Sunday, September 21, 2014

Does Seattle Public Schools have a Broken Governance Model?

At every Board Retreat the Board discusses their governance model. They don't have a formally stated model, but they are loosely working towards using a sort of Carver Policy Governance Model in which the Board sets expectations (the ends) - both for outcomes and for limitations on methods - and the superintendent is given a relatively free hand in decided how those ends will be met (the means) and is evaluated on the accomplishment of the goals.

It's not a bad model but it isn't working for Seattle Public Schools.

It isn't working for three primary reasons:

  1. The Board isn't doing it's job of setting expectations.
  2. The Board isn't doing it's job of staying focused on policy.
  3. The Board isn't enforcing the policies that limit the means
and three secondary reasons:
  1. The Board isn't evaluating the superintendent properly.
  2. A lot of the Board policies are not consistent with this model.
  3. The Board often abdicates their policy duty to the staff.
So what can be done to fix these flaws and make the district governance model work? All of the problems, as you can see, are Board-based, so only the Board can implement the fixes. Can a board director do it alone? Can the Board do it if they act in unity? How would they do it?

I think the Board could do it if they acted in unity and, of course, a Board Retreat would be the place to start.

The first thing they would have to do is acknowledge the current state. That's quite an obstacle and a challenge in itself. I don't think the current board directors are capable of acknowledging how they are obstructing the implementation of an effective governance model.

Second, these fixes represent more work than this board has shown an interest in doing. They don't have much appetite for work; this board does less than any I can recall. Contrast that indolence with the long list of expectations they would have to set. Remember that Policy 2090 requires the Board to set expectations for every academic program. They haven't done even one. There are some expectations set in the Strategic Plan, but every policy would have to reflect an expectation. That expectation could be as simple as "The superintendent will meet the requirements of state and federal law." but there has to be something said for each one. The Board would also have to do the work of revising the policies to align with this model. They are supposedly in the middle of a policy revision project but it is clearly stalled.

Third, the Board would have to do the work of enforcing policy and they appear resolutely opposed to accepting that task. I think they are concerned that it would create the impression that they are in conflict with the superintendent and staff. That's a pretty sad commentary because it pre-supposes that the staff wants to violate policy.

So while it is theoretically possible for the Board to do the work to fix the governance model for the District, I don't think they will do it. Until they do, the governance model will remain broken and the District will be misgoverned. Moreover, I have little optimism that a new board would do the work to fix the governance model. Board directors are drawn either from the downtown establishment/ed reform camp which favors a weak board that does nothing but what the superintendent tells them to do or from the activist camp which doesn't want to be restricted to policy work.


Melissa Westbrook said...

I mostly agree.

I don't agree that the more activist members don't want to to do policy work. I think they know very well that if they do that, good things will follow.

I've said in the past that Charlie and I rarely (if ever) consult on threads and this is the case here. I am working on a governance thread but with some very specific talk about specific Board members.

I think Charlie is right that there are at least a couple of Board members who favor a weaker Board.

David said...

I think it would be good to discuss what the Board members could do, collectively or individually, and what impact it might have if they did.

As an individual, I think Board members could:

Quietly point out policy violations to the superintendent, give one week for a change to occur, and, if one does not, use part of their time to publicly list the policy violation along with every other at every subsequent Board meeting.

Review budgets with a fine-tooth comb with an auditor, ask direct questions about issues quietly, give one week for the issues to be fixed, then list the budget problems publicly at every subsequent Board meeting using part of their time.

Publicly propose new and revised policy, both collaboratively and individually.

Vote against budgets and proposals, saying why each time.

Collectively, Board members could:

Vote down budgets and proposals

Make a joint public statement that the superintendent has failed to comply with policy or fix a budget issue and express disapproval

Fire the superintendent

So, are all of these impossible? Or ineffective? If they are possible and likely to be effective, why don't any of the Board members do them?

Reader47 said...

There does seem to be a huge disconnect between what we the public perceive as "their job" and what SPS staff/admin see as "their job" - and whether doing it constitutes good governance or interference.

I gotta say, I personally wouldn't put up with some of the shenanigans that happen at SPS very long, and I'd probably be one of those Board members the Times publically reprimands for "overstepping" - but at this point, what do you have to lose? Its clearly not working on so many levels - do something different!
Why not start publically calling out, as David suggests, failures to rectify policy violations. Do that enough times and sooner or later someone will change their behavior...

just do something. The ship is sinking and you won't all fit in the available lifeboats.....

Patrick said...

I don't agree that the current board is not doing much, Charlie. They got staff to adopt a math textbook that staff didn't want. They got staff to accept later high school bell times as a priority for the year, even though staff through a hissy fit about it.

Compare the MGJ era board, whose work consisted of telling parents "We trust our hired professionals" over and over.

L.L. said...

I am disappointed in Charlie's tactics.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, LL, don't leave us in suspense.

What does your statement mean?

Charlie Mas said...

The Board selected the elementary math instructional materials. That's true. They did something that is their duty per statute.

How about this: the staff stonewalled the board's access to information about the math materials and provided the board with false information about math materials - without consequence.

As for making the bell time change a "priority", please review the staff's history of working on board priorities - they don't. And, again, the board totally controls their priorities. The fact that the staff believed that they could influence that list is evidence of board weakness, not strength.

Patrick said...

the staff stonewalled the board's access to information about the math materials and provided the board with false information about math materials - without consequence.

But it did have a consequence. This Board didn't let the staff get away with it this time, like they have every past time.

It's a sign of previous board's weakness that staff thought they could control the board's priorities list. And it's a sign of this board's relative strength that they adopted their own priorities over staff's objections.

Lynn said...

Losing isn't a consequence. There should be some specific, identifiable consequence to individual staff for stonewalling the board, providing them with false information and encouraging the principals to revolt against the board's math adoption.

Where else could an employee get away with that behavior?

Anonymous said...

Patrick has it exactly right. I'm frankly surprised Charlie doesn't see that. WSDWG