Thursday, March 24, 2011

Board Update

When they first took office in 2007, the four school board directors elected that year didn't seem to know what to do. None of them had been very active at the District level before the election. None of them had regularly attended Board meetings. None of them knew much about the District outside of some single area of interest. They were unfamiliar with the District's personnel, structure, and workings. They were unfamiliar with the board job. I don't mean any insult; that's par for the course for new Board Directors.

These new Board members took their lead from Directors Chow and DeBell and from the staff. I think they were getting a lot of whispers from the Broad Foundation, WSSDA, and the Alliance as well. That was too bad. It created a Board that did no oversight.

Director Chow disbelieved in the Board's role. Near the end of her term she became very candid. She scolded her board colleagues for even asking questions of the staff. She told them that by the time a motion reached the Board for action it had already been vetted a couple of times by experts and that the Board Directors - amatuers that they were - had no business second-guessing the decisions of education professionals. From her perspective, the Board was there to fulfill a strictly legal and administrative function: to vote to approve whatever was put before them and to do it without asking any troublesome questions or causing any delay. This is not the person you want training your Board.

Director DeBell, while he didn't share that belief, was in over his head for the first couple years of his term - as most Board members are. He is a thoughtful, mild person by temperment and his default position was to trust the staff when they told him something. His maturation (read: growing skepticism) was at the normal pace or a little slower thanks to Director Chow's influence and the change of superintendents. It usually takes about three years for most Board members to figure out which way is up, so in 2008 he couldn't be expected carry the banner for oversight.

The staff certainly wasn't going to encourage the Board to exercise a lot of oversight.

WSSDA, the Broad Foundation and the Alliance wanted the Board to push forward with the Reform agenda and didn't want them thinking critically about anything much at all. They all discourage boards from practicing oversight.

So from December 2007 until about June of 2010 we had King Log as our Board. The four new members, along with Director Chow for two years and Director DeBell for another year, formed a majority that either resolutely refused to perform any oversight or simply didn't realize that they were supposed to.

This month the Board fired the superintendent and the CFOO, so it's clear that we do not have King Log anymore. What happened? It was a combination of things including: the normal maturation of the Board members, the audit, and the astonishing managerial incompetence of Dr. Goodloe-Johnson

First among them was the natural maturation of the Board Directors. It just takes about three years before Board Directors figure this stuff out.

Director DeBell had a two-year head start on his colleagues so he got there first. Director DeBell, as he collected evidence, became increasingly distrustful of the staff. It happens after you've been on the Board for a while. Let's face it, the first time that the Transportation Department comes before you with their annual passion play (they know that their plan stinks but the Board has to approve it now because they are up against a terrible deadline and inaction will result in a disaster of biblical proportions but they totally swear to do lots of work and come back next year with an excellent plan and plenty of time for Board review) you might believe them. But the third time you see that exact same act it starts to wear thin. So we saw Director DeBell start to take an interest in oversight a year or so before his Board colleagues. That explains his sharper questions and his vote against the high school math textbook adoption.

Then there was the audit. The audit didn't immediately make an impact on the Board. Yeah, they were caught off-guard and un-prepared for the exit interview, but they didn't take it seriously at first. Director DeBell was the only one who understood the gravity of the situation. Fortunately he was Board President at the time so he had Don McAdams present on the Board's Duty of Oversight at a Board Retreat in September. At that retreat I could see that the four directors elected in 2007 just didn't get it. They saw it as a public relations problem more than anything else, and not much of a P.R. problem at that. After all, other than those troublesome wonks who infest Board meetings, who cares about these audits?

Director Carr, however, had to take charge of the P.R. response to the audit, which was to make a big show of addressing the audit concerns. When she started doing that - presiding over Audit and Finance Committee meetings that actually had to oversee specific action - she finally peered into the heart of darkness which is the SPS bureaucracy. She became activated. Director Carr is now alive, alert, awake and enthusiastic. She now knows to ask for specific actions and for timetables. She now knows better than to accept assurances that things will be done or to accept assurances that things were done. She has discovered the need for oversight - at least within the District's finances. With time she may even come to see how broad the need is - how it extends beyond the budget. The confirming evidence that she is interested in oversight came when she voted against the annual approval of schools because she couldn't independently confirm the CSIPs. That vote represented a huge shift.

The third cause of the shift was Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's shocking incompetence. Her hubris and her dishonesty certainly played a role, but the big gap between her masterful ability to make plans and her total lack of capacity for implementing them was the key.

I suspect that she knows this about herself. That may be why she was always touting a plan and always deferring the day when implementation could be expected. When she first arrived in Seattle she promised an entry plan which, on the day that it was due, was scrapped for the promise of a Strategic Plan. She spent months (and thousands) on the Strategic Plan with dozens of disparate elements, none of which was expected to be implemented for about a year and none of which were expected to yield any results for three to five years. Every single job she was given and every single job she took on was deferred and deferred and deferred. She was a master of the illusion of action - hence all of the inaction verbs in her action plans. But it isn't a sustainable model. Eventually people expect you to deliver something.

Director Maier has been the surprise for me. Here is a guy who never voted against a staff recommendation and hardly ever even asked questions about them. He was a pussycat. Now, all of a sudden, he's growling like a tiger. The first sign I saw of his newfound interest in oversight came with the Capacity Management report - or, rather, the absence of a capacity management report. Peter Maier came to the Board from leadership of Schools First, the PAC that represented BEX III. He is really interested in facilities and capacity. He was a champion of the Capacity Management project (closures) and spent some political capital on it. The Capacity Management report provided the rational underpinning for the closures and he needed it to validate his political gamble. After a year of waiting for this document he was really expecting a big, juicy T-bone. Instead, he got Salisbury Steak TV dinner. The gap between the plan and the implementation is what woke him up.

That leaves two other members of the class of 2007.

I remember when the Board was voting on the Chief Sealth / Denny co-location, about six months into the new Board's term, Director Sundquist said that after six months on the Board he was not yet cynical enough to disbelieve the staff's promises. He actually said that. I wish that now, after three years on the Board, he is skeptical enough to want to verify staff claims - he should be. Unfortunately, I don't think he is. Despite personal humiliations (claiming that no letter was mailed to teachers when a letter had, in fact, been mailed to teachers, the mea culpa tour for Pottergate, etc.) he still doesn't get it. He still feels no duty to verify statements by staff and feels no duty to ask for timetables. I think we have waited long enough for Director Sundquist to recognize his oversight responsbilities. If he hasn't done it by now - and he hasn't - then he probably never will. Let's just hope he doesn't run for re-election, because he will lose.

Most disappointing, however, is Director Martin-Morris. He started so well and is finishing so poorly. He was ambivalent about dismissing the superintendent. He hasn't spoken once in favor of oversight - he worked to weaken the language of the Governance and Oversight Policy the Board is now drafting. He has stalled the policy revision in the Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee. Worst of all, in November, he scolded his Board colleagues for trying to verify a statement by Dr. Enfield. He told them that if she said something they should just accept it as true without checking it. More, he said, they shouldn't check it - it is inappropriate for them to check it he said. He shut down his blog and now he has made it inaccessible. He is actively opposing Board oversight and he needs to be replaced on the Board as soon as possible.

It doesn't matter. We don't need those two. With DeBell, Carr, Maier, Smith-Blum and Patu we have a super-majority in favor of oversight.

Just in case you're wondering if public outcry had anything to do with waking up the Board, I don't think it did. Public outcry might be irritating, but it doesn't merit a response. Sort of like a buzzing fly that you don't even bother to brush away.

10 comments:

mirmac1 said...

Charlie, let's not mince words...:)

Melissa Westbrook said...

First of all, brilliant. (Can I ask Crosscut if they will publish this?)

Second, I see Peter's awakening as authentic and Steve's as worrying about getting reelected (I think that's there for Peter but he was burned by Pottergate).

Third, so Harium has filed to run again and I am mystified. Why? He seems detached, irritable and not happy with the work. (Full disclosure; I am supporting Michelle Buetow in that race. But, I had been an early Harium fan AND supporter but I can't say what has happened to change him over the last 6 months-1 year. I think in terms of how little he speaks during meetings, he's rapidly becoming the Clarence Thomas of the School Board.)

Fourth, Charlie never underestimate the power of persistence. I say that because one person can often trigger a response in others (leading to a bigger outcry than one person) and two, it works for me.

someone said...

I do think "public outcry" plays a role - the more one keeps hearing the same thing over and over again, it's bound to sink in eventually ;o)

My sense is, if nothing else, this whole Pottergate episode has shaken up the status quo to the point where every one of the Board members feels the tremors. For some it's a "wake up and get to it" tremor - for others it's a "dig in and hold my ground" kind of tremor - (gee which one is doing that? ;)

At any rate, interesting piece Charlie - hopefully someone sends it along to the Board - it should be required reading for every one of them, and for anyone interested in running for the Board in the next election cycle.

godwin said...

Does the board use the Carver Governance model per chance?

none1111 said...

Melissa said: "Second, I see Peter's awakening as authentic and Steve's as worrying about getting reelected (I think that's there for Peter but he was burned by Pottergate). "

I'm a little surprised to read this. I share your opinion that Steve is attempting (a little) to save face saving for reelection purposes. But it's going to take more to convince me that Peter isn't doing the same thing. You've seen him more in person recently, so maybe I'll have to start going to his meetings again. I completely gave up on him because he seemed so clueless and detached from all the concerns that the community brought to him that it felt like his loyalties were completely sewn up and immutable.

I totally agree with Charlie that it (almost always) takes time for Board members to come up to speed (KSB is a very quick study!). But I'm still suspicious that the entire "class of 2007" is trying to figure out how to recover from the embarrassment of Pottergate, and is showing a little spine purely out of necessity in this election year. Maybe I'm just too cynical.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Sundquist also opened the last, hardest, of this year's budget sessions by making a sweeping statement that staff's board recommendations should be baseline accepted as the starting point of discussion.

Uh, no. No they shouldn't have. As the whole city saw shortly thereafter. But Sundquist knew the financial part of the staff had a problem and still made this statement.

For that reason alone, he does not deserve re-election.

-skeptical-

Charlie Mas said...

skeptical gives me an idea for a thread:

For that reason alone, he does not deserve re-election.

That will be the name of the thread and we can all add events, episodes, actions, or statements that, by themselves, make Board Directors un-deserving of re-election.

Anonymous said...

Director Maier: ...He was a pussycat. Now, all of a sudden, he's growling like a tiger...The gap between the plan and the implementation is what woke him up. He's all of a sudden got "Education" (like those who all of a sudden get Religion) because he's up for reelection.

Yes, I agree with Melissa that your analysis is brilliant. However, I'm disappointed that you're giving Peter a slap on the wrist. This is the guy who admitted that he had a copy of the Sutor Report 2 years ago and only after the Pottergate investigation 'fesses up. He's worried about his own political skin.

Peter Maier has rubberstamped every District proposal all the way up to the firing of MG-J. He's never acknowledged the significance of CPPS's survey results (not a scientific poll...?!); of the 99% no-confidence by teachers. The list could go on for pages...

I've had conversations with Peter and find him the least forthright and somewhat slippery, excluding Harium whom I've never spoken with and who hasn't ever acknowledged receiving an email from me.

I hope that someone in Peter's district puts together a campaign.

Finally, I strongly take issue with your conclusion that "...First among them was the natural maturation of the Board Directors. It just takes about three years before Board Directors figure this stuff out..." It hasn't taken Betty nor Kay that long to hit their stride. Why not? Because they knew what was going on before they were elected and they aren't owned by any special interests. And, they've had the courage to ask questions and if necessary stand alone.
ken berry

peonypower said...

Great piece Charlie,
but I do think that public outcry works- or at least dogging the candidates with the I vote, and I am a concerned Seattle citizen talk. The underlying message being, and I will work my ass to unseat you if you don't address this issue.

I sense a change in the board post MGJ, and some of it seems to be that they were terrified of her and are not so afraid. It is a lot like the kids who are afraid of the bully until they realize that the 85% of the power a bully has comes from your own fear of what might happen. I don't think that he majority of the board will ever go back to their kowtowing ways they had before.

Hopefully.

Dora Taylor said...

I think that you are giving the board members, particularly DeBell, way too much credit.

DeBell was under the wing of Neilson and enjoying the ride.

He went along with the former supe to the ninth degree and colluded with her on moving out SBOC under false pretenses as well as Nova to make room for his constiuent's request for more school space as well as begin the squelching of alternative schools to make way for charter schools. I imagine that DeBell didn't get the part about charter schools but that's only because he never bothered to consider the why's of anything that Broad, the supe or Nielson said to him.

Ignorance can be bliss.

It took me two minutes to figure out a lot of what was going within SPS even before my daughter began to attend school here. There is no excuse for what the board members did except to say that they are all out for something beyond being good stewards of our schools or they were all blithering idiots. I choose to believe the former