source of influence in every area requiring decision-making by the SBDM Council (as mandated by KERA). According to qualitative interview responses, most decisions delegated to the SBDM Councils have been made before ever reaching that body. In many schools, there is an overlap in responsibilities between the school leadership teams, which may include virtually all teachers in some schools, and SBDM Councils. Thus, the work of the SBDM Council is often only symbolic in nature. In many cases, the most educationally substantive issues have been addressed long before reaching the SBDM Council. Parental involvement in schools can help promote student achievement; however, parental participation on SBDM Councils is limited and effectively weak relative to principal influence. Researchers found that principals believe that they are the driving force behind most decisions made in the school. In every area studied, the principal ranked first in influence. SBDM Councils do influence decisions made in the school, but overall, they rank second to the principal in amount of influence exerted over decision-making processes in schools. The findings suggest that the work of SBDM Councils, though largely symbolic, is valued in JCPS. Nevertheless, more than half of all principals surveyed indicated that they would eliminate SBDM Councils in their schools if possible. Negative aspects associated with SBDM Council mandates include writing redundant policies, participation in the hiring process, and parental involvement in decisions best handled by the professional staff. Researchers offer several recommendations to JCPS officials for strengthening and streamlining the work of principals and SBDM Councils. The common thread throughout these findings and recommendations reflects what has already been hypothesized in published research: leadership matters, regardless of other groups and stakeholders.