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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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.

7 comments:

Melissa Westbrook said...

And, they are trying to change the time of public testimony in ways that would either curtail who could come to a meeting OR you would be testifying AFTER agenda items were discussed and voted on.

Charlie is right about the Board complaining about community engagement. Virtually no one has done anything about it. I recall two Board ago, they created a plan to try to answer questions from the public.

What's weird is that we have massive numbers of staff at the meetings and yet they don't answer any of the public's questions, only Board questions.

I do disagree with Charlie about the community meetings (and again, a shout-out to Mary Bass for starting them). I go to hear what other parents and community members see as issues of the day. I often find that an issue crops up in multiple places but you wouldn't know that if you didn't go to the meetings.

For example, when I attended Director Carr's last meeting, a young couple with toddlers came to lodge a complaint about the boundary lines for JSIS. They said realtors had been saying that property values were better within the boundaries than outside of them.

At Director DeBell's meeting, I learned about the concerns some McClure parents had about a book that was being used which mirrors the concerns that Hamilton parents had over The Hunger Games.

You start to see patterns and make connections. But I'm a specialized case and I could see how, for most parents, it's a place to vent and/or express concerns.

Anonymous said...

I like that the board members have individual meetings on Saturdays. It's a good format for parents who are more comfortable approaching a board member one on one rather than having to speak out in front of a big group.

I've also found that Sherry Carr and Kay Smith-Blum have been quite responsive when I've sent emails to the board on various topics.

Jane

dan dempsey said...

Consider this:

FACT: The Board refuses to respond to important issues raised by the Public in letters and testimony and for good reason as it has NO ANSWERS to give the public.

(A) .. Board and Superintendent are in violation of WAC 181-79A-231 in TFA contract. Board cannot provide legal justification for repeatedly authorizing the superintendent to request conditional certs for TFA corps members.

(B) .. After the Board was done with making the last of the authorizations, Holly Ferguson sent a letter to Carol Simmons that confirmed the SPS had not followed the law. The Board never conducted a careful review of all options other than TFA for closing achievment gaps. The Board never conducted a careful review of all options to using "Conditional Certification" for TFA corps members. ((The obvious option is to use fully certificated teachers instead .... which is exactly what WAC 181-79A-231 expects))

(C) The Board has decided that members will not respond to the public on items that are in litigation. So what, directors rarely respond to the public on items that are not in litigation.

(D1) The court system is hardly much different than the Board on many issues. RCW 28A 600.020 requires a record that is certified correct to be submitted within 20 days of the filing of a legal appeal of a Board decision. Yet the Courts ignore that requirement.

(D2) The King County superior court found the State to be in violation of the constitution for inadequately funding education. The State appealed and the Supreme Court agreed that the constitution was being violated and did NOTHING about it.... but said it would watch carefully for the next 6 years. (Think if this was about lynching would a six-year transition period be acceptable?)

(E) So these two letters (1) and (2) have been received by all the Directors. DeBell, Martin-Morris, Carr, and KSB, but these four will likely vote to keep the SPS in the TFA contract that they illegally authorized and that they continued to support by authorizing the Superintendent to illegally claim that TFA "conditional certificates" were needed. This is an experiment all right. An experiment in continued violation of laws and disregard for the needs of the public and the State Constitution.

(F) When the Board behaves as badly and as often as it does, it will never reform the way it fails to communicate with the public. Increased communication would get in the way of Power Politics, which is how decisions are made.

(G) To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data .... and the Board as a body has had no interest in that.

Sherry Carr voted for: Discovery Math, the $800,000 New Tech Network contract twice, extending MGJ's contract, the TFA contract, and every authorization of the Superintendent to request TFA CMs conditional certificates. Look for the same four directors to keep right on going tonight with TFA. Not one of them has ever written to me about TFA. Not one of the has ever responded to my letters about TFA. Not one of them has ever responded to my TFA testimonies. These four simply prefer to violate WAC 181-79A-231 and keep right on the "Broadie Track" set in place by MGJ and the Seattle 1% ers.

These four should be recalled for multiple violations of oath of office. (The Court system ... WOW)
..... (continued below)

dan dempsey said...

=========
You may read WAC 181-79A-231
Action Report of September 21
and request eventually filed by Enfield in November (see page 4)

Someone said...

Hmm.. I'm not familiar enough with the history of the situation to comment on those aspects. But it's interesting that it's the "public" that seems to be getting the shaft here - isn't that the foundation of SPS - a "public" school system? Aren't the board members elected by the "public" and therefore serve at the pleasure of said "public"?

And yet, it's so clearly the LAST set of voices the Board and senior SPS staff want to hear from. A weird weird dichotomy for sure.

I like the idea of a more managed comment list - stacking the deck on 1 issue is counterproductive - guess it was just tooooo much work for some poor staffer?

The advisory committee idea has merit - but what's to make the Board listen to that group anymore than others?

John M said...

"the School Board has the worst community engagement of any department in the District". How was that determined or measured? I have no idea if you are right or not, but without any compelling evidence it sounds like a very hollow argument. How did you measure community engagement among/across the departments to conclude this so definitively? I assume you must have data for this?

Charlie Mas said...

Yes, John M., I have data for this.

The school board responds to only a tiny fraction of the emails sent to them. That's failure to engage.

The school board does not respond at all to the testimony presented to them at board meetings. That's failure to engage.

Again, imagine if you were only allowed to talk to your principal if you signed up in advance and were one of 19, and then only got two minutes to talk, and then got no response. Would you consider that meaningful engagement? That's the deal with the board.

If you write to anyone else in the district you will get an answer.

If you talk to anyone else in the district you will get an answer.