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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Glass Half Full

At the Budget Planning Work Session today the Board, led by Director DeBell, demanded better data - and more honest data - from the staff. I will let Melissa tell that story. She was there for the meeting, as were Dorothy, Jonathan Knapp, Chris Jackins and some others. I stopped by briefly to see the handouts and to get a sense of the tone. The tone was tense.

During a break, we had a quick conversation about feeling positive about the Board starting to demand this sort of data and feeling frustrated that they haven't asked for it for the past three years.

On one hand, these folks have come a long way from the blind trust they showed at first. It takes time for Board members to wake up to the idea that the staff is trying to control them and might not share their priorities.

On the other hand, this is the Board job and they should have been doing it from the first. More than that, all we have so far is talk. I'll believe more strongly in their conversion when I see them take some action in support of their new awareness.

15 comments:

Zebra (or Zulu) said...

Charlie:

Do you know that feeling you get on a road trip while traveling unfamiliar highways and suddenly you realize that you made a wrong turn twenty miles back? Now imagine you're a passenger in that vehicle and you have to be somewhere by noon. The driver told you they knew where they were going, but you, the passenger, kept saying, "We better look at a map."

This is what the Board is doing now. We are on the wrong road, we need to turn around, but it's too late...we are going to be late for our rendezvous.

Sure, we'll get to our destination eventually, but the students we dragged down this wrong road are behind everyone else that made the appointment on time.

Solution? Charlie...you drive! I pledge $150 if you run for the Board.

anonymous said...

Interesting Charlie. As much as I thought I wanted to oust 4 of the 7 Directors, I am beginning to wonder if starting all over again with newbies would be any better? I wonder if experience is worth something? I see a couple of the directors that I loathed for years, coming around. Should they get another chance?

Then again I watched Kay Smith Blum take her seat on the board, roll up her sleeves, do her research, get her own intern, and challenge staff and their data - on day 1.

Dorothy Neville said...

Perhaps I just think of it a little like parenting. When your twelve year old finally learns to use a hankie and not his sleeve, is it better for your relationship to say acknowledge the change or to point out to him yet again that other kids learned that at age five? Which tactic is more likely to get him to remember to load the dishwasher and hang up his towel?

This article wasn't in the top emailed list for months for nothing.

Sahila said...

my take on what Dorothy is saying is that the Board members ought to be grownups when they put themselves forward for the job... we should not have to be raising them...with our kids paying the price for their mistakes...

and we, as an electorate, need to be more picky about who we put there at that table...

Melissa Westbrook said...

I will do a write up on the Work Session as the lines are clearly drawn and the Board will have to make the decision to (1) stick with what they say is important and (2) not be bullied by timelines. If staff doesn't give them the information they need to make the decision, then the Board will make decisions THEY favor. Staff needs to justify their recs AND provide comprehensive data to the Board.

This is a huge and lasting decision being made here.

On the issue of retaining current Board members. First, do it person by person. Do NOT reelect someone simply because he/she is the incumbent. Second, ask them what they have learned in their time in office. Three, when election time comes around, please ask many, many questions of those running and make sure they know this district. Do NOT elect someone with "a good background in whatever". We need people who know the district and can hit the ground running (or at least keep up somewhat). If someone needs 2 years just to get up to speed on who is who and the history of this district, don't elect them. We need people who know our district. There is definitely a learning curve to being a Board member but no one should get a free pass for years as they work towards competency on the Board.

anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg said...

Charlie wrote, "We had a quick conversation about feeling positive about the Board starting to demand this sort of data and feeling frustrated that they haven't asked for it for the past three years."

Charlie and Melissa, I just want to thank you again for taking the time to go to these and pressure the board to improve accountability. I (and I am sure many others in Seattle) appreciate what you are doing.

anonymous said...

Personally, I don't think Sundquist or Harium can do anything to redeem themselves at this point. I think they are lost causes, and I truly hope they have strong and promising opponents in the upcoming election.

Meier I'm torn on. A few months ago he would have been on my absolutely do not re-elect list, but he seems to be coming around. Not sure if it's genuine? It could be a ploy to get re-elected? But maybe, just maybe, after years of getting BS'd by staff he's had enough. He's a smart guy, and he may just be on to them now. That could be a good thing.

I lean toward giving Carr another chance. She does seems to have the right intentions, and she asks the right questions. She also hears what her constituents have to say and attempts to represent them. She has a problem following through though, and that has been a serious issue. I will probably vote for her again, unless she has a very strong opponent. I think the experience she gained in her first term will make her stronger and wiser in her second term.

I'm not always the best judge though. I didn't vote for Kay. I didn't like her one bit. Thought she was arrogant, didn't know enough about the district, and wouldn't have the time to devote to the position due to her Butch Blum commitments. Boy was I wrong. I think she (and DeBell) are our strongest representatives on the board right now.

Charlie Mas said...

This isn't a situation in which one perspective is right and the other is wrong. Both perspectives are right.

Yes, the Board Directors are starting to actually do their jobs and assume their responsibilities - or at least take some tentative steps in that direction. That's certainly true and good.

Yes, the Board Directors (for the most part) should have been doing this from the start, still aren't talking strongly enough, and haven't actually acted on any of their newly discovered vertebrae. That's certainly true and bad.

Board directors need two competencies: they need to know the District and they need to know how to serve on a Board. Some of them came to the job with the Board/leadership competency. Kay Smith-Blum is an excellent example of someone who brought that complete toolkit to the job on day one. None of them - none of them - came to the job with knowledge of the District. Betty Patu has knowledge of Rainier Beach High School and little more. Steve Sundquist did some of the work to bring IB to Sealth, Peter Maier worked on a capital levy election, Sherry Carr, Michael DeBell, and Harium Martin-Morris were active in their school PTAs. None of them had any knowlege of the District beyond their narrow patch.

All of them, except for Kay, came into the job more concerned about going along to get along and assilimating into the culture of the District than they were concerned about fulfilling the duties of their office.

I will never forget Steve Sundquist's talk before he voted for the Sealth/Denny co-location. He said "After just six months in this role I am not yet so cynical to believe that the staff is misinforming me." Well, Steve. After three years are you there now?

I guess it takes three years.

It was three years into his term that Michael DeBell clued in. That's when he stopped believing the most repeated lies.

After the same absurdist drama is played out three times the pattern emerges. Consider the annual revival of the "transportation show". The Transportation Department does a horrible job. The Board scolds them. The Transportation Department swears to do better in future, but insists that the Board is up against a deadline and has to approve the admittedly flawed plan immediately or there will be a disaster of biblical proportions. The Board passes it but insists that the Transportation Department bring a better plan next year and bring it sooner so there is time to consider it and fix it if necessary.

Then the same thing happens again next year, and the next year. I guess the Board members don't clue in to the repeating cycle of this annual performance until they have seen it three times. If they knew the District coming into the job they would know that this isn't the third annual performance but the thirteenth.

How many times do the staff have to be caught in lies before the Board members are skeptical about their statements - skeptical in the way that they should be from the start, not cynical as they become after five years.

I think that's the question to ask: Isn't it your job to be skeptical? and How skeptical are you?

Finally, what would we want the Board to do? Would we really want them to reject the transportation plan until it gets fixed? Would we really want them to risk the plagues that would be visited on the District if they were to delay passage? Would we want them to indicate to the superintendent their extreme displeasure with the transportation staff and to essentially direct her to fire them?

What do we want? What is the right path for the Board to follow?

Kathy said...

SPS adminstrative costs are the highest in the state. Legislators are unwilling to provide additional funding for this reason.

Our board will have to provde the state with a good explanation- they don't have a good answer.

While our directors demanded transparency for HQ spending- Don Kennedy pushed back. He stated numbers will not be ready by next budget meeting.

The districted recommended reducing HQ spending $4M- $4.5M, while reducing WSS $5.2M - $6.8M.

Martin- Morris wanted to note- classrooms are now being funded first. He didn't mention the district recommends removing the proposed WSS restoration and then some.

The question becomes- Will the district provide these numbers in an understandable manner?

I doubt it.

Charlie Mas said...

It appears to me that both Steve Sundquist and Harium Martin-Morris are beyond redemption.

For Harium, the proof lies in his statements at the time of the Annual Approval of Schools and the CSIPs. He said, at that time, that the Board should take the statement of the Chief Academic Officer as gospel and never question it - even when they knew that she was making a false statement. That revealed a fundamental refusal to fulfill the Board purpose. He is, like Cheryl Chow before him, philosophically unsuitable for the assignment. He simply doesn't believe in it.

Steve Sundquist is also beyond redemption, but for a slightly different reason. He, too, lacks a principled belief in the Board role. Mr. Sundquist is a sophist. He uses rhetoric to abdicate his responsibility. Examples abound. He said that his vote on the high school math texts was made without any regard to the texts themselves. He said that he was only voting to affirm that the process met the legal requirements. Similarly, with the annual approval of schools, he narrowed the role of the Board and the vote. He shaved it down until it was completely without meaning. He positioned the Board vote so that it, too, was only an approval of a process. These efforts, and others, to undermine and diminish the Board authority make him unsuitable for the role.

Over the past three years I have spoken more harshly and more abusively about Director Maier than any other. Yet now Director Maier who is part of the party (DeBell, Carr, Smith-Blum, and Maier) who are tired of being lied to and are demanding more and better from the superintendent. If he ever actually acts and votes along those lines, if it isn't just election-year posturing, he is going to make me regret some of the things I have written about him.

Director Carr, I have written, is my greatest disappointment. But she too, like Director Maier, is finding her voice, her dignity, and her authority. I think it was the audit that really activated her. I think she feels betrayed by the staff and the audits were the smoking gun evidence of their betrayal.

If these four, DeBell, Smith-Blum, Maier, and Carr ever actually vote in support of their dissatisfaction with the staff's work (the disinformation, misinformation and lies), they, along with Director Patu, will form an effective majority for change.

Sahila said...

Something I have had to learn late in my life.... its OK to say "no"... its OK for the board to say "no" to voting on anything until they have all the real data they need... its OK to stall the process until staff delivers real numbers, real justifications, real projections...

And its OK to say - I have to think about that - let me get back to you (if its good enough for the staff to do that to the board, its good enough for the board to do that to MGJ and the staff)...

In fact, that is part of their responsibility...

The sky wont fall and the earth wont stop spinning on its axis, nor will the futures of our children be ruined if the Board starts exercising its prerogative to say "no"...

In fact, the futures of our children and their academic achievement might actually be improved...

Bird said...

Sahila is right.

If there is one thing I want from the Board, it's this.

Don't vote for something just because the staff says we have to have the vote now or else. Take the else until you get the information and time to vote responsibly.

If you let the staff jerk you around once like this, they'll do it a hundred times. This price is far higher than anything they might threaten you with as an "else"

The staff has their own agenda, and, like anyone, if they find a effective means to get it past you, they will. Don't let denying the Board information and time be that effective means.

Jan said...

Amen, Sahila and Bird: along with demanding better and more honest data -- the Board needs to demand more timely data. The staff will lose the ability to use bad, skewed, or incomplete data to "get past" the Board, if they know that the Board will simply refuse to approve the staff's recommendations unless they show up with an entire package of credible data to back it up -- AND do so with enough time to allow the Board to deliberate, to get follow up questions answered, etc.

As for directors for the future, it would be GREAT if the only two we really had to focus on were Martin-Morris and Sundquist (I am in total agreement with Charlie's assessment of both of them -- the flaws are so fundamental that they go to the very heart of what a director is -- they cannot be fixed). But I am not willing to move on either Carr or Meier until what appear to be signs of progress result in an ability to effectively manage a stubborn Superintendent, and a rogue staff. If change is to happen, there will be a showdown (I am thinking it will be on the budget, but it could be any of a number of staff-manipulated things), because the staff has had its way, totally, with the board for too long for me to think they will stop just because DeBell and others made stern frowny faces, at a "tense" meeting, and told them to clean up their acts. I think the staff will try to test this (either because they are bold enough to do so, or because having never produced timely, honest, non-spun data, they simply won't be able to get their act together at first). The Board will have to give this teeth. They will have to be willing to say -- no, we refuse to vote to approve this, because [fill in the blank] the data is incomplete, the data is wrong, our questions have not been answered, the community engagement was weak/nonexistent/contrived, you have not convinced us of the merits of the proposal, or justified its cost, we have not had an opportunity to think through the implications of what you are asking (i.e., the data is late), etc. And -- when it happens, they will have to be willing (out of the public eye -- i.e., NOT at the meeting -- to tell MGJ that they hold her accountable for the failure, and that they will not tolerate it happening a second time.

And then -- we may find out whether MGJ is willing to supervise this District the way the Board and Seattle parents and taxpayers want it run, or whether she is ONLY interested in running it if she can run it to suit herself.

Jan said...

Ah -- one last thing. Another point where a showdown could (and should) come is the issue of waivers. Talking to two Garfield kids last night, they related to me how dispirited and frustrated they are over what they see as the all but certain demise of Marine Science. For hundreds of Garfield students (ALL of whom have access to the class -- which is NOT the case with jazz band, orchestra, sports teams, etc.), it has been the single, best thing about Garfield -- the class that made them work hardest that that, above all others, they truly loved. They do not believe there will be a waiver process at all. And if there is one, they think the District will rig it for failure. They have every good reason for thinking this way, because nothing I have seen so far indicates that the staff has any intention of coming up with a reasonable, good faith waiver process, if they can avoid it (i.e., if the Board will let them out of it -- or if they can get a bad process past the Board). Will they? If they do not get a reasonable staff proposal, within a reasonable time, will the Board be willing to tell the Superintendent that she must delay any further "alignment" until such a process is in place? They certainly could, and they should. There is nothing sacrosanct or holy about the alignment process. In fact, with respect to science, the Board could specifically say that they are not willing to approve a process without hearing from the Ballard BioTech teachers, and the Garfield Marine Science teachers (and others with imperiled highly successful courses-- if there are any) that they have reviewed the proposed process and that it will work for them (in terms of getting the waivers). (Actually, those teachers should have been part of the process of coming up with the waiver process, not merely reviewing it, but I cannot fathom the staff going so far as to actually consult with the hoi polloi who actually teach in the schools).