Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Communication & Trust

My public testimony at the school board meeting tonight:

Tonight I'm going to address the issues of communication and trust. Many people, tonight and tomorrow night, are going to speak opposing the superintendent's preliminary recommendations for closure. You might ask, why can't we give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about these recommendations? Well, that would require trust. And trust requires open communication. Without frequent, open communication, there can be no trust.

I've spoken with several people who are pleased with Phase II of the closure process, saying the process is more appropriate, with the right people involved, and that sensitive issues require smaller, closed conversations. That may be true, but for those of us outside the process, it has been a black hole of communication since the Board vote on closure at the end of July. The public meetings scheduled in August were cancelled, with little notice and no clear explanation.

I don't know enough about how the Phase II recommendations were reached to know how to respond. Did principals and staff involved in these discussions negotiate these recommendations? Or just take part in them? Was the input of the principals and staff ignored, or listened to? Without knowing the answers to these questions, how can we trust that the recommendations are good?

And before we rush into Phase II, let's pause for a minute to look at concerns remaining from Phase I of the closures. I learned this week that Viewlands is losing another teacher at the end of this month because of declining enrollment over the summer, which, of course, is the result of the closure decision. The children at Viewlands should not have to experience more change and stress during an already difficult year.

I have read that there is a transition team working on implementing Phase I of the closure plan. Who is on the team? Who is the principal on special assignment to lead the implementation of Phase I? What have they done? And why is it so hard to find out the answers to these questions? We cannot have accountability without open communication.

Moving on to Phase II, my biggest immediate concern is the lack of public hearings scheduled at Cooper, Summit K-12, Broadview-Thompson, and other schools directly affected by the recommendations. We need to go beyond what is legally required in terms of public hearings and instead do what is right. Affected school communities need to have a voice in these discussions, and they deserve to have the hearings at their schools buildings.

The lack of open communication in Phase II also apparently applies to the communication between the district and the School Board. When the Board President states publicly that she was unaware of how the Phase II process was working and has concerns about it, how much trust can community members be expected to have in the recommendations?

Perhaps, if the district had a good track record of accomplishments and follow-through on promises, there could be a certain level of trust despite poor communication. But when I send an e-mail in August expressing concern about the closure process and get an auto-reply notifying me of hearing dates in May; when I have sent multiple requests since July just asking what progress has been made towards the five year plan goals for the principal assignment process, and still haven't gotten that question answered; when you pile on those kinds of examples of poor performance and customer service on top of faulty, infrequent communication, then there can be no trust.


Anonymous said...

Well stated and true. The question is what the next step is. Should we continue to be passive/defensive with SPS or take a more constructive/proactive approach? What would that look like?

Anonymous said...

Several people speaking before the Board last night said that Cooper should have a public hearing. I spoke with some District staff people and they said the same. A number of Board members appeared to agree.

I expect an announcement shortly.

Getting a public hearing doesn't mean that you will get heard.

Anonymous said...

So tell me please or brainstorm -what is it that the Pathfinder, the only Alt K-8 in W. Seattle to do? Is being slammed, being called predatory, "offered" a last minute fix in the totally inadequate "Boren Bldg." after being shut out of the process in the closed CAC mtg. . . Pathfinder is a program with a great deal to offer (and as an Alternative not for everyone) and undercut every which way but loose.

There was a 7 hour meeting held in August with representation from Cooper and other underenrolled schools in SW Cluster - did that not count for something? Is it true that those meetings asked that the "community input" then scheduled be cancelled (in hindsight a bad idea)?

With charges of "institutional racism" flying about - (and how perhaps does that make the kids and families of color @ Pathfinder feel, I wonder - you don't count), the rhetoric - "let my kid build a canoe later", bake bread, etc. etc. - is that community building, forward looking - consensus or leadership driven? I'm thinking not.

Haven't all schools, especially underenrolled ones been advised ad nauseum that everything has been Preliminary to-date and involvement warranted in the process? This is not new news.

Do I think Cooper should have a hearing there - absolutely - do I think the process stinks - absolutely. Do I think we can continue to leave half filled schools alone in times of crisis - No.

If choice is rapidly becoming a non-option in near future - how would that affect the kids in schools slated for closure - would students there be losing that choice in near future in any event? What are the reference areas for schools slated for closures - (not just SW but all over city - appears we're doing a lot of this in a vacum so then we have kids displaced once with closures and again when choice ends because we can't afford transportation costs)- now that's sensitivity.

Its been said here and in a great deal of other places that the reference areas and choice are an integral part of the of enrollment/assignment status we are in now - where are those two pieces in the process? Will we be having "what the heck discussions" in a year or two when choice hits?

Next said - "constructive/proactive approach - what would that look like" - I wonder.

I wonder if "constructive approach" should include the upcoming limited choice and reference area problems discussions as well.

I hope that civility and respect is a cornerstone of whatever approach is taken and the process of healing includes guided frank discussions of topics like race, socio-economic status and institutional racism. Maybe this is an opportunity but sure doesn't feel like one. Am reminded of the old adage that you have to hit bottom before you can re-build - but at what expense.

Thanks for having this forum.

Anonymous said...

Please allow me to touch on a wide variety of topics.

First, the idea that Cooper is underenrolled and therefore is rightly at risk. The underenrollment at Cooper may have a number of causes. One of them, undoubtedly, is the number of schoolage children in the reference area. The fact is that Cooper is not a good choice for closure because the academic program is succesful and there is no excess capacity in the surrounding schools. In short, there is nowhere for the Cooper students to go. With the exception of having excess capacity - a direct consequence of District assignment policy - Cooper does not fit the profile for a school to close.

Second, so what is Pathfinder to do? The District should find another building for Pathfinder. Whatever building they find will require significant capital improvements. Options include: Genesee Hill, Fairmont Park, Denny (after they move across the street), and E.C. Hughes. And where will the money come from? From the savings when the District decides that it is stupid to pay $68 million to construct a new building for The New School in Southeast Seattle when there are two or three empty buildings now available for The New School to move into.

Third, the District loves to label things "preliminary" and "draft" and "proposal" but they are, in fact, extremely resistant to changing any of these plans. These preliminary proposals have a way of becoming the carved-in-stone plan without notice or opportunity for amendment. After it happens a few times the District can no longer pretend that the anger is misplaced because this was just a preliminary proposal. We're not buying that.

Fourth, the low level of civility in public testimony at Board meetings. From time to time I yell at my daughter. It usually goes like this. In a normal conversational tone I politely ask her to pick up her dirty socks from the family room floor. She doesn't acknowledge me. A bit louder and more insistantly I ask her to pick up her dirty socks from the family room floor. She doesn't acknowledge me. Can you see where this is going? When people feel ignored, tney become more strident in an effort to capture the attention of their intended listener. The lack of response - the lack of acknowledgement - from the Board and the District is the cause of the strident voices at Board meetings and public hearings.

Fifth, Director Flynn made a little speach last night about how, a year ago, she had proposed a different way for the Board and the community to communicate. This is simply not true. She is lying. Go back and read her proposal. Her proposal was to restrict public testimony to action items on the agenda. The Community Conversations she refers to were NOT part of the proposal. The District made no promise to hold any such meetings. Think about it. If Director Flynn's proposal had been passed, none of those who spoke last night would have been allowed to speak at all except Chris Jackins who addressed himself to action items on the agenda. Would that represent an improvement? In addition, the topics of the Community Conversations would be set by the Board Executive Committee, as is the agenda. That would mean that those three people would determine the only topics of live, open testimony from the public to the Board. The Board used to have two public testimony periods at each of their meetings: an open one where people could talk about what they liked, and a second one exclusively for people addressing action items on the agenda. The Board reduced public testimony by combining them. At the time, the Board said that if petitions and delegations pushed out public testimony on action items they would restore the two testimony periods. Instead, when they claimed that was the problem, they broke their promise and tried to restrict public testimony. Finally, when Director Flynn made her proposal to restrict public testimony to action items she said that it was then that she wanted to hear what people had to say about these things. However, during discussion of action items she has said that the day of the vote is too late to come and urge her to vote one way or another. In short, Director Flynn is being dishonest about this whole issue. There is nothing that keeps the Board from holding Community Conversations on any topic they like. Clearly they don't want to do them because if they did want to do them they would do them. Since they don't do them we can readily conclude that they don't want to do them.

Roy Smith said...

Beth, I commend you for being one of the speakers that actually brought civility to the board meeting. Last night was the first school board meeting I have ever attended, and frankly, it isn't an experience I want to repeat. The level of incivility and downright insulting rhetoric was astonishing.

That being said, a few observations:
1) This won't happen quickly, but I think it would be valuable to figure out a way to insulate the alternative programs and the traditional programs from competing for the same resources. The Pathfinder/Cooper debacle is a perfect example of why this needs to happen. One one side, traditional neighborhood school families stereotype alternative programs as "the school district catering to the white upper middle class". On the other side, alternative school families complain about lack of support from the district. Neither of these stereotypes is either entirely true or entirely false, but they are both divisive and unhelpful. In order for school choice to mean anything, in my opinion, both types of programs need to be supported and encouraged, and setting them up to compete against each other is destructive for everybody.

2) Most of the Cooper school community seems to take the offer from Pathfinder that "you may join us" as condescending and insulting. I personally don't find that response to be particularly unreasonable. I believe that most of the families who want alternative programs are finding ways already to get into them, and chances are that most of the families who are at Cooper looked at Pathfinder and specifically didn't ask for it.

3) It was embarassing that there wasn't a translator on hand when the district had been notified in advance that one would be needed.

4) The only people I have heard thus far (both at the school board meeting and in news reporting and online discussions) who are happy about the way the Phase 2 process worked are Pathfinder parents. Pretty much everybody else who is affected by Phase 2 seems to think that Phase 1, for all it flaws, was at least somewhat better.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to address the Pathfinder/Cooper issue but I'll leave that for my remarks tonight. I agree with Charlie; there are other things that can be done rather than ending the program at Cooper. It may be that Pathfinder parents are so tired and desperate at this point that they will accept what seems to be an unfair decision for Cooper's community. (I'm not even going to speak about the closed CAC meeting. If people didn't understand the thinking then, they won't now.)

So what to do? Some of you may mistake the media's support of school closures with support for Raj. I don't believe they are the same thing. They are probably glad for the resolve being shown but I'm not sure I agree they think Raj is a good leader. (After reading the PI editorial yesterday by Bruce Ramsey, we know what former Mayor Rice and current Mayor Nickels think of the Board.)

What you can do is point out the inconsistencies in the process to as many media folk as you can. Don't forget the Weekly or the Stranger or, even more important, the little neighborhood papers.

The 4 members of the Board who came into office are up for re-election next fall (I think). I'm not sure I believe Darlene will run again. It doesn't really matter. ALL of them are in danger. Irene's very public support of West Seattle (even though she actually is director for all of the SW) seems to lay the groundwork for her next campaign.

So find good candidates to run against these people. A caveat. Many of us had been beyond unhappy with the previous board which had been full of business types (because business, of course, knows how to run everything). A coalition of groups had found candidates in Brita and Sally. Irene and Darlene were running on their own but as the campaigns wore on it became apparent that the public (and media) believed they were a slate. After the primary, Darlene and Irene edged closed to Brita and Sally, probably believing there was steam picking up for a slate. (Meanwhile, the incumbents and their supporters smugly ignored them, believing no one would turn out incumbents for social activists.) On election night, Darlene, Sally, Brita and Irene all stood together at an election night party and raised their arms together. It was, at the time, a wonderful and satisfying moment.

But there was no slate. No commitment to finding compromise and consensus or a commitment to a new superintendent (despite much talk during the campaign). I'd rather have this board than the old board but I am very disappointed.

The time is now to find candidates but make sure that any promises they make are of an absolute value ("I will lobby and continue to lobby for a new superintendent.").

Beth Bakeman said...

A quick reply to Roy's comment that the only people "who are happy about the way the Phase 2 process worked are Pathfinder parents." I'm pretty sure that's not true. But when people are happy with how something worked, they tend to be more quiet.

For example, I'm guessing many of the Sacajewea and Bagley and other north end parents whose schools weren't put on the closure list this time are pretty happy with Phase II.

And what about the Broadview-Thompson parents? Or the Viewlands parents? I don't know if they are happy with the process or with the decision, but we may just not be hearing from them because they like how things turned out.

I've sent e-mails to each of the schools named in the closure recommendations asking them to send me a viewpoint to post on the blog, so hopefully we'll know more soon.

Roy Smith said...

Regarding happiness with Phase 2 process:

The winners:
- Pathfinder families seem generally pleased.
- Families at schools not affected are probably quietly satisfied, because they dodged the bullet.

The unimpressed:
- Summit families seem pretty wary about the overcrowding issue.
- Viewlands families lost in the first round, so I suspect the proposed phase 2 changes are not particularly viewed in positive or negative terms, just as something different than the original plan. I haven't heard any actual reaction from people at this school.
- Broadview-Thompson gets to be a K-8 program, something I understand that they have been lobbying for. Again, haven't heard any actual reactions from families associated with the school.

The losers:
- Cooper families are generally furious.
- AS#1 families aren't at all happy, but much of the anger is more strongly directed at the process than the proposal, the feasability of which is still questionable.

I haven't heard anything from those associated with Roxhill, so I couldn't say where they stand.

If any of my generalizations are way off base, please feel free to offer corrections. However, reading this list, which I believe at least generally captures the community mood, it is hard to avoid coming to the cynical conclusion of "the winners liked the process and the losers didn't like it". It may be that that will always be true to a certain extent. Allowing for that, I still have difficulty seeing how a process that mainly featured closed-door meetings and minimal public involvement is preferable to one that allows for enough time and forums for all interested parties to at least have their say.

Anonymous said...

From discussions with my sources, Viewlands is much happier with being with B-T than Greenwood. They were not hearing inclusionary talk from staff at Greenwood (who seemed to want the kids to fill their school but not their programs or staff). After touring all these schools, I think Viewlands is better with B-T.

I had heard a suggestion about merging Bagley with Greenwood, putting a strong program with a strong principal into a good building with low morale. They wouldn't all fit but that is where the choice/assignment comes in.

Look, Mark Green has said it. Brita has said it. The district cannot afford these transportation costs and will be cutting back (not ending choice). Of course, how far back you cut choice is a big sticking point as well as what choices you will be able to make about alternative education. I think that's why the district isn't so worried about who will fit where because if they pull back on choice, only limited numbers of kids can go to any one building.

In closing, I think the district is painting itself into yet another corner (the first one being the Eastlake area where the creation of TOPS left that area with NO reference school) with the Cooper/Pathfinder decision. What will be the reference school for those children?

Roy Smith said...

Charlie, re: your comments about the low level of civility at school board meetings:

Quoting from your post "Fourth, the low level of civility in public testimony at Board meetings. From time to time I yell at my daughter. It usually goes like this. In a normal conversational tone I politely ask her to pick up her dirty socks from the family room floor. She doesn't acknowledge me. A bit louder and more insistantly I ask her to pick up her dirty socks from the family room floor. She doesn't acknowledge me. Can you see where this is going?"

I do see where this is going. You are expecting the school board to respond to you in the same manner as your children do. However, a better analogy would be to compare the school board to your coworkers. If you get blown off by a coworker, and then proceed to become strident and uncivil because you feel ignored, do you get good results? Going down that path hardly ever gets good results for me.

Yes, it is wrong that the school board is unresponsive. However, becoming impatient, confrontational and uncivil is highly unlikely to move us in a good direction. We, as the public, have to get smart enough to figure out what will work to create what we perceive to be positive change.

Anonymous said...

My sense is that Pathfinder families are not necessarily "generally pleased". There is a mixed reaction - grateful that the need for an appropriate facility was recognized, but genuinely perplexed and upset that the solution sets up a "win/lose" scenario. Pathfinder families have, from the start, expressed that one criteria for a new location was "a vacant building; not to displace others". I know this can sound like semantics, but the idea was - show the rationale for closing a school ON ITS OWN TERMS, close schools and then look at those 'vacant buildings' to see if there might a feasible potential move. If nothing is feasible, it's back to the drawing board. Unfortunately this did not happen that way (or if it did that case has not been made very clearly) and the need for an appropriate facility for Pathfinder got swooped up in the closure process and it always should have been a separate issue.

Anonymous said...

Roy - thanks for your comment. A huge element of what happens in those meetings is the direct outcome of a one-way process (as you, Charlie, Beth and others mention). I am going to take up Darlene Flynn's offer to get some ideas for a different approach. For starters, I want to work with a few folks to see if we can design a more collaborative, dialogue-oriented format for Pathfinder's site hearing on October 10th. We might as well try something different at this point - continuing the talking "at" each other with increased emotion and minimal exchange and understanding has reached the boiling point. As was stated here and at the board meeting, nothing good comes from it. Sometimes it feels good in the moment to vent and blame, but in reality, that little sense of satisfaction doesn't last because you're still stuck with a lousy result.

Anonymous said...

roy, I do not expect the School Board to respond to me the way my children do, I simply expect both the Board and my children to respond to me with the minimal amount of respect that any upright walking creature deserves.

It is frustrating to be ignored, at home, at the JSCEE and at work. I cannot imagine a professional setting in which I would be as ignored and disrespected as I am on a regular basis by the District. At least on the job a co-worker would be held accountable for such disrespectful and unprofessional workplace behavior. Barring that I could always quit and get another job - I can't get another school district without moving.

As for quitting, I think that's what they want and expect me to do.

Becoming strident and uncivel does not get good results, but we weren't getting good results before so we have nothing to lose.

Becoming sarcastic and rude may not be smart, but it is human. We are not robots and these are often issues around our chiildren that strike raw emotions. I often see people cry during their Board testimony.

I've been going to Board meetings for over five years. I've been to a lot more of them than many of the Board members. I have seen the patterns repeat over and over again.

I'm not saying it is good practice for people to express their anger and frustration, I'm not saying that it is effective. I'm saying that it is understandable. I don't see why people should not express their feelings - including those feelings, such as anger and contempt, that are generally regarded as negative. People feel what they feel and they are entitled to express those feelings.

Roy Smith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Roy Smith said...

I'm not saying that people shouldn't express their feelings, including anger and frustration. I am saying that people who testify to the school board need to learn how to express that anger and frustration without turning their testimony into an attack on the dignity of the school board members and superintedent as human beings. In my view, that behavior is worse than useless, it is counterproductive. I personally find that sort of testimony frustrating, even though my goals may be very similar to the people making the testimony.

My wife and I consistently demand that our five year old daughter "use her words" to express frustration or anger instead of throwing temper tantrums and being disrespectful to others, whoever they are. It is a standard that she almost always meets, unless she is very tired. It seems reasonable to me that we should hold adults that testify at school board meetings to that same standard.