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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Board's Community Engagement

There is no school and no department in Seattle Public Schools that has worse community engagement than the School Board.

Their primary community engagement is the public testimony at the school board meetings and it is a near total failure as community engagement. Can you imagine a principal who conducted their community engagement in this way? Can you imagine a principal who held a community engagement event twice a month where no more than twenty people were allowed to speak for no more than two minutes each? The principal then did not respond to anyone who spoke - not at the event, not after it, not at all. Would that be acceptable community engagement for anyone?

Want to hear something ironic? If someone uses their two minutes of public testimony to speak to the Board about enrollment, or advanced learning, or school lunches, they will get a response. If the person responsible for that department is at the meeting they will come up to the person who made the testimony and talk to them. If you testify about policy or governance, however, no one from the board will seek you out to talk about it. In other words, if you talk to the Board about something that is not their job, you will get a response, but if you talk to the Board about something that is their job, you won't.



Perhaps you're thinking that the Board directors' community meetings are their community engagement. That's not very good. First, if you look at the Board Action Reports you will see that the only community engagement for the bulk of motions before the Board comes during the period between introduction and action. Unless the the board directors are having community meetings every two weeks then they are not having them between introduction and action. So they don't schedule any community engagement during the community engagement period? That's not good. Also, you have to wonder if it is reasonable to expect people to attend seven different community meetings all around the city to speak to the board. Really? Is that what people have to do?

Perhaps you're thinking that email is the board's primary community engagement. If so, then it suffers from the same problem as public testimony - plenty of community but no engagement. The Board directors typically don't respond to their email. Anyone who sends them email knows this.

Everyone - including everyone on the Board - knows that the Board's community engagement is dreadful. Candidates for the Board keep saying that, if elected, they will improve the Board's woefully inadequate community engagement. They keep getting elected, and the Board's community engagement keeps getting worse. Public testimony has been reduced from twice at every board meeting to once and from three minutes per speaker to two. That is an indisputable and objectively measurable worsening.

So what can they do? There's a lot of things they do. They can respond to testimony. They can respond to email. They can schedule time for community engagement. They could do these things and any number of other things, but they don't. I think we need to start asking the Board what they are doing about their community engagement and how they intend to improve it.

They can respond to testimony. You can look all through the Board's bylaws and policies and you will not find any rule that precludes a Board Director from speaking with a member of the audience during a Board meeting. So, imagine for a moment, that Citizen Jackins raises an issue in public testimony about some action item on the Board's agenda. During the discussion of the action item a Board director asks the staff person speaking to the item about Mr. Jackins' concern. The staff person gives an answer. We have all seen this happen. What if the Board Director then asked Mr. Jackins if the staff person addressed his concern to his satisfaction? How would that be anything but good?

Of course, the Board could also direct a member of their staff - they have two staff people - to respond to testimony that addressed policy and governance matters in much the same way that Dr. Libros would respond to people who gave testimony about enrollment matters. How hard would that be?

They could also have a staff person respond to email addressed to the Board. You know, if it mattered to them. These responses would not have to be unique. There could be a standard message that is sent in response to concern about each topic.

Ideally, the Board would not have seven different community meetings but one attended by a quorum. Yes, they would have to publish an agenda, but all it would have to say is "discussion of matters of concern to the community". So long as they didn't take any votes it would be fine. Ideally this meeting would be between every board meeting so it came during the period between introduction and action for motions before the Board. The meeting could feature actually conversation, with back and forth and authentic engagement, instead of just alternating monologues.

These are just my ideas. The Board Directors are bright, dedicated people. I'm sure that they could think of other effective means of authentic community engagement. They should.

1 comment:

Melissa Westbrook said...

Charlie, there was a bit of discussion around this issue at the Board retreat. I think it is a dilemma for all. However, they are elected officials and they do have a responsibility to listen to the public.

I just wish they would schedule their community meetings in rotation so that EVERY Saturday there is at least one community meeting.