I reported previously on the discussion of the issue of NW Center and Cascade as discussed at the Board meeting on Wednesday, March 5th. That, along with later start time advocates, was the bulk of public testimony. I note that it seems that a call seems to have gone out that at every Board meeting, there needs to be two non-profit groups working with Seattle schools that come and tell the Board how much they need student data and how careful they are with it. They also come with an "example." There were two people at the Board meeting that night.
I think I mentioned previously how one of these providers came to a meeting and practically outed a middle school student (with a lot of personal description about the student).
Coincidentally, the district is having a Work Session on how they take care of student data just this coming Wednesday but I'll write separately on that. I'll just say this the district does NOT have everything in place that they should, they are being disingenuous about what they are telling the Board and I, for one, am not waiting for the district to get this right.
It was mentioned that at least one Director and three staff attended a meeting in D.C. with Secretary Duncan. Did that many people have to go? I always wonder about these things when the district says there is no money.
The Board easily passed the raise for the non-contracted staff at JSCEE. I think it quite droll of Director Martin-Morris to say a 1.5% raise is a help in "retention" while schools are being asked to make cuts in their staffing.
There was quite the interesting back and forth between Eric Becker (BEX) and Director Carr over an increase in payment to the Wilson-Pacific architect contract for nearly $500K. I had pointed out in my testimony that it was not clear at all in the Board Action Report why this was happening. If you want to watch this tortured conversation with Becker and Carr, it's probably around the hour and a half point into the Board meeting.
I won't write up the whole thing but:
- Carr asked Herndon, Becker AND Pegi McEvoy about this issue and guess what? Carr, a high-level manager at Boeing for many years, was unable to get a clear answer from one of them. Being unclear isn't Carr's way so you have wonder why these three people could not answer her questions.
- What was odd is that no one on the Board questioned the escalation of the costs of this budget which, in turn, triggered the increase request from the architects.
- Carr asked, repeatedly, if this was a one-time incident or could it happen again. Becker said it was fair to say this was an "odd event."
- She then asked, again and again, why there was no escalation built into the budget for the architect contract. Becker then pulled out the most useful answer that all new SPS people use - "I wasn't here when that happened." But really, that was not a question specific to this budget - she was asking him - as a capital professional - why that was. He seemed to miss that.
After a few minutes of this, Carr stated that she could not get a clear explanation and would not be voting yes for this item. When she said she worried over this happening again, she asked how they could prevent it. There was quite a long pause from Mr. Becker. She said the district needed to be "crisp and clear" about when something is "an unacceptable overrun" versus an unanticipated cost.
She asked the Board to table this item (and given there were two Board members missing, not a bad idea). The Board agreed to this.
I find it astonishing that the Board has not been given some kind of "crisp and clear" playbook on capital building. But again, the district plays fast and loose with the capital dollars and explanations about the spending so this does not surprise me.
This was the first non-Alliance retreat in a long time. I was there for the morning and I have to say that the room was large and comfortable. The district saved money by everyone bringing their own lunches (there was coffee and HR director, Paul Apostle, brought donuts). All the directors were in attendance but several staff filled in for staff that was absent (Communications, Teaching & Learning, Technology). Here is the presentation.
Deputy Superintendent Charles Wright started by asking the table to go around and say what their expectation was for the retreat. Director Martin-Morris, clearly unhappy, laid it out there. He said it looked like an extended Work Session, not a retreat and that he didn't appreciate coming here on a Saturday. He said, "I have no expectations." I don't know exactly why he said that, given the agenda. Maybe he was unhappy the retreat was not directed by the Alliance. But it certainly was not a particularly helpful or collegial tone. (Carr also said it seemed more like a Work Session but in much better language.)
President Peaslee said she that she would welcome input on the next retreats. She also laid out the need to talk about later start times. She, along with Peters and Patu, mentioned the later start issue and the volume of public push they had received.
Mr. Wright said that it was a struggle to know where to start with priorities given the volume of work to be done. He said that he wanted the Board to know that what was being presented was NOT all the work being done but a summary list. He said a number of staff were "exhausted" and people were either leaving or "saying uncle." He basically was saying they could do a lot of things but not all at once.
It seems that a consulting group did some work for the district on part of the presentation around Operations and Planning. (More on this later.)
One issue - that just seemed silly but was a bother the whole time - was that the presentation was projected on the wall but it washed out and you could not see the color. The hard-copy presentation was not in color and the issue was that different work in the graphs got a notation of where the work was by color. Red for not far enough ahead, yellow for getting there, green for good to go.
I was just mystified by how this little detail got by staff for the presentation. Why not use symbols instead of colors? I note there were many more yellows than greens.
Director Peters wanted to make sure that she understood that some work might have a yellow dot because it was start-up work but once it was fully launched, then it would go to green and "the complexity goes down." Staff agreed with that.
Mr. Wright said they were very behind on the Strategic Plan.
City and community partnerships were mentioned and it said that many of those in that category said there were challenges working with SPS. This is not new news.
Mr. Tolley said for the Project Management Rollout that the district was talking to UW and Boeing about pro bono work to help improve this process.
Martin-Morris asked that if something is red, that his next question is "Where is your 'go to green plan'?"
There was also an item for the Powerschool implementation which is the student information system the district uses. A bell rang in my head when I heard that name and now I remember why. North Carolina is having terrible problems with this system created by edu-giant, Pearson.
A new state computer system for keeping track of student information
has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic
eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain.
State education officials and Pearson Inc., the company that owns the PowerSchool system, say they’re working hard to resolve the
running list of software problems that have affected schools across
North Carolina. Both groups say the system is improving, but schools say
they are still experiencing problems such as the inability to tell
students their current grade-point average or their current class rank.
Hope that doesn't happen here.
I'm going to stop here and say that when I looked at this presentation and all the work, I wondered, "This is really the most important things to be doing in a district that does not even functionally run well?" One is example is something I reported on a long time ago as a possibility and sure enough, it's now part of SPS. It's the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy. I honestly get that HR is important and being able to find and retain the best employees is key but how many of these initiatives is SPS signing up for? Where is the stopping point for new initiatives (and how much are they costing the district in time and resources)?
Given that the district says cuts must now come to our schools, I really wonder about how all the money is being spent.
Clover Codd reported that the district received about $1M in RTTT money and should be getting that for five years. Part of the money is for free SAT tests for high school students (I don't know how many students that means).
She said that with the Seattle Teacher Residency program, the district is expected by its partners to ramp up by years 4-5 to 50%. She said something I didn't understand which was "several political people who made this come to be" have been working on it for some time. She said they have to find the resources to fund it.
The district signed off on a program that they will be responsible for 50% of its costs and have no idea how to fund those costs.
It was reported that the district would likely be getting a new (sigh) Chief Technology person but still can't find a demographer. They have also hired a new manager for Family Support.
I did find it interesting that a couple of Board members had to ask Finance head, Ken Gotsch, about how he could know about the flow of money and costs five years out. He explained about forecasting and how widely it is used....everywhere. Betty Patu asked about if they were building in money to support the costs of IB and STEM programs. (Betty, SPS doesn't do that. They create new programs and never back them up with district dollars.) Mr. Gotsch said he hadn't thought about that but "it could be."
Pegi McEvoy talked about the district's work around disproportionality and discipline as well as emergency management. Director Martin-Morris said SPD was working on use of force and couldn't the district piggyback off SPD's work. Ms. McEvoy said that SPD was using a different kind of training than the one SPD uses.
About Transportation, McEvoy was filling in for them. Director Carr asked why there was green dot for Transportation with so many issues. McEvoy said no, everything was not in place but "Bob has a plan and it is proceeding." Carr pressed on and said that her sense was that when the district did the NSAP, they started with a blank sheet and wished they could do that with Transportation so they could see all the complexities.
It was funny to hear the exchange between Carr and HR's Apostle. She asked why are teachers leaving the district and he said he was directing staff to ask. (Just like Enrollment never asks why students are leaving the district.)
Facilities head Flip Herndon continues to be on-point by noting that they need to analyze the supply and demand for space in the district, coming class size reduction requirements by the State and the impacts of need for Pre-K space. (For some reason, some on the City Council do not believe/understand that SPS is packed and will not have hardly any space for the Pre-K initiative that is Councilman Burgess' marquee event. That will make for some interesting discussions.)
Herndon said we need to plan BEX projects and "not create additional maintenance backlog." They don't want to keep modifying buildings because of program placement changes.
Peters said that they needed to think further out because, for example, McClure will be full and Queen Anne Elementary would like to be a K-8. (My reply? No more K-8s for now.) Carr said she kept hearing from the Seattle legislative delegation that they need more forecasting into 2018-2023.
Herndon said, "We will need space beyond what we currently own."
Then there was another interesting thing said by Mr. Wright. He said the staff had been looking at the volume of e-mails they get from the Board and the principals. He said the Board had 140 e-mails over the last six months, with 140 easy questions and 60 with more involved questions.
He said the principals had sent 5,000 e-mails. He said that it was a difficult issue to handle. He also said they had a culture where it was "not safe to say it's red." I assume that means that work is way behind. He said that they are developing a principal customer satisfaction feedback loop.
My question would be, if the Executive Directors were really that helpful to principals and/or there was information available online or in district info sent to the principals, why are there so many e-mails?
This is one of the most cohesive groups of top staff I have seen in a long time. They genuinely seem to like and respect each other. I think the Superintendent deserves credit for pulling them all together.
The staff is acknowledging that they are overwhelmed by the volume of work. It's good to say that out loud.
While I do not think I like the direction the district is going, I do believe that the Superintendent and Charles Wright are making a good faith effort to gather the reins and get this wagon train in line. I believe Mr. Wright sees the issues very clearly and, that he is actually communicating this, is a good thing. He is being realistic and that's also a good thing.
We have a headquarters that does not run well functionally. I fear people are siloing themselves again.
The volume of work and, in some place, a tsunami of work, is beyond what can be handled well.
We have many, many people in top positions new to the district and, just like most jobs, there's a learning curve.
I think much of what is specifically wrong is being hidden from the Board and the public.
I believe that some of the work is ed reform work that got pushed behind the scenes and is not really that valid in a district that has so many functional problems. We need to strip down to the real basics and necessities of education. I fear that will not happen.
While I hear about work on Special Ed and disproportionate discipline, I really wonder how far it has gotten.
I do not believe the district or the Board is really taking student data privacy concerns seriously (and you may be hearing more about this in the coming days).
If I had my way, the district (or the Alliance) would pay for the consultant who did the pro bono planning work to create a plan of action for the JSCEE staff. I think they are overwhelmed with the day-to-day AND all the initiatives that are rolling out. I think there is uncertainty in being able to keep up with the work or even how to order/schedule work.
I think it would be money well spent.