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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dysfunction: A Case Study

As we piece together the history of the recent proposal to revise the Transportation Standards, it reveals a story of deception, misinformation, abdication of responsibility, and, more than anything else, hypocrisy.

The Board will vote on Wednesday evening on a revised set of Transportation Standards for 2012-2013. We can't say what those revised standards will be exactly - they have yet to release the final version. They will undoubtedly vote to approve - they always do. But what will they approve? Even they don't know. This comes after the Board already adopted transportation standards for the coming school year. How did we get here? It's an ugly, ugly story.



Last year, in February, Seattle Public Schools adopted new Transportation standards that significantly changed the way yellow buses brought students to school. The new standards included very different transportation zones, discontinued transportation for some, widespread use of community stops, larger walk zones around schools and greater walking distances to bus stops. It would put some additional burdens on families but, on the other hand, promised bus rides of no more than 25 minutes and savings of about $4 million.

The Transportation Department, to their credit, did a lot of community outreach to inform people about the changes. This outreach included information on the District web site, community meetings, and kid mail. They accepted and incorporated a good deal of public input into their plan, but only at the detail level. The basic structure moved forward.

The new Transportation Plan was widely regarded as what had been long promised and necessary. While it did reduce or remove service for some folks, it appeared to be a comprehensively thought-out plan with fairness, efficiency, and significant cost savings. They got it in front of the public well ahead of the board vote. This was the best job the Transportation Department had ever done before on a revision of the transportation standards.

So what went wrong?

The trouble began to appear in December when the Board Operations Committee first gets word that the new transportation plan would only save half of the money that they claimed it would save. On one hand, you might think that it isn't so bad to have saved only two million dollars. On the other hand, the District, in anticipation of greater savings, spent the money. Now, as luck would have it, revenues outpaced expectations so there was no dire cash shortage as a result of the difference between the actual and pro forma spending. But, just the same, what the heck happened?

A variety of explanations have been offered. Special program costs, increased enrollment, buses can't make enough stops to pick up enough kids, blah, blah, blah. In the final analysis, the real discovery was the inability to make a final analysis. The Transportation Department doesn't have the tools or expertise to accurately predict costs.

The Operations Committee discusses transportation again in January, as the District work progresses on the bus contract. No mention is made of changing the transportation standards is pursuit of savings. Things hadn't really heated up on this issue by January when the Board was focused on the details of the RFP. Here is the relevant paragraph from the Operations Committee January 24, 2012 meeting minutes:
Bus Contract Award: The timeline for introduction/action of this item is being moved to February 15/March 7. Negotiations are still in progress, so there as no information about vendors and dollar amounts. Items included in the RFP focused on improving safety: 3-camera video systems on all buses and shorter routes. The district requirement was to have 15% of the bus fleet using propane for alternative fuels; this conservative number was selected because the technology is not 100% developed. Board members expressed interest in the goal of reducing the number of buses, looking forward to two years from now with full implementation of the new student assignment plan and increased number of students walking to school. They also suggested that for the next contract there be an incentive built in to encourage on-time service and decrease no-shows as a means to encourage desired performance. The committee moved this forward for introduction February 15th.
As you can see, there isn't a lot of urgency around savings nor is there any mention of changing the Transportation standards. This meeting was on January 24, 2012. Let's remember that the Transportation Service Standards for 2012-2013 were introduced at the January 4 Board meeting. The minutes don't reflect any interest in changing them to seek savings. They were unanimously adopted just a week after this committee meeting on February 1. Again, there is nothing in the minutes of this meeting that indicate any interest in changing the standards to reap savings. The Board introduces the Bus Contract at their March 7 meeting and unanimously approves it at their meeting on March 21 (emphasis added):
Transportation, Bus Contract Award – (Operations) Approval of this item will authorize the Superintendent to execute a contract with First Student for school bus transportation, for the school years 2012-2015, with renewal options for two additional years. Director Smith-Blum made the motion to approve this item and Director Patu seconded. Directors asked whether SPS is exempt from state tax and also the difference in the total contract cost from last year. Bob Westgard provided information on the 3% savings, noting that it is a per bus amount, but also noted that there is an additional 5% reserve and additional buses that were not in the previous year’s contract. Directors thanked Mr. Westgard for the work done to achieve savings on this contract. Mr. Westgard noted that the contract contains language that sets a cost cap. This motion passed unanimously.
So as far as the public knew, transportation for 2012-2013 was settled. The standards were set in February and bus contract was set in March. There was no reason for anyone to think that this wasn't completely settled. The Board and the District made it clear that Transportation Service Standards had to be set before the close of Open Enrollment. They were set and Open Enrollment was closed, so this was a settled matter. The story should end here. The public story did.

But apparently this question was not as settled as it appeared. Things were happening behind the scenes. When the Board Operations Committee - now a Committee of the Whole - discussed transportation on February 16 they asked the staff to find $5 million in savings in transportation costs. This meeting came two weeks after the Board had unanimously adopted the Transportation Standards for 2012-2013. I'm not sure where they thought this kind of savings - about a 20% discount from the transportation contract - was going to come from.

From the February 16 Operations Committee meeting minutes (emphasis added):
Transportation update: Ms. McEvoy noted that Bob Boesche has agreed to chair the Transportation Task Force. Board members expressed the desire to reduce this year’s transportation expenses by $5 million; staff noted it would be hard to meet that cut for FY 2013 but probably for FY 2014. Questions around the budget reduction would include the impact on the community, acceleration of the student assignment plan and end to grandfathering ahead of 2014, and making very public how the district will be doing business differently. Board members asked that staff talk with Tacoma and other districts whose cost structure is a quarter of what Seattle’s is and build the public case.
The Operations Committee talked about Transportation again in March, but not in a big way and without touching on any budget questions:
Transportation procedure update: Tom Bishop reported that the modifications to the procedure are just to bring special needs transportation procedures into the regular education transportation standards. The district is also trying to pare down the additional practices Seattle has been doing with transportation to bring current practices more in line with other districts. The Transportation Task Force being formed will continue this work, and this will come back to the committee in June. In response to questions, Tom said that the walking/biking timeline is for 2013 and will be part of this procedure.
It isn't until the April 26 meeting of the Operations Committee that changes in the Transportation Service Standards are brought back to the Board (minutes not yet available). They see the Board Action Report (dated April 25) for the changes in the transportation standards, approve it, and recommend it for addition to the agenda for the Board legislative meeting.

From the Board Action Report:
This motion at the April 26, 2012, Operations Committee of the Whole meeting, after the Audit & Finance Committee reviewed and approved the approach to reducing transportation costs for the 2012 – 2013 school year. This item was recommended to be reviewed by the full Board.
The public sees the motion for the first time at the Board meeting on May 2 and that's when all hell breaks loose. Since then, the Board has backpaddled like a kayaker going over a waterfall - with comparable success.

By telling the public story to the end and then telling the private story I've jumbled the order of this a bit. So let me put this back into chronological order with some context.

It is significant to note that if there had been no Board interference, the proposed changes presented at the May 2 Board meeting would never have appeared. It is one thing to say that the budget is a policy document and to encourage board involvement in the development of the budget. It is something else for the Board to arbitrarily direct the staff to find a 20% discount in Transportation on February 16, over two weeks after the Board unanimously adopted the Transportation Service Standards. The service standards are the policy portion. The time to look for savings was back in October or November when the service standards were being developed, not two weeks after they were adopted. Also, if the Board thought that the savings could be found in the contract (rather than the service standards), then why did they unanimously approve it just weeks after the call for 20% savings? And if they were not satisfied with the 3% savings that were negotiated into the contract, why did they congratulate the staff for those savings?

The Board was telling the public one story, that the transportation decisions were settled and that we got a great contract with a much appreciated 3% savings, while they were telling the Transportation Department an opposite story: make changes in the standards and the contract and find a 20% savings.

I think that could be some honest disagreement on whether or not this task assigned to the Transportation Department represents micromanagement by the Board or not. I think it does. Take a look at Board Procedure 1620BP. It tries to put a lot of constraints on requesting work from staff. It also says:
"Directors shall use the work session process to provide guidance to staff to help shape staff recommendations." That's where these changes should have been proposed. As luck would have it, there had been a Board Oversight meeting regarding transportation on February 8. There isn't anything there that indicates any call from the Board for the Transportation Department to go back and revise the service standards for 2012-2013. Those service standards had been unanimously approved by the Board just a week before.

So here are the facts as we know them: despite the fact that every public indicator was that transportation questions were completely settled and settled with the Board's approval and to the Board's liking, some members of the Board - acting in the Operations Committee of the Whole rather than during the work session when they should have, and acting on February 16, long after this sort of work should have been done - directed the staff to find huge reduction in transportation costs. While the staff were working on that request, the Board unanimously approved the bus contract with compliments for the staff's work to secure 3% savings. The staff completes the work request and their efforts first saw the light of day as a motion before the Board that was presented at the Operations Committee on April 26. The staff didn't present the work as a report, but as a motion before the Board. Then, less than a week later, on May 2, this motion is introduced at the Board legislative meeting.

Please refer back to the February 16 Operations Committee meeting minutes in which the staff work was requested. I'll repeat it here with different emphasis added:
Transportation update: Ms. McEvoy noted that Bob Boesche has agreed to chair the Transportation Task Force. Board members expressed the desire to reduce this year’s transportation expenses by $5 million; staff noted it would be hard to meet that cut for FY 2013 but probably for FY 2014. Questions around the budget reduction would include the impact on the community, acceleration of the student assignment plan and end to grandfathering ahead of 2014, and making very public how the district will be doing business differently. Board members asked that staff talk with Tacoma and other districts whose cost structure is a quarter of what Seattle’s is and build the public case.
I can't help noticing that the Board asked the staff to engage the public. I can't help noticing that the staff completely skipped any public engagement. I can't help noticing that the Board was totally cool with that.

This was a typical fiasco for Seattle Public Schools. It was typical in all of the most classic ways:

  1. Leadership from the superintendent was completely absent.
  2. In the absence of management from the superintendent, the Board tried to provide it.
  3. The Board stepped over the line and managed micromanaged the staff
  4. The Board members who micromanaged the staff were the ones who shriek the most about Board micromanagement of staff. They actually did it as they were shrieking.
  5. The public story was in direct opposition to the private story.
  6. When you suggest changes the District tells you that things are set and cannot be changed.
  7. When the District wants to change things after they are set, it is no problem.
  8. When you suggest changes the District tells you that change takes a long time.
  9. When the District wants to make changes they can make changes quickly.
  10. There is insincere talk about public engagement.
  11. There is no actual public engagement.
  12. The staff and the Board are both perfectly comfortable with the total absence of community engagement, even on matters when they say that that engagement is critical.
  13. The resulting decision, which came through a dysfunctional process executed by dysfunctional personnel, was stupid and tone deaf.
  14. The decision was reversed without any transparent process just as the decision had been made without any transparent process.
  15. The solution to a failure of community engagement is an even greater failure of community engagement.
  16. The District reneges on the promise offered to students and families (a maximum 25-minute bus ride) in mitigation of the harm done to them (longer walks to school and to bus stops).
And we're supposed to just let it go because, after all, all's well that end's well and the District didn't actually move forward with the plan, did they? It's no problem that they were going to do horrible things, that they had every intention of doing them, or that they took the first steps to do them as long as they don't actually do them, right?

19 comments:

Melissa Westbrook said...

Ditto, amen and yes.

I hope Superintendent Banda is reading this.

I wonder what the Moderate Parents would think of this micromanaging. The Times? Crosscut?

Is this any way to manage a district?

mirmac1 said...

Although I was not present at the Feb 8 Transportation Oversight Work Session, it is my understanding that it was at this meeting when the sh*t hit the fan. The question is whom among the uber managers on the board shouted off with his head (and then within weeks Mr. Bishop is gone). I would venture it was not our two new board members.

As the budget discussion began, Pegi McEvoy noted that the service standards, emphasis on students walking to school, and budget controls created some efficiencies this year. Bob Westgard stated that the district had not met the $4 million reduction in costs that was projected, but met 50% of that when implementing last year’s student assignment plan stages. A reserve was set aside last year for transportation overruns that will help with this year’s costs. He stated that his goal is to get the transportation system in lockstep with the student assignment plan and the Special Education system to realize the transportation savings.

 Special education transportation costs counting toward maintenance of effort, the cost and requirements for district staff to be on Special Education buses, and the need for up to seven individuals that are routing fulltime, primarily for special needs.
 The percentages of seats that are filled in buses and getting them as full as possible (airline model); this may involve district policy changes. It was noted that the district is at the median, but parents are still choosing to drive kids to schools while not giving up their seats on buses.

Board members were appreciative of the transparency in the report and the thorough examination of the system. In order to move away from a $2 million cost overrun to a more efficient system, they asked for policy and procedure suggestions to trim Special Education from a 20% increase to a 20% decrease and the possibility of mid-year corrections.


Charlie, my only beef is that you let the Audit & Finance Committee off the hook. The Boesche task force dutifully trotted out some vague but not insignificant $$s on April 12, that were welcomed by th' gov'nuhs. This precedes the April 26 Ops Comm of the Whole.

Jon said...

Detailed report, Charlie, and disturbing.

Can you elaborate on who on the Board specifically was responsible for this? Was it the entire Board? Some subset of the Board? Was it primarily one person, such as Sherry Carr (head of the Operations Committee) or someone else?

Patrick said...

When you suggest changes the District tells you that change takes a long time.
When the District wants to make changes they can make changes quickly.


In fairness to the District staff, it appears a more accurate interpretation of these points is:

Good changes take a long time. If forced, the District can make changes more quickly, but they will be poorly thought out, have unintended side effects, and the District will probably have to backtrack before they are implemented.

word said...

I strongly agree with Patrick -

I think most of us parents are fed up with the year by year, month by month, capricious yet dramatic changes in transportation, curriculum and testing.

I would give anything to see the district follow the adage:
"When in doubt - DO NOTHING!"

It is amazing how well this philosophy can work in administrative situations. I think the parents, students and teachers in the district would like some stability and breathing room and no ugly surprises for at least a year.

I hope that Jose Banda becomes the "do nothing" superintendent - and I mean that in the best possible way - at least for a while.

Anonymous said...

I hope Jose Banda cleans house and then hires some department heads who know how to manage people, analyze data, communicate, execute, and have some common sense. That would be mind-blowingly refreshing.

SPS Mom of 2

Charlie Mas said...

Here are some things that took or are taking a ridiculously long time compared to things that the District can do immediately.

Granting students high school credit they earned for high school classes taken in middle school. Even after the state passed a law requiring this, it took activism by me to make this happen. It took two years of constant activism and they wanted it to take a third year, but they forgot that policies are effective immediately upon adoption.

Moving start times for high schools to an hour later. They say that this would take a whole lot of planning and coordination and that they have supposedly been working on it for two years already. Magically, however, they can move the start times for high schools to an hour earlier with the stroke of a pen.

Moving The Center School, South Lake High School, and the NOVA Project to the WSS so they would get all of the budget they deserve couldn't be done last year for no better reason than "These things take time, but we'll do it next year. We're aware of the situation and we will fix it." Then they couldn't be done this year for exactly the same reason: "These things take time, but we'll do it next year. We're aware of the situation and we will fix it."

When the idea came from the public to move north-end elementary APP into the McDonald building, the District claimed that they couldn't re-open the McDonald building. Then they voted a few months later to re-open it.

They couldn't change the plan to build Denny on the Sealth campus because it was such a long developing (secret) plan. If it was so long planned, then why did they spend millions to build brand new softball field and tennis courts on that land just before having to demolish them for the Denny construction?

Charlie Mas said...

I did let the Audit and Finance Committee off the hook in this re-telling of the trainwreck. I did it because they didn't make any mention of any of it in their meeting minutes. In fact, their meeting minutes don't mention transportation at all. The only evidence of any involvement by the Audit and Finance Committee in this SNAFU was a mention in the Board Action Report that A & F had approved of this method of closing the budget gap.

Also, I did not say who on the Board directed the staff to re-work the transportation standards after they had been approved and while the bus contract was being negotiated. I didn't say because the minutes don't say and I wasn't there. I don't believe there is any record of the Operations Committee meeting other than the minutes. I don't think they make an audio recording of those meetings.

There can be no doubt, however, that Director Martin-Morris is the chair of that committee and that, as the chair, he should have kept the committee from straying across the line into management by directing the staff to look for those kinds of savings. He should also have kept the committee from suggesting changes to the transportation service standards after they had just been approved and after the close of Open Enrollment. Moreover, as the chair, he should have taken the lead on assuring the inclusion of the community engagement that, according to the committee meeting minutes, were supposed to have been built into the proposal.

So no matter what role Director Carr or Director DeBell played - and I'm certain that they did play a role - I can only say how Director Martin-Morris individually failed in his duty.

Charlie Mas said...

Oh! I just thought of a couple more:

When you want a policy reviewed they tell you that they have a calendar and that they are working through all of them as part of a process.

When they want a policy revised it is jumped to the front of the line and even jumps the policy review timeline entirely. For example, 1620BP. That was not part of the Policy Review initiative at all.

When you need some money spent on students - to save a librarian or something - there just isn't any money for that. When they want something, there's never any question about where the money will come from, it just magically appears.

mirmac1 said...

Charlie, I was at the April 12th meeting, but the minutes aren't posted yet. On March 28th, Duggan Harmon and Bob Boesche told the board at the Budget Work Session , that no savings were expected until 2013. Some boards members (the usual suspects) were quite irate: "We told you we wanted some now, so why aren't you delivering? Go back to the drawing board!" Their report back was on April 12, BEFORE the Ops Comm of the Whole.

You see cutting SpEd and cutting Transpo were the final pieces to the budget "gap" puzzle. The Feds took back their permission to cut SpEd , so the Board had their sights set on those big transpo savings.

word said...

Charlie is right - when I asked for the district to "do nothing" for a while - it leaves the door open for them to freeze up on granting appropriations for things that directly benefit students and teachers.

Furthermore, I think the first most critical thing to do is begin the revision of math curriculum from the bottom up (meaning K-high school).

Given that we are unique in having such dedicated watchdogs and invested parents perhaps the better direction is for transparency - so we can catch the especially baroque decisions such as this recent transportation fiasco and the closing of schools in areas with clear demographic increases in students.

Someone said...

Somehow this whole thing is beginning to remind me of the Abbott & Costello "who's on first" sketch - ultimately what's clear is that there is a large "leadership" vacuum here - and different people keep stepping into its whirlpool over and over again. But no one comes out with a logical solution - just more flotsam and jetsam and around and around it goes again. sigh....

mirmac1 said...

Someone, there is only ONE person to lay that on, DeBell/Carr/LEV/Times' darlin' Enfield, who has left the building with a nice severance for doing diddly the last few months.

The Jekyll/Hyde President of the School Board has taken upon himself the mantle of rule by fear and intimidation. I don't mind that some staff have borne his wrath. (Becky Clifford finally gets pay back for the pain she has caused countless families in special education.)

He'll have to play nice with Mr. Banda or continue to be on the losing side.

Someone said...

@mirmac1 -I suppose that's true re: Dr. Enfield to a certain extent - but it's deeper than her and of a longer vintage. I think I'm starting to feel sorry for Mr. Banda on some level - there are so many Machiavellian undercurrents going on here that this whole transporation mess is not terribly surprising, when you come right down to it.

Charlie's right - if someone of influence wants something - it'll happen - damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

mirmac1 said...

Someone, whisper in my ear, who else is plying the Machiavellian undercurrents? Most everybody is gone. I don't see Harmon blazing trails. For once Ferguson hasn't stepped in it. McEvoy is just a foil. Westgard's trying to keep his head down (but deigns to offer up misleading comments).

It would seem the absent interim, and the "anti-micromanagers" on our board are the ones guilty in this latest bimbo eruption.

Anonymous said...

So was it DeBell, Carr, and Martin-Morris who asked staff to rework the plan after the budget was approved an open enrollment ended? Where was Enfield during all this? What did the other Board members say or do about this?

-wants to find the REAL micromanagers

mirmac1 said...

The real micromanagers have three strikes against them; they wanted to just hand a contract to Enfield because of her obviously wonderful management skills and sincere personality; they launched a media and email blitz for 1620BP to "attract" quality candidates; and then they proceeded to cock things up with their laundry lists of demands. More international schools, using programs as patronage, plans to built a downtown school where nobody lives instead of fixing schools in existing communities, deciding for us we need 650-kid schools, demanding cuts in SpEd and transpo. pushing a Creative Approach Schools MOU as gamesmanship, clinging to their TFA. Diverting $$$ to VAM. Making school about grading teachers and giving principals bonuses.

Where these they *!^%$#^ priorities at the Board retreat? REALLY?! Is this the way they "focus on the classroom".

mirmac1 said...

Sorry, that should be:

"Were these their *!^%$#^ priorities... "

mirmac1 said...

Well of COURSE the U.S. Chamber of Commerce presents this case study of SPS dysfunction. Did you know that Alliance for Education employees are actually employed by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce?

"Special interests, including the Washington Education
Association and private donors, also play an active
role in Seattle elections. Because there is no campaign
contribution limit, they can exercise significant power.
School board members are unpaid, but most devote
considerable time to their duties. This creates a dynamic
in which people attracted to serve on the board are, in
the words of one civic leader, “incredibly altruistic or
advocates for a single issue.”

To foster a more cohesive and effective board, Seattle’s
Alliance for Education, a largely privately funded local
education fund, has invested in board retreats and
training in partnership with governance experts, including
the Center for the Reform of School Systems."

Well, look who's the culprit and who's the white hat.