Board Community Engagement Failure
For all of their fancy talk about community engagement, the School Board has the worst community engagement of any department in the District.
Imagine a principal who conducted community engagement by holding two sessions a month, during which no more than 19 people could speak to the principal for no more than two minutes each. The principal would not respond to anything said, not at the session and not afterwards by phone, mail, email, or in person. People could, of course, send the principal email, but the principal wouldn't reply in 90% of the cases. Nor would the principal reply to 90% of voice mail messages. That's it. That's the entire community engagement effort from the principal. Would that be acceptable to anyone?
Could a program manager conduct community engagement like that? Of course not. Could the superintendent? One of them tried and was constantly hounded by the Board to expand and improve her community engagement. They should have removed the beam from their own eye first.
Long time activists will remember when the Board met in a building on Queen Anne and there were two public testimony periods at every board meeting, one, called "petitions and delegations", when people could speak on general topics, and a second one, "public testimony", when people could speak about agenda items. Chris Jackins typically got up to speak twice at every board meeting.
Then the Board decided to consolidate the two sessions. They said, at the time, that if they ran into wait lists that they would put it back to the way it was, but they never did.
Then the Board decided that they would order the speakers so that those speaking to agenda items could go first. At that time they managed the list so that one agenda item could not dominate the discussion and one side of the debate could not dominate the discussion. They retained the authority to limit the testimony on any single agenda item to six (or was it ten?) speakers - evenly divided between pro and con.
This Board has messed with the public testimony yet again. They have cut the speakers' time from three minutes to two. They have removed the list management. And the result is what we see tonight: of the 19 spots on the list, 18 of them will be talking about a single action item off a very long and full agenda. No one who wants to talk about anything else will be heard. Moreover, it appears that the bulk of the speakers will be talking on one side of the question. This is messed up.
With each change in the public testimony procedure the Board bemoaned the inefficiency of their community engagement and promised that they would work to fix it. No board has ever taken even the first step to fix their horrible community engagement.
The Board's public engagement is dreadful. They freely acknowledge it. Every candidate for school board says that the board needs to improve their communications. Every candidate for school board says that, if elected, they will work to improve communications. Only one has ever done it. Mary Bass introduced the idea of community meetings. A couple of other board members have sort of followed her example. Director Bass' meetings had presentations followed by discussion. The current board members don't do that. Have you been to many of these meetings? They're useless. And they are one board member at a time. Do they really expect people to go to seven different meetings over the course of a month to speak to the Board? That's not practical.
There was one community meeting that the Bass/Butler-Wall board tried to hold in which there would be a real discussion of issues, but they only had one of them and they never had another.
There are some real impediments to authentic community engagement with the Board. One is the Open Meetings Act which requires the Board to post an agenda at least 24 hours before any meeting attended by a quorum of Board members. Another impediment is the Board's profound lack of interest in hearing from the public.
We need a fix and we're not going to get one with if we continue the long history of inaction. The Board themselves will never take any real action on this. The solution is the same solution that the Board always uses: a community advisory committee. The Board should appoint a community advisory committee to address the gaping need for the Board to improve their community engagement. This will give all of the Board members cover for six months while the committee meets and devises a solution.