Wrap-Up of Board Retreat

 (This is a quite long wrap-up of the latest Board retreat held this past Saturday.  Not all will want to wade through it but I can say it allowed me to see how the Board is interacting and some issues within the group.  I believe that all seem to have high regard for Superintendent Banda.)

First, I have to say that this was a slightly odd Retreat as I had never been to this venue, The Hub Seattle, before.  The set-up had us sitting in a seating area - with couches and chairs - and I sat as if I were part of the group (normally the visitors sit on the perimeter so I did feel like I was eavesdropping).

As I said before, I was the only outside visitor to the Retreat (unless someone came after 2:30 pm when I left).

What seems difficult to understand is how the Board has given over (nearly all) control to the Alliance about what the retreats will cover.  I don't get it.  As I previously mentioned, Directors Peaslee, DeBell and McLaren all said they had not been contacted at all about input for the agenda.

(I was directly told that the Alliance was NOT creating the agenda when it is plain that they are.  I hope I don't hear that nonsense again.)

I did express my concern to both Superintendent Banda and legal counsel Ron English.  I think Mr. English clearly understands that if the Alliance continues being the only sponsor of the retreats AND giving input, either via the agenda or at the table, it is a problem.  To note, the Alliance person did not participate during the time I attended.

What I find weird is that every retreat it is this constant discussion (and activities) around leadership and roles of governance.  How many times can this go on?  If I had this volume of work before me - as either the Superintendent or Board member - I'd be tearing my hair out over these "exercises."

To whit, they did a "circle map" exercise where they divided into two groups, called out qualities they need to bring to the table as Directors and then find five "themes."  It was not that informative (and yes, they came up with a lot of the same things so clearly they mostly on the same page).  And, for long-time Board members, I think they were pretty bored.

Meanwhile, the Alliance person was very cozy with the Pivot person.  (The Pivot person is helping to develop the new Strategic Plan and is supposedly Superintendent Banda's "coach."  Why Banda needs a coach, I don't know.)

Director Carr made a funny remark about being a director - "You get $4800 and all the e-mails you can read."  During a break, I did tell President Smith-Blum and Directors McClaren and Patu that I had been following the Port Commission issues and that one Commissioner said they should be paid $40K a year.  (I believe the Port Commissioners get about $6K.)  I told them I wrote at any comment section I could find that if anyone were to be paid, it should be Board members of the five largest school districts in the state.  Want a larger/better pool of School Board candidates?  Offer something like $25k a year and you will get them.

Director Martin-Morris (who reminds me of Justice Thomas on the Supreme Court because they are both so taciturn) did speak up and say that his pet peeve was people thanking him for "volunteering" and that he perceived that Board members are second-tier elected officials.  I would agree and especially since running for School Board is actually more involved than running for Legislature (and more people vote for Board members than their own legislator).

Director DeBell said that it was an interesting role because the Board is judged as a board and while individually they get praise, as a whole they tend to get criticized.  Director Carr said that it didn't really seem to matter who was on the Board - they still get criticized.  Director DeBell said yes, if we had trust "people wouldn't be voted out."  I would assume he means Maier and Sundquist but they were not victims.  Their undoing was at their own hands.

I had a bit of a shock at one point as the facilitator, who I vaguely know from other meetings, asked me, as they were talking about influence and power, what mine was.  Now, of course, I should have demurred but I was so surprised I said that I really had something of a made-up role although I had not bosses and a tiny bully pulpit.

Then they had this discussion of leadership and types of leadership - authoritarian, coercive, affiliation, democratic, pacesetting, coaching.  They all said that Banda had a participatory style but all agreed that leadership style can be based on the situation (such as authoritarian when in a crisis).  Martin-Morris said MAP was Banda's authoritarian style.  DeBell said Banda tried to deescalate the situation in multiple ways but elevated up to support the policy.  Mr. English said in interview situations where Banda would ask staff their opinion, it was made clear that Banda valued their input but was in charge of the decision.

Then they talked about how the Board supports the Superintendent.  It is clear they all agree about a unified front and publicly supporting Banda even if they might have a private disagreement.  DeBell said the way they register their disagreement is not to speak out against the Superintendent but by their votes.  There was a minor tussle as Director Peaslee said it was difficult during the MAP boycott as the Board had taken no vote.  But DeBell pointed out that the Board HAD taken a vote, when they approved MAP, but when Peaslee wasn't on the Board.  (This is true; a new-constituted Board can't just disregard or throw out what the previous one did.)

Both Peaslee and Smith-Blum said they did believe further discussion around MAP would be important.  Smith-Blum said that she had told Banda that she had been receiving e-mail from Garfield about MAP issues for at least three years prior to the boycott.

Then they had a brief discussion of governance and management (which seems to be DeBell's passion).  He said that the Board had laid out their goals for the year (I don't recall these but I'll ask) and they "can't interrupt those goals with other issues."  Banda weighed in about being "mindful of everyone's time."

Interestingly, Bob Boesche, the CFO, chimed in.  He said that Banda had come into a system that did not have all its controls in order.  (I found this slightly amusing as MGJ was always talking about how she came into a system with no controls and fixed that.  Apparently not.)  Mr. Boesche went over all the complex situations that Superintendent Banda walked into when he took the job.  He asked for patience and understanding for the Superintendent and that nothing could happen overnight.

I agree.  While there is so much to get done and impatience over how little forward progress has been made in some areas, pushing too hard will not help. And outside pushing will really not help.

I did hear some good ideas about negotiating during that exercise.   
  • Interests, not positions.  
  • Options for mutual gains.  
  • Use objective criteria.  
  • Not just a plan B but what could be a best alternative.  
  • Hard on problems, not on people.
While the feedback from each group was interesting in how they handled it, I'm not sure what it accomplished at all.  (Plus we ran over the scheduled time and lunch wasn't started until about 12:45 pm and this comes into play later.  I thought I would have to gnaw my arm off and DeBell seemed hungry as well.)
Then something interesting happened.  President Smith-Blum went off-script and introduced a sheet about "unique opportunities in 2013/2014 - interactivity with Board goals and roles."  What she wanted to briefly address (and get input on) were the following:
  • CBA negotiations
  • BEX building cycle
  • Legislative agenda/current legislation
  • Refresh of Strategic Plan
Basically, the President of the School Board put something on the Board retreat agenda.  Imagine that.  But, the room got decidedly frosty.  The problem was three-fold.

One, this was not part of what the Alliance had put on the agenda.  Uh oh.  T

Two, senior staff started arriving for their part of the retreat which was to discuss strategic planning.  There was no room for them to sit with the group so they stood around listening.  (And let me just say that staff decided to stand around and listen to the discussion rather than go sit down over at the table.  It made it feel like they were all waiting when, in fact, it was the facilitator who had allowed the previous discussions to run long.)

Three, DeBell and Carr did not seem happy about this new agenda item. 

But President Smith-Blum had come up with valid questions about the Board and its role - past, present and future - on these issues.   I was very impressed with her thoughtful questions.

She said that she had understood that Steve Sundquist had been the only Board liaison for the most recent labor negotiations.  DeBell let her know she was wrong on that (and that two of them had to recuse themselves from the SEA negotiations.)   Smith-Blum went on to say that this round of negotiatons, DeBell was sitting in on PASS, Carr on SEA and Smith-Blum on 609. 

Director McLaren said that she was impressed with the list but felt they needed more time and that they didn't have it at this retreat.

DeBell said they already have a process in place for negotiations.  Smith-Blum said that it wasn't always clear and that some Board members needed more PD.  I noticed that the longer-term members of the Board seemed kind of bored/impatient with questions from newer members but really, it is to the benefit of all if all Board members understand processes for themselves. 

They then moved on to Smith-Blum's item about the BEX cycle.  DeBell seemed quite irritated at this point.  Smith-Blum was explaining issues around Special Education and art and how it seemed more important than ever to consider programs and classrooms.

DeBell claimed that the BEX Oversight Committee is their oversight and that they all can't know technical details.  I was quite surprised at this because one, the BEX Oversight Committee rarely issues any kind of report or statement to the Board so blandly saying they are the oversight is wrong and two, at the end of the day, it is the BOARD'S job to have the oversight.

Director Peaslee said she didn't know what to really look at with BEX contracts and finds herself counting on staff diligence but not knowing if she should go beyond that as a Board member.  Mr. English told her some items to look at in the contract. 

Director Carr said she asked the State Auditor and got good information (great but how would Peaslee or other new Board members know this if they weren't told?).  She also said that the BEX Oversight Committee is not responsible, "we are.". She said she was tired of seeing separate financials for general funds versus capital funds and wanted one set of fiscal controls for all especially so the internal auditor can do better spot checks.  Bravo.

Mr. English then said the classic staff response about lack of time in building schedules to allow for a lot of oversight and that once a contract is signed, then they can't ask the architect to redo the building.  (Ah, but at this point, right now and at the next Board meeting, the contracts are quite vague and bland so there is leeway here until you get the real plan for each building.)

Then we came to the uncomfortable section of the retreat (which I did not feel was necessary at all and I wonder why it happened especially in front of senior staff).

Smith-Blum moved onto the next item about legislative work.  Now Charlie noted in a commenton a previous thread how some Board members are on two committees and some are on one (DeBell, Martin-Morris and Carr).

Turns out that was by Smith-Blum's design.  She had assigned DeBell and Martin-Morris more legislative duties (and Martin-Morris seems happy as he gets to go to more national conventions) and felt it not fair to give those extra duties AND two committees.  She even had a chart with hours for each task to show how she had checked how much time each Board member would be putting in.

Martin-Morris seemed good on this legislative discussion.   He said that the work there was critical and they "must be at the table."

But then, for some reason, Director Carr chimed in to Smith-Blum that is was important to tell Board members about their committee assignments before assigning them other duties (if they want more committee assignments).

Smith-Blum said she had just been looking at the amount of time and that was her concern.

DeBell then felt it necessary, as all the senior staff looked on, to say that Carr was "absolutely right" and that Smith-Blum had not discussed it with him.  Smith-Blum said everyone but DeBell had gotten back to her and she had been pressed for time to make the decisions about placement.

It was a very awkward moment and not a great way to end the discussion.  Clearly DeBell didn't want to hear what Smith-Blum had to say (even though I thought what she was trying to offer was more clarity around what the Board would be doing for each item).  There really was no reason to be difficult and yet DeBell was decidedly so.  To end by seeming to pout over committee assignments - in public - rather than privately apprise her of his discomfort seemed unworthy of him.

They then moved to a big table with senior staff to discuss Strategic Planning.  I left at this point.

If this is what the Board does at retreats which is to have the Alliance set the agenda for endless discussions around what is a leader and what are effective leadership qualities, we will never get ahead in this district.  To know how to negotiate and effectively communicate is vital as a skill each Board member should possess but there are so many other pressing issues, it seems like a very big waste of time to keep doing this at nearly every retreat.

It is also clear that there is tension on the Board and that some are more than willing to bring it out.  The contrast to how carefully Peaslee asked about the agenda at the beginning of the Retreat (and making sure the facilitator knew she appreciated being able to have given input at previous retreats) with DeBell who seemed impatient and dismissive with Smith-Blum could not have been greater. 


Unknown said…
Thanks for the recap. Good for Director Smith-Glum! As for DeBell, I'm so glad he's moving on.
Catherine said…
Melissa, thank you for going to this.

As some experienced in board service a multiple different levels for over 20 years I'm going to sumarize my response as "you have GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. " But I know you're not.

There are so many things wrong with the situation as you describe it - that I have an entire candidates forum worth of material ready on this alone. Tucking this away for future use.

Also - I believe there's an ethics complaint or six buried in this too. I think I'm down town next week for something, I'll stop by city hall and have a chat.
Well, I did tell President Smith-Blum and Director Patu about DeBell's fundraiser for Burgess. Neither of them knew it included "discussion of Seattle public education." It seemed to take them aback since both said "discussion" falls under action for the Open Meetings Act. They both knew this instantly but we'll have to see.
mirmac1 said…
Holy crap! It's deja' vu all over again! Every single retreat I've been to it is the same thing (except rather than being the overbearing Big Dog, DeBell is the petulant, insulting Chihuahua.)

I hope this is the first of future retreats KSB yanks from the Alliance's grasp.
Jan said…
I wish Director DeBell would behave well, but I guess that is just dreaming. He seems to be nursing way too many grudges about things in the past (elections, etc.) and they are getting in the way of his ability/willingness to work well with the Board now.

I really like Kay -- and am heartened to know that she is one tempered lady. She has spent enough time in business that she is not likely to wilt under the pressure of grumpiness from board members who don't care enough to be civil -- and she is both intelligent enough, and courageous enough, that if there is something she needs to put on the table to get back to the middle -- she will do it.

I don't agree with one hundred percent of what she does, but we are lucky to have her there.
Watching said…
Clearly, DeBell is the bully in the room and it reflects poorly on him. It's no wonder the Alliance focuses on inter-relationships. The manner in which DeBell treats the board President and concerns of his coleagues is very disturbing. You know what they say about Karma.

Hoping the fundraiser for Burgess gets more attention.

Sounds like a horrible day!

Anonymous said…
KSB at least has the courage the last board DeBell presided over so lacked. It seems obvious that annoys DeBell, but he had his chances. WSDWG
Charlie Mas said…
I think the Board needs to step back to reconsider everything about Board Retreats - starting with their purpose.

Why have Board Retreats at all? Are they to get business done or are they Board Director training? Are they for team building?

Seriously, what are they for?
Eric B said…
This is more about BEX, but it came up in the notes above, so here goes.

The time to make a building cheaper is in the first meeting with the architect. The more that gets laid down on paper, the harder it is to change.
mirmac1 said…
What are board retreats for? Exactly what we have witnessed and heard about for some time now - board indoctrination
Thank you for that link Mirmac because it is EXACTLY what is happening at the retreats. And, in fact, is basically a smoking gun to who decides what is being done at retreats because it's NOT the Board.

The funders? The Gates Foundation, of course.

This needs to stop.
mirmac1 said…
That's true Eric B. The contract will lay out a 3-phase design process: 30%-60%- and 90%. At each stage the district will be able to review and comment and revise. I doubt that any schematic design has been done yet - but that is when district staff should set clear parameters (beyond the ed specs) for design and economy. Let's hope there is someone in that office that knows WTH they're doing.
Someone said…
Huh.....well, right now all I can think is that whatever respect might have lingered for Director DeBell is eroding with every passing day. In so many ways he seems to be determined to undermine other board members - he just comes across in such a demeaning fashion. Do you realize Mr. DeBell, if you want to get elected to some other office, you might NEED some of us lowly, pesky voters to actually, well, "tolerate" you??

I too wonder how much longer the Alliance can continue their fairly blatant takeover of SPS - what would it take to put them back in the box? Is it too late?

fascinated by Catherine's suggesting there were "ethics complaints" in her reading - care to illustrate your thinking on that?
Anonymous said…
I am so confused ... WHY are there 7 members if the expectation is that all people will agree most all times, otherwise there isn't consensus and that is bad!!!!

In some 1950's Happy Daze Phantasy when we all got along, I suppose everyone would have agreed all the time ... that African Americans & women and gay people ... ooops!

So - can we GROW UP?? sometimes crappy ideas win 7-0 or 5-2 (see MGJ era) or 4-3 ... sometimes great ideas die or win 7-0 - that is politics, that is reality.

It is OBVIOUS what this Alliance of Evil CON$en$u$ is all about - unless you agree with the chief toadies of the 1%, you'll no longer be allowed to hang with the Star Bellied Sneetches. Ta Da!

Anonymous said…
@EricB & mirmac1;

Here's an article from the West Seattle Herald in November of last year regarding the beginning of the design process for Genessee Hill.

Fremont Dad

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