The average State Board of Education member represents more than 1.6 million people.
In comparison, most state representatives’ districts contain about 150,000 people, and the lawmakers manage correspondence from their constituents with the help of staffers in state-funded offices located in both their districts and the state Capitol.
But the 15 elected members of the SBOE, who are responsible for determining the curriculum and selecting the textbooks that will be used by all Texas public schools, as well as supervising investments in the $26 billion Permanent School Fund, must each manage communication with more than 1 million constituents on their own. The Texas Education Agency provides annual travel stipends to board members based on the size of their districts and assists when members’ constituents ask for help in resolving education-related problems, such as facilitating a school district transfer for a student who has been bullied.
The House Committee on Redistricting held a public hearing Tuesday to determine whether the physical size and population of SBOE districts prevent board members from adequately communicating with their constituents. Members of the committee expressed particular concern about the size of District 1 and District 15 in West Texas.
“I have 200-plus school districts,” said Bob Craig, who represents District 15, which during redistricting in the last legislative session was expanded to include 77 counties. “I think it’s important to make sure you have contact with those school board members, because they really care and they live in the community. ... [My district] goes from Dalhart to San Angelo to Abilene to San Saba. The new district goes over to Wichita Falls and some of the counties on the northern end.”
Eight of the nine State Board members who testified on Tuesday — Barbara Cargill, Gail Lowe, George Clayton, Marsha Farney, Patricia Hardy, Ken Mercer, Bob Craig and Thomas Ratliff — have said that reducing the size of the districts would not improve the board's efficiency. Such a change would require the addition of more seats to the board.
“We are required by law to meet quarterly, and we meet for two days,” said Clayton, who represents District 12 in the Dallas area. “Some days our agenda is extensive, and it takes every hour of those two days to get things done. If we add members, we [lengthen] those meetings, which adds expense.”
Charlie Garza, who represents District 1, said that if the Redistricting Committee decided to increase the number of seats on the board, the new districts should only be drawn from Districts 1 and 15, the large West Texas districts. But he said increased staff support would make the greatest difference.
“I believe there should be [more] staffing,” said Garza, who said that only three staffers are provided to assist all 15 members of the board. “I don’t believe we need anything as elaborate as [state representatives] have ... just someone to send out the newsletters and answer the phones."
Several of the board members said they communicate with constituents primarily by phone and email, and some said they have listed their personal cellphone numbers on the board’s website. The board received 15,000 emails when it was setting hotly debated history curriculum standards last year and 12,000 emails when it debated state science requirements, said Cargill, the board's chairwoman.
Travel also presents one of the greatest difficulties for members, said Garza, whose district is the largest by area. A recent drive from El Paso to Medina and San Antonio to meet with constituents took 20 hours round trip, he said. Gas and hotel expenses for such trips can exceed members' $1,900 annual travel stipend, he said, so subsequent visits must be paid for out of pocket.
A representative of the Texas Parent-Teacher Association testified in favor of increasing the number of SBOE districts.
“While there are many reasons Texas citizens know little about the SBOE, one of the reasons is the large size of the districts,” said Barbara Beto of the Texas PTA, adding that candidates' relatively low-budget campaigns do not reach many voters in their districts. “[Texas PTA] believes increasing the number of districts will increase the effectiveness of the SBOE.”
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, testified that increasing the number of SBOE districts and instituting nonpartisan elections could prevent political controversies like those that erupted last year, when the board’s debate on social studies curricula drew national attention.
“It’s important to think about how much power is being invested in so few people,” Miller said.
Burt Solomons, the Carrollton Republican who chairs the Redistricting Committee, said he held the hearing to spurt talk of future representation issues tied to the state’s growing population.
“I wanted to lead the Legislature to think, down the road, what do you do as the population of Texas continues to grow phenomenally?” Solomons said. “[The SBOE districts] are two and a half times the size of a congressman’s [district], and congressmen have all kinds of perks to communicate with their constituents.”