Deja vu all over again (with apologies to Yogi Berra).
It's sometimes good to have been tracking this district for a long time. Basically, it's about institutional memory and its usefulness.
Sometimes, it is frustrating, exhausting and frightening. All at once.
I am speaking of the Board retreat going on today in reference to institutional memory. I could have sworn that if I shut my eyes, then quickly opened them, I would see the ghosts of staff past sitting around that table. Maria Goodloe-Johnson (that ghost comment is not in reference to her passing), Susan Enfield, Carla Santorno, even Joe Olchefske. Because those are the people I thought might have been channeling through staff today.
I often wish there was a new person in the audience, a casual observer who I could question and ask, "What did that sound like to you?"
Because I heard a lot of what staff has said before to the Board at the last retreat. The Board knows what their work is (well, most of it). The Board knows it's a big load. And yet, staff felt compelled, on the basis of giving them a complete picture of adding bell time analysis to their load, to go over each department's work.
Not a bad thought necessarily but that list! I've never ever heard of some of these initiatives. When Superintendent Banda asked me this morning where I would cut $3M, I'd start with these. I would start with the district making a colossal mistake of getting themselves into the Seattle Teacher Residency when really, they don't have the time OR the money to do so.
Most of these items do not seem to be services going directly to classrooms.
Why such a long Strategic Plan? Why so many projects that you need a project manager? If you wanted - to use an ed reform fav - have a "laser-like" focus, why all this?
At the end, it came down to the words from Charles Wright, deputy superintendent. He is the bad cop - albeit kindly and soft-spoken - to Banda's good cop. He basically let the Board have it.
In so many words, he told them:
- too many things get changed "in flight". He said "things that went on this week" happened with people getting pulled out of meetings and off projects. (I think he was referencing the math adoption.)
- he wants the Board to tell staff, "don't worry about these things," apparently in reference to the many projects and duties cabinet staff has. Again, of course, there is a large volume of work to be done but when a lot of it is not the basics, you have to wonder.
- principals don't feel like they are getting the resources and support they need
- staff need to have safe spaces to say things. He said everyone at the table needed to watch their tone and be respectful and it was difficult to talk given that meetings were open. (That's democracy for you.)
- he said that district staff was not getting clear expectations and they need professional development. He said that there is a productivity gap and that when districts don't support staff there is "no dignity or fairness or resources."
- He said that they need the Board's guidance on what will help with decisions.
Lastly - in a final thrust - he told the Board that Board "requests" for information from staff are rising. "Our ability to do the work is challenged by volume of requests." He then struggled with his computer in order to give the Board "data points."
For example, in March 2014, e-mails from Board to all staff (don't know if this includes school staff) went from 465 in 2012 to 655 in 2013 to 827. He proceeded to give more monthly stats.
He also said that the protocol had been established about talking to staff below the cabinet level and that the Board wasn't following it. (If that is true, sure that should change.)
But here's the problem with just the basics of his statements on these e-mails.
How many were from Board members saying, "Got the information, thanks."
How many were from school staff setting up Board members to attend their school's event or meet with the principal?
Look at your own e-mail. How many are about logistics and how many are really about information someone else needs?
So there may be a higher volume of e-mails but are they all requests?
But basically, it sounded like complaining about the volume of work AND the requests from the Board for information. That volume of work could be dialed back; it absolutely could.
But the requests? Not for elected officials. (But maybe I should check with the City Council office on their requests vis a vis the City. That might be interesting.)
I note that Director Blanford was nodding as Mr. Wright went on. The other Board members (those whose faces I could see) were stone-faced.
I was not able to stay for Board questions and comments but I'm sure a few other attendees will fill us in.
What is happening?
Sadly, there is a divide between staff and the Board. Clearly, there are hard feelings over the math adoption even only for the volume of work it put on staff.
I think staff, like those before them, wish the Board and the community would just go away and let them do their work.
I think it is valid to question how much time staff takes to answer questions from the Board. (I don't really know how the work is organized in the Board office but they clearly could use some more staff of their own.)
I won't say that about the public because if staff was clearly communicating their plans and actions, most of the public wouldn't ask questions.
Past superintendents have tried to control the Board. It never works (at least not in this town). But most Board directors - no matter their own personal goals as a Board member - do tend to believe in their duty as an elected official. They believe they MUST provide oversight and sometimes need to press hard on staff to make sure they have the most complete information before a vote.
I am sad to see this district once again in a dangerous time. A time
when staff feels so distanced from the Board that perhaps they are not
working as a team but at odds.
It's going to take leadership, understanding of each side's role and responsibilities and a willingness to work together to create better academic outcomes for the students in Seattle Public Schools. By both Superintendent and staff and the Board.
But my old bones feel like a storm is gathering.