Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Fixing the District's Governance Problem

Seattle Public Schools - the District, not the schools - is poorly governed and poorly managed. Let's not pretend otherwise. The evidence is all around us. The routine violation of policy and regular violation of state and federal law are ample evidence of poor governance. Seriously, read the auditor's reports, read the policies, or talk to the families of students with disabilities and you'll know about the culture of lawlessness in Seattle Public Schools. Governance is shredded where it exists at all. The poor management is equally obvious - there are almost no meaningful performance metrics, timelines are rarely met, inefficiencies are inadequacies are readily acknowledged, and the District is actively undoing decisions made just a few years ago.

So what are the solutions? How do we fix the governance and how do we fix the management?



Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle 36) thinks that the solution is to pay the School Board up to $42,000 a year. What would that do? Is there some army of people who would be brilliant school board directors, people with the right skills, training, and experience, who aren't running for the office now but would if it paid $42K? Really? And would those people get elected? And what would these people do different from what the current Board directors are doing? Wouldn't the real solution be to get the current Board Directors to do those things? Is it the lack of compensation that is preventing the current Board from doing those things?

If the Board is overworked - and they are - the solution is not to pay them but to provide them with some support staff. They should have at least one person working for them - not for the superintendent - who can independently gather data. They should have at least one person working for them to help them with community engagement - to help them with to respond to their emails and such. They should have at least one person working for them to help them with policy. Right now they have no independent data - all they know is what the superintendent tells them. Right now they cannot and do not respond to constituents - they have the worst community engagement of anyone in the District. Right now they don't write policy - the staff writes it. That's so wrong. Just as the Board shouldn't trespass on the superintendent's areas of responsibility - administration and management - the superintendent and staff shouldn't trespass on the Board's area of responsibility - policy and governance.

Another thing that the Board should do to reduce their workload would be to stop involving themselves in administration and management. I wouldn't call it micro-management; it's more like kibbitzing. When they review the motions that come before them to approve decisions made by the superintendent they debate whether the decisions are good or not. That's not their job and that shouldn't be their focus. Remember, they are not supposed to get involved in management and administration but to busy themselves with policy and governance. They should debate, instead, whether the decision is consistent with District policy and state and federal law. So what we see is a funhouse mirror version of Board activity in which they ask, think, and talk about all of the things that they should steer clear of and they totally neglect the very things that they should make their focus.

Then comes the hard part. The Board will have to vote against decisions that were not made in accordance with policy - no matter how much they like the decision and no matter how urgent the motion - and they will have to vote to approve decisions that comply with policy and law - no matter how much they hate the decision. They will have to do their duty and hold the superintendent and the staff accountable - publicly and transparently.

Much more difficult is the question of how to fix the management of the District. I believe that the correction of the governance practices will help fix the management and administration. It may even have enough leverage to achieve that flip on its own.

Institutional culture flows down from the top, and the Board is the top of the District. They have a significant role in setting the culture. Their lax practices and refusal to provide accountability have founded the culture of lawlessness and the culture of no accountability in the District. If they started to insist upon compliance then they would foster a culture of compliance. If they started holding the superintendent and the senior staff accountable they would foster a culture of accountability. It would trickle down. The superintendent and the senior staff would pick it up and they would relay it down their chains of authority.

When the Board demands compliance and accountability from the superintendent, the superintendent will have to demand them from his staff. Think of that work session when the Board did their management oversight of Teaching and Learning in which it was revealed that there have never been any program evaluations of advanced learning programs. That should have been a significant moment. That should have resulted in some very harsh and plain talk about what will be done, when it it will be done, and who will do it. Instead, the Board just kind of shrugged their shoulders and turned the page. When Director Martin-Morris asked "What is Spectrum?" he should have stuck with the question until he got an answer. He didn't. The Board directors - individually - expressed some vague and easily dismissed mumbles of concern. That was ineffective. They should have set some clear expectations. That's how a properly functioning Board can make a positive impact on management and administration without ranging beyond policy and governance.

The current Board Directors are capable of doing these things. They are decisive and effective in their personal and professional lives outside of their Board role. But they are caught is a web of expectations for board inaction set by the existing dysfunctional culture and a lot of very, very bad legacy ideas and practices. They need to break free of those bad habits. They need to take a fresh approach to their duties. To do them rather than to allow themselves to be carried forward by the momentum of other people's actions. They float along like a leaf in the stream; they need to dip an oar in the water and do some work.

19 comments:

mirmac1 said...

I'm sorry Charlie but I have a hard time reconciling "... the Board should...reduce their workload...to stop involving themselves in administration and management. I wouldn't call it micro-management; it's more like kibbitzing" with "Institutional culture flows down from the top, and the Board is the top of the District. They have a significant role in setting the culture. Their lax practices and refusal to provide accountability have founded the culture of lawlessness and the culture of no accountability in the District. If they started to insist upon compliance then they would foster a culture of compliance."

I applaud the directors who insist that questions regarding budget and funding of new Ed Reformy initiative are set out in advance. They have no other avenue. Tonight the inimitable Director Patu made a point of calling out lack of transparency regarding construction contracts up for action.

I don't call that micromanagement. I call that using the limited means that "governance" boards have to insist that staff is responsive and accountable BEFORE these new initiatives are undertaken.

Don't mistake my view for obstinacy. I am as frustrated as you are.

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Anonymous said...

I'm fed up with the dysfunction and seeming incompetence. With all the focus on evaluations of school personel, the disctrict is constantly failing their evals.

How are teachers supposed to help students succeed when the district can't get enrollment right so that all students are at school for the important first day, when the district throws out last minute info and causes teachers to move entire classrooms at the last minute, when the district can't get computers to staff that needs them often until months into the school year, not getting bilingual IAs in the schools for months sometimes though the school is entitled. I could go on and on.

I think before staff is evalutated there should be a checklist to see if the district met their end of the deal and if not, no go. Otherwised the eval is a measurement of central office competence, at least in part.

noyeller

Jon said...

The board does need its own staff, especially independent auditors.

Another simple thing to do that might help is cutting central administration deeply. Our high spending on central administration does little good and often even causes harm by disrupting otherwise functioning schools. The money freed up from the budget could be allocated to the principals to use for teachers, their own administrators, supplies, or whatever else their school needs.

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Lisa said...
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Melissa Westbrook said...

Desperate, I am going to eliminate your post but I will start a separate thread. That is what we ask; send us a request and we will do that. But if you stick this in the middle of a completely different discussion, it hurts the topic of the thread. Your issue is valid - I've had this happen - and I'll address it in the thread.

Charlie said:
"They should have at least one person working for them to help them with policy. Right now they have no independent data - all they know is what the superintendent tells them. Right now they cannot and do not respond to constituents - they have the worst community engagement of anyone in the District. Right now they don't write policy - the staff writes it."

- I thought Erin Bennett DID work for them to write policy. But I know she does NOT answer to the Baord; she has a district supervisor in the form of??? (And I note that she got a $14k raise this year.)
- I don't know how they get any kind of research, independent or otherwise.
- I totally disagree about responding to constituents. I do believe most of them do (but I have never heard back - ever - from Director Martin-Morris on any communication I have sent him).

I think the Board tries to respond by telling people where to find information and acknowledge their issue(s).

I am personally tired of waiting for the district to get a grip on its management, organization and systems. There are good people working in the district, smart ones too. But often, they get thwarted or frustrated and some leave.

The Board simply (and Charlie is right) is not doing its job. They aren't. And their lack of backbone because they are so afraid of "micromanaging" very precisely plays in the hands of those who want to control them.

I think central administration, once again, is growing. Some of this is because of multiple initiatives which need oversight. This is one reason to NOT have so many things going and to ask the question before saying yes - who will work this grant, program, initiative?

Last night, at the Board meeting, multiple new people were introduced (some new to the district, some new to the job). It was amazing how many new faces there were (and somewhat annoying that the decision was made for every - single - one of them to come to podium and say something.)

I am baffled, for example, that we have a new deputy superintendent for leadership. Aren't the Ex Directors the ones developing the principal leaders? Why another person and why can't Michael Tolley do this work?

McGinn and Murray have made it clear if either of them are elected, that person will likely be open to having a public discussion about this issue. I personally welcome that which is a BIG change for me to come to but there you are.

I am NOT for mayoral control of the district or the Board but I wouldn't mind some expert input/direction from some in city government. Clearly, the district isn't getting it done on their own.

The district has been given many chances by parents and the public. I see little change and a continued rush to try to get work done and moving from crisis to crisis.

What's interesting is that the schools - themselves - actually seem to do pretty well. We wouldn't have a growing population if they didn't. We wouldn't have the varied offerings in the district if the schools weren't willing to do the hard work to make them great. (Those folks at K-5 STEM, for example.)

We could be a great urban district, a model in the state and the nation. We are smart city, with a good economy, where levies/bonds get passed with regularity (both school and city for public education).

But there is very little coherency to what is happening despite the various strategic plans.

The deeds don't match the words and that, for me, sums it up in a nutshell.

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Charlie Mas said...

mirmac1, If Director Patu called out the lack of transparency in a contract, that's good because that IS a policy and governance issue. It would have been kibbitzing if she had asked about the details of the construction plan or the contract.

The next step would be for her to either move to defer the vote until the transparency is provided or to vote against the contract.

Charlie Mas said...

I rarely get a response from the Board. I think I know why.

If you write to the Board about a transportation issue or a facilities issue they can and will forward your email to someone in transportation or facilities and ask that person to respond. And you will generally get a response from that person.

But if you write to the Board about a governance issue - if you write to the Board about their own work - there is typically no response.

It works the same at public testimony. If you speak about a management action or administrative decision someone from the appropriate department will contact you - often while you're still at the meeting. If you speak about the Board's performance they will not respond.

I usually write to the Board about governance issues - enforcing policies, insisting on required community engagement or transparency - and they rarely write back.

I think I know why. They don't have a protocol for it. Only the Board President can speak for the Board and, even then, only after a vote. So none of them feel they have license to express their own view or, it could be, that they are uncomfortable discussing how they are failing to do their job.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, it's such a political seat, how can you speak freely? If you, as a board member, admit board failure, wouldn't that give ammunition for mayoral control?

long view

Melissa Westbrook said...

I don't think you have to admit "failure." A Board member can simply say that it is important for the Board to fulfill its mission of accountability for outcomes and dollars to the public.

Then, move on and start enforcing policies.

Charlie Mas said...

What I find really funny is how often I hear people in the District leadership agree with me and say "Yeah, you're right. We have to start holding people accountable and we have to start complying with policy." But then they don't actually do it.

It's just like when I agree that I really need to exercise, but I never actually start exercising.

The difference is that my exercise isn't a public trust.

Anonymous said...

"I am baffled, for example, that we have a new deputy superintendent for leadership. Aren't the Ex Directors the ones developing the principal leaders? Why another person and why can't Mic"hael Tolley do this work?


That has to be a mistake. What does Michael Tolley do, then? What is the role of the Executive Directors. It seems like JSCEE is chasing its tail and that they will ultimately never really get a grip on the principals.

- not impressed

Melissa Westbrook said...

Not impressed, I wish it WAS a mistake but no, that's what the guy was introduced as last night at the Board meeting.

Charlie Mas said...

long view asked:

"If you, as a board member, admit board failure, wouldn't that give ammunition for mayoral control?"

Mayoral control is not a legitimate threat. It would be foolish (if not insane) to take any action or balk at any action out of fear of mayoral control.

I don't know if it's foolish to admit Board failure, but I am definitely sure that it's foolish to deny it.

Patrick said...

About paying the board members -- that's not going to be a full solution, but I think it will improve the quality of board that we get. We shouldn't draw our board members exclusively from the economic class that can afford to take a full time job for only token payment. Not paying the board leads to thinking that the board is not to be taken seriously -- by the superintendent, staff, the public, and worst of all the board members themselves. It leads to thinking that the board is like the board of a charity or performing arts organization, there to fundraise and cheerlead and that's about it.

I'd like to see a strong internal audit department, with the head reporting directly to the board. Besides doing audits, they should train school staff, PTAs, and most of all District staff in proper practice, and hold them responsible if they don't do it. It's criminal that in the 21st century senior staff can get a major raise that nobody is on the record as having approved.