Friday, March 18, 2011

Board Questions and Answers

Dorothy and Dora have raised a topic for discussion.

First, the Board has increased the number and the quality of their questions to staff. They are still a long way from the sort of vigorous inquiry and critical reasoning that they should aspire to, but they have gotten better.

Second, the Board has also gotten better at insisting on answers to their questions. Again, not where they should be, but definitely improving.

Third, the staff has not shown any evidence of getting better at answering the Board's questions. They continue to provide mushy answers or no answers or the over-used "I don't have that data. I'll have to get back to you with that."

Fourth, in the event of a promise of an answer later there is often no timeline set for the answer and there is a lot of doubt about whether the answer is ever actually provided. Some times we know that it isn't. The Board has not been diligent about following up on these promises of future answers. Even if the answer does come later, it means that a question asked in public is answered in private. The public impression is that the question was never answered. It certainly wasn't answered publicly.

Finally, there is the weird dynamic in which it is regarded as inappropriate for the Board to publicly express any dissatisfaction with the staff or the superintendent. This creates the impression that the Board isn't doing their job of oversight. Think of the Board's dismissal of the superintendent. It appears to have been over a single incident, but the superintendent's effort to shape the Board's information about Pottergate was only the final straw that caused her dismissal. It creates a misleading impression of the Board and how they work.

24 comments:

Maureen said...

Are the meeting minutes as posted the only official record of Board meetings and work sessions, or are there recordings? (I know the Board meetings are filmed of course, but are those films the official record?) It seems to me that a policy should be created that the official record has to be amended with the answers to Board questions before the minutes can be approved. Who takes minutes for the Board? Board staff could be resonsible for tracking down the answers and amending the minutes.

Melissa Westbrook said...

This issue came up somewhat at the Board retreat. How should the Board answer questions the public poses at the Board meetings? Previous Boards have struggled with this issue and no one seems to have answer.

Per Maureen, maybe whoever takes notes could write down the questions and the staff has the next two weeks to give an answer.

Stu said...

I'll have to get back to you with that

It's always amazed me how often they phrase is heard at official meetings without any public follow up or discussion. If I had one thing I'd want the board to do, it would be demanding that the staff do their job when it's supposed to be done.

If there was a big meeting at our office, and I was supposed to come with all the figures but didn't have them, I'd be fired. Yet year after year we've seen the board make decisions without having all the facts and figures in front of them. (They also ignore evidence that doesn't come from staff . . that's annoying too. I would take Meg's figures over anyone else in a second!)

Maybe if enough of us mention this in emails, or at Enfield Open Office Meetings, they can demand answers on time?

If they don't do the work, find someone who will. There are plenty of qualified people out there looking for work.

What I'd love to see is someone on the board with the stones to say "I understand you don't have the report you were supposed to have . . . well, it turns out we don't have your check this month."

stu

someone said...

I can't imagine, when I used to work for State Govt, showing up without the data needed. Part of a good support staff's job is anticipating the kinds of questions that might arise, and being prepared to respond. And I've sat on municipal commissions where I just would not tolerate that kind of wishy-washy answers and lack of preparation.
Yes, we all get busy at other things on a job, but geez! They know what topics are up for discussion so there just really isn't any excuse. I agree with stu - I'd have been fired if I consistently performed in this manner.
And as a Board member who did not insist on follow-thru I'd be out the door quickly.

I am really starting to think these are completely the wrong people foe the job - board and staff alike. Arrrgghhhh...

Stu said...

Part of a good support staff's job is anticipating the kinds of questions that might arise, and being prepared to respond

What bothers me isn't that they might show up unprepared, though that's annoying. There is certain data that's required for the board to make an educated decision. If there's a motion before the board, you need to have all the support documents necessary and be prepared to answer every question with facts and figures.

What annoys me more, however, is that they don't have answers AFTER the board has asked for answers! If my boss says "this looks like a good idea, can you get me the number?" I WOULD GO GET THE NUMBERS!

Problem is, the board relies on anecdotal reporting from a staff that shown, time and again, they do not know about what they speak! And, since they won't take numbers from anyone else, we end up getting screwed.

stu

dan dempsey said...

Stu said:
"Problem is, the board relies on anecdotal reporting from a staff that shown, time and again, they do not know about what they speak! And, since they won't take numbers from anyone else, we end up getting screwed."

Clearly some members of the Board never wanted the numbers. "We choose to trust our hired professionals." = "Don't both us with facts. The public furnishing accurate data is an annoyance."

Jan said...

I agree with "someone." Obviously, they can't anticipate everything, but so often the questions that are being asked seem like such obvious things, it is shocking to me that they didn't think to provide that information. It gives the impression either of incompetence (that they can't think of this stuff themselves) or worse (they are smart enough to think of it, but don't want to answer those questions).

To me, the follow through seems pretty simple. When a question isn't answered, the "I will get back to you" just needs to be followed up by "ok, when? Can you have that information in writing by [the next board meeting/the next committee meeting/a week before the next board meeting/posted on line by the end of the week/]." This is not rocket science. They should have had it at the meeting where the question was asked. That is their deadline. Having not made it, they need to set the NEXT deadline for the follow up information, and the delivery method (in writing, posted on the web site, whatever--). This kind of nailing down of deliverables is so ordinary and expected. I am constantly amazed that the staff doesn't offer it -- and that the Board doesn't ask for it.

KG said...

I saw that later in the Board meeting when Duggan Harmon was speaking that director Blum asked about how was the District regarding District administration being closer to 6%. He said he did not have the data as Melissa Westbrook pointed out. he did however say that the 9.4% that was quoted in public testimony was for the 2008-2009 school year. According to the Meg Diaz report that was completed Central admin. expenditures were at 9.4% in the 2009-2010 school year, you think Mr. Harmon would know this but seems like he is hiding the possible truth. Also Harmon said that part of maintenance will be moved to capital which will be part of the central cuts. How can this be? Could Melissa Westbrook, Charlie Mas, or Meg Diaz shed some light on this?

Melissa Westbrook said...

"If my boss says "this looks like a good idea, can you get me the number?"

But staff doesn't think of the Board as "bosses." That might be part of the problem.

KG, some maintenance issues can be moved to capital as the state redefined some terms. Something like "painting" used to have to be the whole building but I think it was been reclassified so you can do one paint job but not the whole building.

I don't know this issue in total but I know some reclassification did happen.

SeattleSped said...

Okay, I'm going to throw this out there again. From the budget development schedule, it would appear that IF staff did their homework and did the math, it might be possible to have a well-developed, leaner budget.

In the 2009 recession with fewer people flying to vacations they couldn't afford and renting cars they didn't need, the Port of Seattle undertook a zero-based budgeting exercise. Every single department was expected to examine every person and their purpose. The org chart was built from the ground up. Numerous staff were encouraged to retire or were laid off. And folks, along with furloughs this saved money and made a (relatively) more efficient organization.

Budgets were not examined incrementally (like the revenue pluses and minuses we saw from Don Kennedy and his folks), but were rewritten from scratch. No more "So and so, you only get 1% more, or Depts X, Y, and Z, you must each cut 10%." The budget will be what it has to be to SUPPORT BUILDINGS, TEACHERS AND STUDENTS. Strategic plan boondoogles will not be ramped back. They will be eliminated if they are no longer viewed as helpful to the purpose of educating students. Education budgets are not for paying coaches and consultants to foist yet more initiatives on an already exhausted public. Capital budgets are not to burn on poorly planned and executed construction projects. Grants monies are not for push polls, coffee and donuts.

Dear Mr. CFO, can you do this please? It's worthwhile so everyone knows where all the money's going. Makes the surreptitious non-profits a little harder to scam.

KG said...

Melissa,

Thank you for your response, but still the fact of the matter is that maintenance is not central admin. and should not be labeled central admin. cuts, as Duggan seemed to indicate. It looks if actual cuts to central will only be about 4 million or so, Much short of what it takes to reach down to 6% of the budget being used for central. Still Duggan does
does say he thinks that after these cuts to central it will be 6%.
He told director Blum this. I beleive this is truth stretching. There is no way he is right here. Again maintenance cannot be labeled as central Admin. Do you know what the percentage spent on central for 2010-2011 is?

David said...

Melissa wrote, "But staff doesn't think of the Board as 'bosses.' That might be part of the problem."

That is exactly the problem. The staff appears to thinks of the Board meetings as a hoop to jump through. It is clear that the goal of district staff is to get through Board meetings without any change, challenge, or discussion of their decisions.

The Board needs to reassert themselves and grab hold of the reins. It is unacceptable that district staff undermines the Board's oversight role. The Board needs to put a stop to it.

KG said...

Yes David, I have to agree with you on the Board not putting their foot down on the District people responsible for answering budgetery or other questions. These people are just hiding the facts through their "I do not have that at this time". and we never hear about this again. It is tough to take. So much for transparency. The Central admin. just tries to hide the fat calf that they have been for years. Thus we have Pottergate and more of the same.

dan dempsey said...

KG,

Potter-gate and more of the same. Check Dorothy's testimony on Wed. for that More of Same.

Melissa Westbrook said...

KG, Maintenance IS Central Adm. Again, it has to do with state law but anything under a certain amount/type, goes under Central Adm. It's major maintenance (roofs, windows, HVAC, etc.) that can go under Capital with remodeling/rebuilds/athletics. As I said, the Legislature tweaked the law and now some items like painting can go under Capital Maintenance.

joanna said...

On the question of who is the boss of staff. It is the Superintendent. The Superintendent hires and fires them, evaluates them. There should be a common understanding that the Superintendent directs them to answer questions and expects them to be ready to answer questions. The Board should direct the Superintendent to ensure that the staff can answer questions. Board members are the boss of the Superintendent. If Board meetings are just something to get through, that must reflect the attitude of the Superintendent and perhaps of the Board since they hire that person.

David said...

Good point, Joanna, and perhaps a reason for hope now that we have a new superintendent.

dan dempsey said...

Seems like Don Kennedy was famous for the....

"I'll have to get back to you on that." ...

I don't suppose he will be coming back.

Charlie Mas said...

As was correctly stated, the superintendent is the boss of the staff, not the Board.

So, everything time that the staff doesn't have an answer when they should or doesn't deliver an answer as promised, it counts against the superintendent.

I would love to hold back Don Kennedy's check and, when he asks about it, tell him that I don't have it right now and I'll have to get back to him with it.

Charlie Mas said...

For me, a big part of this problem are the public/private dichotomies.

There is the public/private problem in which a question asked in public is answered in private. The question was asked in public and the question period is in public for a reason: to include the public in the process. When the answer comes in private, the public is excluded from it.

Can we get the Friday updates that go to the Board? They are public documents, aren't they? I think that they are sent to the Board by email. If so, it would be a simple matter to distribute them more widely or even post them online.

Another consequence of the public/private problem is one of accountability. We, as the public, cannot hold the Board accountable for not following up if we don't know if their questions were answered or not. In addition, the rule placed on the Board to only praise in public and keep all criticism private (it's in the Governance Policy that they are working on) creates the illusion that the Board doesn't hold the staff accountable. It's a stupid and unhealthy rule. Openness, transparency, and candor would be a better rule. Think about it: deceiving the public is a Board Policy.

Magua said...

Maintenance itself isn't central administration.

Like transportation and food, the administration of maintenance is Central Administration. But the majority of costs for maintenance, food and transportation fall into Other Support. Costs for district-wide services, are billed to Other Support, the costs for administering those operations are billed as part of Central Administration.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I just meant that maintenance falls under the umbrella of Central (versus Capital).

Cap'n Billy Keg said...

"Magua" is correct - Maintenance itself isn't central administration

...what harmon is doing - as others more concerned with keeping their high paying positions are doing - is attempting to use the "smoke and mirrors" ploy to c.h.a. and hope he doesn't get caught... too late, harmon - there are too many smart folks out here who see right through you (probably the only "transparency" they will get right now)... can you say "pottergate"...? i knew you could...

KG said...

I believe you are right Magua and
that Central is a seperate line item and so is maintenace and I believe Melissa is incorrect. Certain maintenance managers are central admin. not the boots on ground workers.