Democracy and Efficiency (part II)

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On Monday February 18 the public will get a chance to speak to the the Board of Education about the proposal to move public appearances on non agenda items to the end of meetings. I implore all interested members of the public, pro and con, to attend on Monday and make your voices heard. The meeting will be in the Doyle Building auditorium. It starts at 5:00, but the public hearing on the proposal is on the agenda after the report of the Citizens [School] Naming Committee report. I would guess this will be after 5:30.

In an earlier postI promised to offer some constructive suggestions on this proposal and the broad matter of balancing the desire for public participation with the desire for efficiency. I realize that these are not exactly the same “problems” Board President Arlene Silviera identified — “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” — but I think they are close enough.

When searching for solutions, it is essential to begin by demonstrating that the “problem” actually exists and if it does the next step is to assess how serious it is.

Here are the Board priorities for the year:

– Develop specific, measurable goals regarding strategic priorities

– Attendance, dropouts, truancy, expulsions, bullying

– Equity discussion – follow through/implementation

– Hiring a new Superintendent

– Considering/weighing options for a possible referendum

I don’t know everything that the Board has done, but based on what I do know and can find I’d like to go through these one by one and assess the progress.

Develop specific, measurable goals regarding strategic priorities

The Performance and Achievement Committee developed and forwarded to the Board a “Strategic Plan Accountability Matrix,” It was approved on November 11 . I believe that this is a partial fulfillment of this priority. The matrix isn’t posted on the district web site so I can’t be sure, but this appears to be related to the ongoing work of the district and Board moving toward implementing value added analysis (a blessing, but a mixed blessing in my opinion, see here, here and here, to start). The strategic priorities should also play some role in the Board’s equity work.

Attendance, dropouts, truancy, expulsions, bullying

After much work, the expulsions policy has been revised. I can’t find much on the others ( code of conduct revision here), but again the equity work should touch on them. Another partial fulfillment.

Equity discussion – follow through/implementation

One meeting devoted largely to Equity where progress was made and a second (at the end of a night made long by on-topic public appearances at the Long Range Planning Committee and other matters), where not much was accomplished. I have many things to say about process the Board has pursued with their equity work (some here), but this is not the place to go into that. I would put this in the “barely started” category.

Hiring a new Superintendent

This is huge and was hugely time consuming. They did a very good job throughout the process and ended up with a fine choice.

Considering/weighing options for a possible referendum

They started this in a timely manner, made some progress but because of the TIF windfall it ended up being “the referendum that wasn’t.”

I think this is a pretty impressive record of accomplishments. Add to it revising the school naming policy, beginning West side boundary discussions, settling the MTI teacher contract, beginning work on community forums and partnerships, as well as other initiatives that are under my radar; and weathering the storms of consolidation and budget reconsideration, General Vang Pao, and private school busing and it looks to me like a fairly successful term. I am skeptical that this record indicates a problem that rises to the level of requiring what I consider the drastic action of making it more difficult (however slightly) for the public to communicate with the Board. Obviously some Board members disagree or it wouldn’t have come up.

Although skeptical, I’ll stipulate that there is a problem, that the Board has been unable to give sufficient attention to their work and priorities. The next step should be to evaluate a range of solutions. The Board produced one “solution” and did little in the way of evaluating its’ effectiveness.

I hope to have documentation of how much time was spent on off-topic public appearances before Monday. Having sat through many meetings, watched video of others and reviewed minutes of even more, my initial impression is that the vast majority of off-topic public appearances this term have been about the school consolidation/budget reconsideration, the General Vang Pao school naming, private school busing and Military ads/recruiting. At least the first two of these are exceptional situations and concern problems of the Board’s own making. Some might say this describes the others also. My point is that week in and week out, year in and year out, off-topic public testimony does not seem to consume all that much time or energy.

In all these cases and more, I believe that the community, the district and the Board have all benefited from the opportunities for open public input. If there is to be any new limit, I would like it to be time based instead of topical. For example, if there are more than 15 registrants, limit of speakers for two minutes.

Any assessment of time or energy spent on off-topic public appearances only makes sense in the context of a comparative assessment of time spent on other tasks. I don’t have documentation on this either, but it seems the Board spends an inordinate amount of time with housekeeping matters, paying bills and and taking other actions that are required by law. The obvious solution is to use a consent agenda, to bundle these matters into a single vote. This has come up twice (that I know of) in Board discussions; once here and the second time during the discussion of the public input “problem.” Despite the efforts of some Board members, it has never appeared on an agenda. It is a reform that makes sense.

I am only going to make one more suggestion here, and this only deals indirectly with efficiency, but I think it would enhance communication and democracy and may induce fewer people to use Board meeting time with public input. Board members should hold office hours. One of the problems with the rituals of public input and the black hole of emailing or writing elected officials is that the public often feels they are not being listened to. I know Board members also have public phone numbers, but calling them seems like such an imposition. Office hours would allow dialogue between Board members and the public — something, for legal and other reasons, sorely lacking at Board meetings. Carol Carstensen used do do something like this in her home by hosting regular open houses, but these raised legal issues that led to their demise. What I am proposing is that Board members rotate and that each week at a designated time one or two be available for appointments or walk in meetings. I really think this would help.

Communication is a two-way street and the public is not without fault in the communication problems that exist. John Dewey wrote:

All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power. “

Too often the public input sessions — both on and off topic — consist of all parties going through the motions. With this in mind, I offer some initial tips on giving effective, communicative public input:

  • Be informed and accurate.
  • Know what can or cannot be done, but also don’t lose sight of and do communicate your dreams for the future.
  • Be polite and respectful (this one can be hard, but at least keep it civil).
  • Don’t rehash old history. Past conflicts and mistakes should be used sparingly and only to point ways forward.
  • Offer realistic alternatives.
  • Try to see the “big picture” and demonstrate that you do.
  • Remember that the School board’s primary focus and reason for being is to improve student achievement for all children
  • Use personal stories, but don’t make it personal, tie them to larger concerns.
  • Thank the elected officials for past and future things.
  • Don’t criticize the people, criticize their actions (or inaction).
  • Sustain involvement. Elected officials have more respect for people who stick around and keep working.
  • Look for common ground, but if it isn’t there be straight forward about that.
  • Don’t make threats.
  • Don’t complain about taxes unless that is the one focus of your testimony.

As usual, this is too long, so I’ll leave it at this. Your suggestions on effective input, Board efficiency or anything else are welcome. Just leave a comment.

Thomas J. Mertz

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