District leadership style has swung back and forth between two extremes. It needs to be stopped and held at the center.
The Seattle School Board of 2000 - 2003 contributed to the financial fiasco that toppled the Olchefske administration. It was not just their misplaced trust, but the blindness of their trust that allowed things in the district – not just the financial reporting – to spiral down. They could have found the budget problem in the numbers reported to them (Director Bass did find it), but the majority of them lacked the necessary skepticism to look for it.
In response, the voters replaced them with a more activist board. It started with Director Bass elected in 2001. The four board directors elected in 2003 formed a much more hands-on and skeptical board majority – perhaps too much. They found a District that was poorly managed. They found all kinds of problems that had grown over the years and they were blunt and public about exposing it. I won’t say that they were wrong, but they were perhaps impatient. Culture doesn’t change overnight. This Board was accused of micro-managing the
district and they were accused of being dysfunctional.
In response, the voters replaced them with a more hands-off board. It started with Director DeBell and Director Chow elected in 2005. The four board directors elected in 2007 formed a new majority that rejected the activism of the previous board. Unfortunately they also rejected all of their duties and responsibilities. Far from micro-managing and taking over the superintendent’s duties, they didn’t even perform their own duties. They refused to provide management oversight, governance, or community representation. Only after the disastrous state audit of 2010 and the Pottergate scandal did a couple of them start to get the idea that they had a job to do.
In response, the voters have replaced them with a more activist board. It started with Director Patu elected in 2009 and now, following the election of two new directors in 2011, a new board majority is emerging.
In the past ten years we have seen the pendulum swing hard from negligence at one end, to excessive activism at the other end, then back
to aggressive negligence, and, now, there is concern that the four newest board members (Peaslee, McLaren, Smith-Blum, and Patu) will form a new majority and the pendulum will swing too far back to activism with the negatives that come with that style of board.
It’s a legitimate concern. Let’s not dispute that. The Seattle Times, Crosscut, and Education Reform organizations are, without a
doubt, over-reacting. They’re calling out the fire trucks from four stations while there are only sparks and no flames. But we need to be honest – there are sparks.
We do not want a board at either extreme and – even more – we sure don’t want to continue this swinging pendulum from one extreme to the
other. It creates instability for everyone and whiplash for the staff. We would like to stop the pendulum at the balance point and keep it stable there. I would like to hope that we can get some agreement on that – from all sides. We don’t want a board that
neglects their duty, but neither do we want a board that over-reaches their duty. We want a healthy skepticism, somewhere between the cynicism of Darlene Flynn and the blind trust of Cheryl Chow.
We’ve had a lot of turnover in the superintendent job. Maybe no more than average for urban districts, but that’s still a lot. We’ve had
even more turnover in the “C” level staff – way, way too much. The turnover at this level has been far more damaging. We have also had a lot of turnover on the Board. It takes a while for anyone new in a job to figure it out. The cost of high turnover is the mistakes made by someone new in the job. It takes a while for a newly elected board member – any newly elected board member – to find that line between governance and management. New board members, eager to get to work fixing problems, wanting to make a difference, often cross the line. Director DeBell has admitted how he crossed it when he first came onto the board. The line is not clearly or sharply drawn. Until recently, no one paid it much mind. If we are going to slow or stop the pendulum near the balance point, we need to more clearly define that balance point.
That was the motivation behind President DeBell’s proposed board procedure 1620BP. I know that this is his motivation because he said so
at his community meeting this morning. I understand his goal and I completely agree that it is a good goal. I share it. I also agree with him that the proper path to that goal is through this public and transparent process of board policy and procedure. So I really like the idea of Board Procedure 1620BP. I’m looking forward to the board’s discussion of it. If there are elements of this proposal that are objectionable to some Board members, I want to know what they are.
I suppose that I could grumble a bit about how this procedure was presented. It seems to be coming from Director DeBell exclusively.
It would be better if the Board could come together as a group to say that the line between governance and management needs to be sharper and brighter.
I seek a balance point. At this balance point the Board fulfills all of the governance duties, performs all of the requisite management
oversight, and effectively represents the community without stepping over the line and taking on management work. At this balance point the superintendent and the staff fulfill all of the management duties, implement the strategic plan, perform the day-to-day administration of the district, and comply with laws and policies without stepping over the line and usurping the board’s authority. While Board Procedure 1620BP is a step in that direction, I don’t think it gets us there. It needs some work. The good news is that it can be fixed. One of the best parts of fixing it will be a public discussion of it. The Board will have that discussion on January 25. I'm looking forward.