How Should the MMSD Board of Education Operate?

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Wilbert Harrison, “Let’s Work Together, parts 1&2” (click to listen/watch)

The statutory duties and powers of school boards shall be broadly construed to authorize any school board action that is within the comprehensive meaning of the terms of the duties and powers, if the action is not prohibited by the laws of the federal government or of this state.

Wisconsin Statutes, 118

On Monday May 14, 2018, among other things (including the 2018-19 Budget, the Wellness Policy, and some statutorily required changes to college course access policies), the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education Operations Work Group will be discussing changes to how the Board operates, the “1000s” Board Policies  which may be up for a vote on May 21 (this meeting follows a closed session with “1) deliberating or negotiating the purchase of public property; 2) conferring with legal counsel concerning strategy to be adopted by the Board of Education with respect to litigation in which it is involved; and 3) considering negotiations strategy regarding collectively bargaining base wages for all MMSD Bargaining Units” on the agenda; I anticipate recusing from the last item).

At all levels of MMSD, the rhetoric of shared decision-making/governance is often not manifested in reality.  You can see this in the recent Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) Platform on School Climate, and in the frustrations parents at Leopold (and elsewhere) have expressed about the principal selection process.   In my experience, this has often also been true for the Board of Education (I realize that each Board Member has their own experiences and opinions).

However, there is one crucial difference, and that is that unlike parents, staff, (and students), the Board has the power and means to change things, not only for the Board itself, but for everyone.

I think it is telling that the City of Madison spent months deliberating and then appointed a Task Force on the Structure of City Government (including Citizen Members) that will carefully consider many ideas prior to making recommendations, while the Board of Education may vote on changes one week after the first public discussion.  Some may find that “efficiency” admirable; I don’t (see here and here for some of my old thoughts on the tensions between democracy and efficiency).

One part of creating change involves the Board governance policies under consideration this month.  Changing the structures and rules doesn’t guarantee changes in practice, but  it may create conditions where positive changes are possible (or may make things worse).

The possibilities are almost endless.  We could move from having 7 Members to 9.  We could return to having more than 2 Work Groups (there have been as many as 5-6 at some points), and again have citizen members on some Board committees (in the past, I have pushed for separating budget work from Operations, and the ERO Ad Hoc is in part an attempt to bring citizen members back).  We could have interactive dialogue as a regular part of meetings (making this possible at some meeting is mentioned here — 1221 –, but not included in the draft).  Some of these may be discussed on Monday.  If people (Board Members, parents, students, staff, community members) bring forth other ideas in the limited time allowed, they may be considered also.

I don’t fully know yet what in the drafts I will support or oppose on Monday, nor what I might propose that is not in the drafts, but there are two things I am sure of.  One is that I will present a new proposal to increase transparency and participation; the other is that I will oppose an attempt to make it harder for the Board and the public to get information about the school district.

Here is the proposed language for the first:

Any Committee, Task Force, Collaborative, Coalition, Advisory or other group convened by MMSD staff or administration that has an identifiable membership which includes more than two (2) people who are not appointed  as MMSD students, employees, or as employees of MMSD partners (as defined by the Partnership Policy) or contractors, will be treated as governmental bodies and required to follow open meetings statutes, with notices, agendas, and meeting materials posted in the manner of MMSD Board Committees and Work Groups.  Additionally, these bodies must include opportunities for public comment on their agendas (as with Work Groups, comment may be limited to items before the body at that meeting).

You may wonder what this is about.  One of the reasons you would be justified in wondering is that because the groups covered by this proposal don’t currently fall under open meetings processes (bodies appointed by staff are a gray area in Wisconsin law), and therefore almost nobody knows they exist.  Behind closed  doors,  on a regular basis,  privileged and select  people are given opportunities to shape district policies and practices through interactions with administration and staff.

Here is a list of the groups (that I know of) which would be opened up (I may not have all the names exactly right, and some may no longer exist):

  • The Superintendent’s Human Relations Committee (this group had previously been under open meetings)
  • The (BEP) Guiding Coalition
  • The High School Collaborative
  • The Parent Advisory Group
  • Community Leaders Advisory
  • Tech Plan Advisory
  • Special Education Parent Advisory Council
  • Community School Advisory Committee (and the bodies at individual schools?)
  • Strategic Framework Planning Team (and sub groups)

Shouldn’t everyone know who these groups are, and what these groups are doing?  It seems basic to me.

One proposal I am definitely opposing makes it more difficult for Board Members (and the therefore the public) to get information.  This adds the clause — “The BOARD President may deny or alter any request for information” — to the current policy (which already allows  requests  which “create an unusual burden” to be brought to the attention of the entire Board.

I find it difficult to believe that anyone thinks governance would be improved by creating barriers to informed decision-making, or giving one of seven a veto on requests, but apparently that is the case.

Among the things which have been brought to light via Board requests for information in recent years are changes in Special Education staffing,; the large increase in less-than -fully- qualified teachers in Special Education and Bilingual Education, the great variations in class sizes, including many “outliers” at the high and low ends.  In each of these cases, it took persistent requests for information to establish the basis for actions (or proposals for action).

Even if the veto isn’t exercised, this could create a significant delay in receiving information.   Timeliness is already an issue.  An example from last week illustrates this.

On Monday the Board discussed the Forward Madison Partnership, and we will be voting on a renewal on 5/21.  Part of the partnership is the T.E.E.M. Scholar program.  On Tuesday I sent this email:

Subject: TEEM Scholar/Immigration Status Question (and more)?
Apologies, I forgot this last night.
I can’t find a current application, but two previous TEEM Scholar applications (here and here), indicate that undocumented students may not participate.  Is this still the case?
More generally, can we get a list of our programs and partnerships that require legal residency (I recall at least, one other, maybe with MATC or DWD)?
Thank you
TJM
TJ Mertz
Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education, Seat Five
Educate in order that your children may be free” –Irish Proverb
On Wednesday I received a response that reasonably said it would be difficult to quickly, get all of the information on all partnerships and programs, but also that the answer to my simple yes/no question about whether this program excludes students based on immigration status would be given the next week’s update .  That means the evening of 5/17, with the vote on 5/21 (9 days for a simple yes/no).   If the answer is that the program continues to discriminate, I would like more than 3+ days to deal with it.

If there had been another layer of approval from the Board President required before the question could be answered, I may not have had even that much time.  Timeliness matters.

Last is the issue of giving this control to a single Board Member.  The Board isn’t divided like Congress or the Wisconsin Legislature, we generally get along, try to work together, and agree on many things.  But there are differences and divisions.  Under these circumstances, one Board Member should not have control over the information other Board Members may desire.  The potential for abuse is too great (imagine if the GOP tried to establish a veto on Democrat’s requests for information from Legislative Reference Bureau).

As I said above, there are many things related to this revision package where I am not sure what I will do.  These are two where I feel strongly, and also two where I would like to create some public awareness of the issues and my positions.  There may be others that I decide are equally important.  Be there or tune in on Monday to find out.

Before closing I want to also note that there are (at least) two changes to the draft Wellness Policy I will advocating.  The first is strengthening the language and commitment to sufficient time to eat lunch, and the other is extending the required k-5 recess time from 30 to 40 minutes.

Thomas J (TJ) Mertz
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Filed under Best Practices, education, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, MMSD, Take Action, Uncategorized

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