Tin-eared and Wrong-headed

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Update:

Board of Education President Arlene Silveira just posted this on The Daily Page 

 Time Out. The press release that started this thread was not accurate. There will be public speaking on this topic at the meeting on 2/18.I will continue to come back to the main point. The issue is that the Board would like to focus on its business at a more reasonable hour in order to make good decisions for the children of the district.If people do not like the proposal on the table, please recommend an alternative. An alternative is not to say “let’s leave things as is”. This does not address the problem.Looking forward to your ideas!Arlene Silveira

I am glad to see some movement and agree that both sides need to be creative.

It should be noted that according to all information available to the public prior to this The Daily Page post, the Progressive Dane Press Release was accurate. 

I was contacted earlier today by the Board of Education staff person (after the Press Release was issued) about a change but given no details.  My request for more information has not been answered yet (This is not a complaint about the Board staff people.  They, like so many in the Doyle building, do a great job and are always helpful.  I just want to be as open as possible about what I knew when.). 

See you on the 18th (and maybe the 11th too).

At the Board of Education meeting Monday (2/4/2008) a proposal was put forth to enact new limits on public testimony. This proposal and the way it was introduced and discussed showed some on the Board at their worst, both tin-eared and wrong-headed. These are overlapping criticisms, because with the interactions between elected officials and the public, perceptions (tin-eared) and realities (wrong-headed) are inseparable.

Before I go further a caveat is in order. I did not attend the meeting on Monday and only watched the last 45 minutes or so at home. Still, I’m pretty confident in what I have to say.

The proposal is a revision of Board policies 1220 and 1222. I haven’t obtained a copy of the exact language yet (that points to one problem with the way this is being done and another with the proposal iteslf, when I get an electronic copy I’ll link here), but the gist of it is that they want to move public appearances concerning topics that are not on the agenda for that meeting from the beginning (where they have been since at least 2000) to the end (an indeterminate time). K-12 students are exempted.

The rationale offered is that extensive, “off topic” public appearances have kept the Board from effectively doing the work the Board wants to do. There is no doubt that public appearances before the Board — mostly “on topic” — have at times been exhausting or that there is room for improvement on both sides of communication between the Board and the public. Rather than improving communication, the pending revision seeks to make communication more difficult.

It is outageous for a Board which has acknowledged communication and public relations problems in their goals for the Superintendent (it was also on the initial list of annual Board priorities, but Lawrie Kobza moved to delete it, Ms Kobza was conspicuous in her support of the current effort to limit public appearances) to contemplate such an action, it borders on insane that they would do so in a manner that excludes the public from having any input.

One thing needs to be made clear, whatever Board members say about the intent not being to limit public input, the result is that public input will be limited in terms of both quantity and quality. Logistically the proposal is a nightmare. Let me use the proposal itself as the first illustration.

A very general item appeared on the agenda distributed on Thursday or Friday (1/31 or 2/1). I contacted a couple of people for details and got only vague answers. It appears that the actual proposal was distributed to Board members on Monday (the day of the meeting) and the first chance the public got to see it was via the distribution of copies at that meeting.  [I have been asked to clarify the chronology and given new information to do so. Board members were given a draft policy on Thursday 1/31, an explanation via email on Friday 2/1 and the the proposed policy on Monday 2/4. A vote was possible on Monday, 2/4 but since this was not sure, the possible continuation to 2/18 was already arranged.] Monday afternoon I am contemplating making childcare and other arrangements in order to possibly give public testimony on a proposal that I don’t know the contents of. One source told me there probably won’t be a vote, so I decide not to go (it turns out there was almost a vote). The point of this is that the nature agenda items and the timing of their publication makes it hard for the public to participate. It gets worse. Thanks to the intervention of two members, the Board did not vote and will take this up again on 2/18 (mark the date). That meeting will be a workshop session, meaning no public appearances. In fact, there are no Board meetings scheduled between now and the vote where public appearances are allowed. So I missed my chance and the Board was spared the horror of listening to me for three minutes. I will however be attending the Communications Committee meeting on 2/11 and if public appearances are allowed will be saying my piece (that agenda isn’t out yet), I suggest you do the same.

This was an agendaed item, so if the new policy was in place I still could have testified at the start (and I would have if there has been any way for me to know what it was without going to the meeting). Now I want to look at non-agendaed items and what the Board is contemplating. These fall into two categories. The first consists those things that the Board is not aware of or is doing nothing about; the second consists of those things that Board has been addressing or plans to address at other meetings. If you want to talk with the Board about any of these, you will have to wait your turn. In practical terms, that means planning on sitting through a meeting that may go one hour or may go four hours (tell that to your spouse or try to arrange for childcare on those terms) and then at the very end, after the Board has done what they want, those members that stick around will give your what attention they have left to give. Is this a recipe for effective communication? I understand that the Board wants to work on what the Board wants to work on, but I also understand that the Board doesn’t know everything and that there are some things they know about that they don’t want to deal with. I like the fact that it is relatively easy for the public to try to inform the Board or get them to address things they would rather not, to speak often inconvenient truth to power (or at very least call public attention to these things). In setting the agenda, the Board (especially the President and Vice President) already have great power. This would enhance that power at the expense of the rest of us.

As usual, this is too long, but I want to work through one more example before wrapping it up. Multiple Board members cited the failure of the Board to make any meaningful progress on Equity at their 1/28 meeting as an illustration of why this policy is “needed.” They couldn’t have picked a worse example. On April 16, 2007 the Equity Task Force presented our report to the Board of Education. The Board was busy with more pending matters, gave the summary a brief polite hearing, thanked the Task Force and pledged to return to the report (no vote, but that’s what they said and what the minutes indicate). On June 20, 2007 the Board made Equity a priority for the year. On December 3, 2007 — almost eight months after the Task Force gave them our report and six months after the Board made Equity a priority — the Board held a workshop session on Equity. On January 28, 2008the Board held another workshop meeting on Equity. This is the meeting where little got done and the one that Board members used to place the blame on public appearances. On that front, the lengthy public appearances that night were for the Long Range Planning Committee and were about an agendaed item, so the proposed revision wouldn’t have changed anything!

Looking at the bigger picture, it stretches credibility well past the breaking point to assert that off topic public appearances were a major factor in preventing the Board from addressing Equity for eight months. Don’t play me for a fool. Again, it gets worse. Under the new policy, only agendaed items may be addressed at a time when members of the public are able to easily appear and the Board is paying full attention. In the eight months since the Task Force gave the Board our report, Equity has not appeared on the agenda of a single meeting where public appearances were allowed. Board members also touted other means of communicating with them. Any fool knows these aren’t the same. Prior to the January 28 meeting six Equity Task Force members (myself included) sent the Board a letter expressing concerns about the process of their work on Equity, including the lack of public input. To my knowledge only two Board members responded and our letter and concerns were not part of the discussion at the meeting. I can’t help but think that if we had been able to read that letter to them in person at the start of one or more meetings, things might have been different.

Reading through this I find that I hit the “wrong-headedness” more than the “tin-eared.” It should be obvious how counterproductive ramming through a limitation of public input (without any public input on the proposal) is to the goal of improved communications. If it isn’t, I suggest everyone — including Board members — watch the video. You’ll be amazed at how self-centered and arrogant some of our elected Board members sound.

I admire the hard work of our Board of Education and appreciate the difficulties they face in trying to do what they think is best. However, the best intentions can still lead to bad decisions. Let’s not let that happen this time. Contact the Board, testify at the 2/11 Communications Committee meeting (while you still can), write the newspapers…. If we can move past this wrong-headed mess, we can continue to work together — the board and the Public — to figure out ways to improve communication, a project that has already begun under a the auspices of a planned Progressive Dane School Budget 101 seminar (among other things I’m chair of the PD Education Task Force).

Thomas J. Mertz

An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets up barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education

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8 Comments

Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, Equity, Local News, Take Action, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Tin-eared and Wrong-headed

  1. Deb Gilbert

    TJ,

    I attended Monday night’s meeting specifically to learn what this item was about and with a hope to learn about changes in open enrollment practices.

    I have a copy of the proposed changes and if not posted by the district will scan them in and forward them to you this weekend.

    Overall, I think the revisions maintain the ability of the public to provide input. Of course process change made with limited time for input raises concern related to motivation. If the board adopts these changes the community will come to learn the new dynamic and will survive.

  2. Maybe they could sunset the change. This gives everyone a chance to try it for brief time.

  3. Deb

    If you would scan and send it my way, I will post a link. Thank you.

    I agree that the community will adjust (would we have a choice?), but I also think that the proposed policy will create more ill will. Some of us check agendas, read Board policies and attend often (and even we have trouble deciphering things like this as they appear on the agenda). Most people don’t. When those people, in an effort to communicate with the Board, show up at 5:00 or 6:00 and are told to wait till whenever (nobody can say when), they will not come away with an an enhanced sense that the Board cares about what they have to say.

    Laura, with a sunset is better than without. Starting over in an open interactive way is still better (in my opinion).

  4. A Press Release from Progressive Dane is linked here.

    TJM

  5. David Cohen

    That would really blow! How else can I make a public appearance to thank all of my children’s teachers every few years?

  6. Don’t get me wrong, I disagree with the proposed change. I think a more important problem to address would be the time lag between the meetings and posting the minutes. I don’t have cable and don’t want to go to the meetings unless it is something really important to me. If they are going to vote on this though, I would prefer it be a trial for a limited time.

  7. David Cohen

    The more I think about this, the more I’d like to see a way to help the Board get their work done and still allow public comment at the start of meetings. It has to be frustrating to listen to two hours of the same opinions, made by different faces, then go to other business. No one wants to be there until 10 pm, Board members or parents alike. And, I must say, the anti-war group has great points that would be best made at a meeting solely to discuss military ads….ditto with many other special interest groups commenting about their special interests…so how can the Board find a way to accomodate everyone and still have a model where they can make progress on their initiatives?

  8. Pingback: Off to the Race(s)?: Madison School Board Election « AMPS

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