Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Alternative Narrative on Turnover

The Seattle Times likes to peddle this story about how a fractious and meddling Board is the driving reason for the turnover of senior staff, including the superintendent, at Seattle Public Schools.

It's a good yarn, but it doesn't actually fit the facts. It doesn't fit the facts because
  1. The Board isn't all that fractious. Most votes are unanimous or nearly so. And no matter how fractious the Board may be, they all accept the votes and support the majority decision. I will say that Director Blanford violated the Code of Conduct when he called out his colleagues, and that was inappropriate, but he's new and clearly doesn't know what he's doing.
  2. The Board doesn't meddle. Seriously. When was the last time you heard tell of a Board Director stepping over the governance/management line? I don't think it has happened for well over a year.The last one to do it was Michael DeBell when he usurped the superintendent's authority to determine program placement and dictated the APP sites. The Seattle Times has tried to make it seem that the elementary math textbook decision crossed the line, but it didn't. That's a Board decision - by statute. And the Times suggested that the bell time study crossed the line, but the Board sets priorities. That's also part of their job.

So while this narrative is tempting and easy, it simply doesn't work for anyone who thinks about it and has any actual knowledge of the district. I can see why the Seattle Times editorial board likes it.

There is, however, a different narrative that fits the facts better than this one.

  1. Senior staff leave because they cannot reform the dysfunctional culture of the central staff. They either become part of the corruption, or, after struggling valiantly against it, they quit. Who would want the job of managing the unmanageable? Who would want to accept responsibility for routine failures by their staff? The morass that is HR at Seattle Public Schools is comparable only to the VA. There has been a lot of turnover in HR, hasn't there? Teaching and Learning, another dysfunctional department, has seen a lot of turnover as well. I think Wendy London had the job for a weekend.
  2. There are some unthinkably bad separations between responsibility and authority. Why so much turnover in special education? Gee, do you think it could have anything to do with the fact that they didn't really have any authority over their people? Their teachers report to principals instead of to them, and no one in special education had any authority over the principals. Actually, no one has any authority over the principals. We went through a string of budget people before we actually gave them some authority and control over the money.
  3. Other school districts in Washington see Seattle as their training ground. It's seen as a real coup if they can hire someone from Seattle. Working in Seattle Public Schools, especially as senior staff, looks pretty good on a resume and other school districts love to hire that. For the career ambitious, Seattle is a stepping stone on the way to something else.

31 comments:

Watching said...

Charlie,

We're looking at "hit pieces", not journalism.

Wataching said...

". I will say that Director Blanford violated the Code of Conduct when he called out his colleagues"

He needs to be censured. The board, after all went through all types of pains to prevent another DeBell situation.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I think Charlie's assessments are valid.

I would add that, in my thread on the Seattle Times "story" on superintendents, one commenter here said that if the superintendent steps over the line of his/her duties, he/she should be "admonished."

I asked the reader what that would look like but the reader didn't answer.

I agree that if senior staff drag their feet or are not prepared to answer questions directly about the topic at hand or the superintendent steps out of line, someone should be checked. (I'm always amused when a Board member - at a Board meeting or Work Session - asks for numbers on the topic at hand and then a senior staff says, "I don't have those; I have to get back to you.")

But you rarely, if ever, see that.

I have said that one thing I believe can be said by Directors is "I am disappointed that the information is not here that I need to do my elected oversight. I wish staff were better prepared." They don't even have to say it in public; send the Superintendent an e-mail.

That's a pretty gentle admonishment and it allows the Board to express unhappiness without stepping on toes.

Anonymous said...

Parents should have the opportunity to volunteer a few hours a week at JS. There is nothing that opens your eyes to dysfunction like being right in the middle of it.

It's situations like this when I can understand the anti-public sector frustration. How on earth do you clean house on a culture like this? Of course it starts with a strong leader, but you also need strong managers who are empowered to make decisions.

Respectfully,
--You're Soaking In It!

Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting (and appropriate) for the Board to respond to the "we're too busy" lament we often hear with "I'm sorry to hear that. What can we ask the Superintendent to take off your plate?"

Wonder how staff would answer that kind of question...

reader47

Anonymous said...

How many state and federal investigations of SPS have happened in the last decade? How many stories of corruption and theft have we heard about? How many lawsuits have been settled? How many children have been thrown under the bus so adults can save their own careers?

Answer these questions, Seattle Times, then tell me again how the Board is stepping over the line while performing their legally mandated oversight duties.

Observer

Anonymous said...

With the constant stream of stories featuring waste, fraud, abuse, criminal behavior, self serving careerism, etc., coming out of SPS, can someone tell me again why charters are bad?

Broken System

Anonymous said...

Because charters have even less oversight and public scrutiny than public schools. The corruption and outright theft of public funds is even higher in the charter school system than it is in the public one.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

-Observer

Anonymous said...

I'm currently researching just how many lawsuits or settlements involving the district have occurred in the last 5 years.

It's very difficult to obtain the information from the district, but the OSPI and Federal dept of Ed keep very clear records on investigations, but not resolution settlements.

Around lack of FAPE there are 5 recent cases totally around 380,000 per school year out to 2016 for a grand total of $1.9 million for 5 students. These look like the most costly, but there are numerous other in the $80K to $20k range.

Still digging

Anonymous said...

Charlie, I again don't disagree with your post nor do I disagree with any of the alternative reasons you suggest for high senior staff turnover. However, I would like to add another alternative reason: Senior staff as well as nearly all central administration staff do work that is oftentimes stressful and necessary to the functioning of the district but with little to no appreciation. No one likes school district central administration staff --- the public, principals, teachers, politicians, et al. Be honest --- every time there is a critique of the district's overall budget, it is inevitable that there will be claims that the central office is bloated and that the actual people there are incompetent, uncaring, and overpaid. They are parasites on the bodies of general public.

But, these people are actual people --- they are our friends and neighbors and loved ones. How would you like a to come home in the evening after a trying and stressful day and open the paper to read some article or editorial or op-ed or reader comment suggesting that you (and/or your colleagues) are incompetent and should be purged from the public payroll? How would you like to look up from the paper into the faces of your spouse and children and do your best to hide the hurt, anger, and shame from your face as your children and spouse look back at you?

You could be someone who loves his/her job despite the near-constant venomous comments hurled in your direction and despite the dysfunctional culture around you. You could be a dedicated public servant respected by those closest to you and appreciated by your most immediate peers. You could also have a more-than-decent salary. But this constant negative and hurtful assessment of you and your work starts to grate on you and you choose to leave the job you love. You choose to do this work elsewhere and in less of a fishbowl.

--- swk

Melissa Westbrook said...

"They are parasites on the bodies of general public."

Much for hyperbole? I cannot recall any one here speaking in those terms (certainly not me). In fact, I hear that kind of talk (about teachers) at the Times comment section.

Central Office is somewhat bloated and you only have to check out the number of hires and their salaries.

I think Charlie and I do consistently call out good work and praise. I also hear the Board do this at Work Sessions and Board meetings.

Much of what happens at JSCEE happens because of decisions at the top. If that got cleared up, I think everyone would be much happier.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I didn't suggest that this negative commentary comes from this blog. I will agree with you that both you and Charlie call out good work and show appreciation for that good. I wasn't talking about you. If I meant you and this blog, I would have said so.

--- swk

Anonymous said...

And my "parasites" comment was meant to be hyperbolic and facetious.

--- swk

Anonymous said...

Removing Mr. E is the path to salvation...when is his retirement date? Can we crowdfund his early retirement?

--Michael

Charlie Mas said...

Ha ha ha. Crowdfunding the early retirement of the district's general counsel. Made me laugh out loud to read that. Instead of a KickStarter that would be what? A KickOut?

To swk's more serious comment. Yeah, it's hard not to paint all of central administration with one broad brush. I have certainly tried to call out people who I believed were honest and candid, like Dr. Libros. Joe Wolf certainly gets a lot of deserved praise for his engagement.

When Dr. Enfield cleaned out some bad actors I praised that work (and got raspberries for saying anything nice about her). I noted real improvements in the culture in these departments. It's a shame that she neglected to reform her own department.

If I were on the Board I would pay close attention every time that I was told "I'll get back to you with that". I would ask when I should expect the information and make a note of it in a calendar. Then, when the day came, if I didn't have the information, I would write to the person who promised it and ask for it again.

There are some people in senior positions who habitually do bad work, arrive unprepared, evade public engagement, stonewall the Board, and generally behave like arrogant jackasses. I think I just reminded you of one of them.

There are also some departments that are clearly broken but defy reform - HR leaps to mind (leaps like Baryshnikov). Paul Apostle wasn't a Hercules to clean out that Augean stable. He just wallowed in it. I'm sure there are some good people in HR, but I haven't seen them.

Just Saying said...

The Alliance for Education is REALLY pushing the Seattle Times and Seattle Times Editorial. Is anyone surprised?



Charlie Mas said...

Of course they're promoting it. The Alliance WROTE the Seattle Times editorial.

Leo said...

Absolutely, Charlie. The Alliance is clearly behind the latest assault on the board.

swk,

How do you feel about the administrators that were involved with the math adoption and the clear defiance of law? How do you feel about the administrators in the John Stanford Center that took five weeks to provide the cost of materials to a director; the same individual asked legal council if information had to be given to directors. Would you agree; there is a deliberate attempt to withhold information to the board?

I continue to think about this: Was Banda aware that his staff was attempting to circumvent the board's math decision? Does the staff work without the superintendent's knowledge of their actions?

It is amazing that we have individuals within the John Stanford Center that have less years of experience than teachers. Yet, there seems to be little regard for the voice of the teachers. There seems to be little regard for the voices of parents, too.

That said, yes there are wonderful people working within the John Stanford Center. It is the culture of lawlessness that is a concern.

The Seattle Times used the word "defamation". Let's remember it is the job of the board to oversee district operations and we can't forget about Silas Potter. I understand a McGraw Hill rep was acting like an imposter, violating board policies in an attempt to sell their wares. What about the technology reps. that complained that the district kept changing the process? Do you think the board has a right to ask hard questions?

Leo said...

Continued:

Let's look the sale of MLK to First AME church. I remember hearing that property was being sold to Bush School and for all the right reasons. Then, we see the district's attorney promoting the building to First AME; he sounded ridiculous...the arguments didn't make sense.

Later, we find out that MGJ wanted to do something for the First AME community--on the taxpayer dime. Selling MLK to First AME cost the district millions of dollars; not to mention that the building would be needed to accommodate growth in the district. Who does the staff work for... the superintendent or district? Can we always be assured that the superintendent is working for the best interest of the district i.e sale of MLK to First AME. As in the case of the MLK bld..there was a conflict of interest. Where is the line between "defamation" and hard questions?

Let's remember Silas Potter. He stood before the board and promoted his program. The board listened to him. thanked him and treated him very nicely. Would it be considered have been "defamation" for the board to ask extremely hard questions? Where do you draw the line?

We can't tie our board's hands. They are responsible for a $1B budget per year. They have to be allowed to ask hard questions. Especially since we know, as in the math adoption, the staff has little regard for board authority and acts in a lawless manner and taking five weeks to deliver the cost of materials to directors. Again, I look at the word "defamation" vs. hard questions.

So, swk, you are an experienced and thoughtful person. I would like your thoughts.

Leo said...

swk,

I agree there are good people working in the John Stanford Center.

Carol Simmons said...

Please take a minute and read Director Sharon Peaslee's response to the Seattle Times Editorial. It is excellent.
http://discussions.seattletimes.com/comments/woo4193224

Thank you

Anonymous said...

Leo, you raise valid issues and I certainly won't defend the actions you detail, as they are indefensible. But, I think you missed my point. I wasn't trying to defend all central administrators nor was I comparing the life of a central administrator to the life of a teacher nor was I comparing the role of central administrators to the role of the board.

Charlie was outlining some alternative reasons why there might be high turnover among senior staff vs. the reasons provided by the ST. I was simply providing another alternative reason why there might be high turnover and attributed that turnover, in part, to how many people "paint all of central administration with one broad brush," as Charlie puts it, and demonize them all unjustifiably. That's all.

--- swk

Leo said...

swk, I agree with your original post.

Leo said...

swk,

Please understand my need to vent.

Anonymous said...

Leo, no need to explain.

--- swk

Charlie Mas said...

Here's someone who left the district: the person responsible for audit response.

Remember how the Board got all worked up over audits after the truly disastrous one - the one with the most findings in state history, the one the found Silas Potter's business, the one that eventually cost Dr. Goodloe-Johnson her job. Sherry Carr, in particular got exorcised about audits. They made audit response a central focus and priority. They even hired a person and dedicated them to that task.

But that person resigned from the District in June of 2013 and was not replaced. So that's piques two questions in me:

1) Why did the person resign? Were they frustrated in their work?

2) Why weren't they replaced - I thought we were all committed to audit response. Maybe not so much.

Anonymous said...

A bureaucracy like SPS should run strictly by policies and procedures.

Of coarse the polices and procedures should be well thought out, legal and in the best interest of common good.

Here's the problem, the more public disclosures I make the more I see a complete brake down in the district following most of it's own P and P. It's literally a free for all with a lot of collusion going on to circumvent controls.

If SPS were a public company most of the execs would be in jail.

--Michael

Watching said...

Charlie,

You might not have seen this latest audit. It took getting rid of the business backed board to do so.

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/today/2014/06/seattle-school-district-gets-mostly-clean-audit/#.U7IxYv4SmeY.facebook

That said, we have to give credit to the individuals within the John Stanford Center and Sherry Carr for their work on this issue.





Watching said...

i suspect Bob Bouchet (sp) was one of the individuals that should be credited with imporoving the audit.

To note, Bob Bouchet was always a gentleman and we were lucky to get him out of retirement for a few years.

mirmac1 said...

There were management letters and exit items in the audit. Those don't get publicized. Also, keep in mind there is a completely new audit team - that may be easily deluded.

Correct Narrative said...

The Seattle Times offers incorrect narrative to Banda's departure.

The Northwest Progressive gets the correct narrative!

http://www.nwprogressive.org/weblog/2014/07/how-democracy-saves-seattle-schools-from-bad-superintendents.html