School board events today and tomorrow

Tonight (Monday, May 18th) the school board meets with Illinois Assocation of School Boards (IASB) representative Dr. Patrick Rice, the Field Service Director for our area (“Illini region”). Even though the entire meeting is essentially dedicated to an OMA-blessed executive session, you can read the one-page brochure from IASB:

http://www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/files/9WH8CK73C454/$file/StartingRightbrochure.pdf

 

For anyone who has been reading for a little while, you know will I fully support the IASB’s efforts and I consider this a “good thing.” Based on that brochure, I can see that the “2.5 – 3 hour” meeting will summarize the  main areas of the IASB’s “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance.” I am altogether excited because five of the seven board members are new and they have stated a desire to change the way the school board operates, and given that the topic of tonight’s meeting is “Starting Right”, I am quite confident that this “board retreat” will further transform the board into a successful agent of the people.

My hope and request for the board tonight is that they ask a lot of questions as they wrap their heads around these concepts. “Question everything.” 🙂

 

Tomorrow (Tuesday, May 19th) the school board will be available for a “meet & greet” at the Mellon Building (703 South New Street, Champaign) from 7:00 – 8:30 pm. The event is sponsored by the PTA Council – the following is from an email blurb sent out last week:

Please join Champaign PTA Council for an informal “Meet & Greet” to introduce yourself to the new members of the Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education, K-12 principals in Unit 4, and the PTA presidents at each school. The public is invited and encouraged to attend. Refreshments will be provided.

Please RSVP on the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1607091012869879/

e-mail me at csmcarthur@gmail.com or call/text 217-637-0968 by 6pm on Monday, May 18th.

 

This is a great opportunity for community members and organizations to network with key players in the educational system in one place!

 

We look forward to seeing you!

Cathy S. McArthur, President

Champaign PTA Council

 

The new referendum

re: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2015-01-09/updated-dr-howard-now-mix-champaign-ballot-proposal.html

 

At a reduction of about 3.36%, the overall price-tag of the proposed bond issue is not much different at all. The big element of change is what exactly that money is going towards: totally rebuilt Dr. Howard, needed upgrades and work at the current Central, at the cost of significantly reduced work at Centennial and no “turf” at the new Central. In my talks with Kerris, board members had also discussed a different version that weighed in at $139 million – still, not much but at least a token gesture. 🙂

 

I’ll say it up front – as I told Denise Martin and Dan Ditchfield (chairs of the 2014 “YES” committee), right now I am leaning towards a “yes” on this vote. But I still have big hangups (six, in fact) that I fear never will be addressed.

 

Hangup #1

Why can’t we vote on pieces of the referendum? Why is it all or nothing? I think it is outstanding that the board and district administration FINALLY put Dr. Howard in the spotlight, and FINALLY decided to put HVAC at Central (tired of the trolls about holding Central students hostage?). I am still dumbfounded why those were left off the table in 2014. But we still have a $94.5 million high school being planned for Interstate Drive (I am not even going to get into Dodds Park thing now). That’s a lot of money, and still at a site that a large number of people do not support. From my point of view, it totally sucks that we have to vote for all of it or none of it.

 

Hangup #2

All the focus is on location, capacity and addressing the issues of aging physical plants. Show me the correlation between $1 spent and an increase in academic achievement. In 8+ years of talking, why do we still have unanswered questions in regards to how a referendum will boost the “output” of our school district? We have some excellent educational initiatives, including CTRL-Shift, CU Cradle to Career, and At Promise of Success, but these are not rolled into the language of the referendum at all.

 

Hangup #3

While I appreciate that board members met with each other, and someone met with some “no” voters (who talked to whom?), I don’t like that so much is happening behind closed doors. I appreciate that board member Kerris Lee has been filling me in on a number of details (like the $139M alternative that we still have not seen), but why is so much hidden from public view? I don’t get it that “we have been talking about this for 8 years” but then in a last ditch effort to “tweak” a failed referendum, some very important items are put on the table. There is something very wrong with this picture.

 

Hangup #4

I still very much want to see a super-majority vote. Counter to what the article says about the expected results for the 2014 referendum, I expected things to be close. I actually thought it might be a little closer. I expect this tweak is going to win over a few more votes; it is hard to say what the expectation will be given how voters in Champaign vote quite differently in a Spring Consolidated Election. But personally I want to see a vote that is 75% united. How do we get that? See my previous post about a successful school board and community engagement. There is a lack of ownership and concensus that is going to continue to make public support challenging.

 

Hangup #5

I still don’t see a big overall plan. Yes, we have the 20-year facility plan (which will now have to be updated to account for changes at Centenial, the current Central and Dr. Howard); yes, I understand that took a lot of work to compile, and yes, I realize it signifies that someone is trying to do some planning. But more importantly, how are we going to keep ourselves from winding up in this stupid place again? Tom Kacich had a good response in today’s “Tom’s Mailbag” about why we are where we are:

“As to how Champaign got into the predicament, my take is that school administrators and board members for decades were preoccupied with other issues and ignored their aging buildings and growing enrollments. Now that those issues have finally been addressed school leaders have taken note.”

Yes, decades!! That should be a little scary.

Here is the problem with the current referendum and 20-year facility plan – nobody is painting the big picture that we are going to have to go out for YET ANOTHER referendum to fix up all the still existing problems. My understanding is that we have a number of “Health/Life/Safety” (HLS) issues that are supposed to be paid out of a HLS fund, but my understanding is also that we have no such fund. I am still trying to seek out the facts about that. Beyond HLS, what about the expansion work at Centennial that is supposed to help us prepare for future enrollment? Who is going to pay for that? We have a number of things that are stacking up that might get paid when 1% sales tax money becomes available again (2024?). We seem to be spending money we do not have, hence our current annual $8 million debt service and the need to go out and get a $144 million bond issue. Ouch.

 

Hangup #6

We are getting a minimum of 3 new board members in April; in other words, at a bare minimum, three people who worked on crafting the current referendum will not even be on the board after the vote. The number of new faces could potentially be as high as 5 (out of a total of 7). And if Board President Laurie Bonnett should happen to win Frerich’s old seat and choose to resign from the board (my understanding is that this is her choice, it is not required), that will be a maximum of 6 or a minimum of 4 new faces. That’s got to be a little rough.

 

Conclusion

So with these hangups, am I stupid crazy to be leaning towards a “yes”? We have been totally screwed over by previous boards and administrative officials. As the general rule in Illinois now, we have for too long borrowed against the future, and now our debts are due. In fact, for me personally, it is more imporant who we vote in as board members than how we vote on the referendum. That is the reason why I wrote my previous post, and why I intend to follow-up with another post about characteristics I am looking for in board members (and the board president). If we want better results, we must change the very process itself. Unfortunately, it is easier to address the “surface” issues of a school site or whether we put in HVAC at an old building. I hope we begin to wake up to the fact that we will forever have disagreements about many of the details, but at some point we must work, and even collaborate, on the bigger issues.

 

A framework for a successful school board

Over the past couple of months, I have been going through the IASB’s (Illinois Association of School Boards) website, and reading through two of John and Miriam Carvers’ books on Policy Governance (“Boards the Make a Difference“, “Reinventing Your Board“). While the IASB uses the Carvers’ work as a backdrop, they have clearly shaped it into something much more practical (it seems) and relevant for school boards, especially boards here in Illinois. This post will be my attempt to bring this framework even closer to home, outlining what I would like to see in Unit 4. Having said that, I readily acknowledge that there is a lot of work involved, and that these things do not just happen overnight. As the IASB is prone to say, the entire thing is a process, not a project. I also acknowledge that the IASB borrows a lot from Diane Ravitch, whom some of you may not hold in high regard.

 

The IASB has listed six “Foundational Principles” (<- please read!) that comprise this framework:

  1. The Board Clarifies the District Purpose
  2. The Board Connects With the Community
  3. The Board Employs a Superintendent
  4. The Board Delegates Authority
  5. The Board Monitors Performance
  6. The Board Takes Responsibility For Itself

I especially appreciate the opening salvo under number 1:

“As its primary task, the Board continually defines, articulates and re-defines district ends to answer the recurring question — who gets what benefits for how much? Effective ends development requires attention to at least two key concerns: student learning and organizational effectiveness.”

Basically, the board, having “connected with the community”, establishes a primary goal for the school district and then sets the wheels in motion to make sure that 1) the district stays aligned and on path towards the goal, 2) continually communicates with the “owners” to clarify said goal. In some ways, it might seem overly simplistic; the board tells the Superintendent to do a certain job, and that’s it. The board does not micromanage, the board does not necessarily care about report after report after report, the board does not have to bless every single decision the district staff makes. The board’s main purpose is making sure that the “ends” decided upon by the “owners” are being met. And I believe the IASB framework provides the steps to make sure that happens.

So even though clarifying the district purpose is listed as number 1, and I believe that indeed is the primary purpose of the school board, the second item, true “community engagement”, is the means by which the purpose is defined in the first place.

The IASB has published a paper called “Connecting with the Community: the Purpose and Process of Community Engagement as part of Effective School Board Governance“. It is 46 pages, and makes a strong argument for a better way of allowing the “owners” to have ownership. What does that mean? Who are these “owners”? From page 10:

Community engagement addresses “owner” concerns. It is not designed to address “customer” concerns. Customer concerns, such as dissatisfaction with a particular teacher or textbook, or questions about day-to-day operations, are best addressed by professional educators. For school boards, owner concerns are long-term, big picture issues about values and beliefs, mission, vision and goals — the community’s core values. School boards are uniquely qualified to address these owner concerns because they are elected, volunteer citizens who can engage their neighbors in these important conversations about the community’s purposes for its schools and the resources the community is willing to provide for its schools.

 

I believe Unit 4 has slowly been improving the way it addresses owner concerns, starting with the creation of a Community Relations Coordinator position. Here is a roadmap of sorts presented on page 22:

4_stages_of_community_engagement

Clearly, Unit 4’s Community Relations Coordinator has embraced the first stage very well and has done much to better INFORM the community. The focus groups, surveys and meetings done with DeJong-Richter were an example of the CONSULT stage. The district will say they have also done a number of workshops under the INVOLVE stage, such as planning Carrie Busey before it was built, the current programming going on for the new Central, and a number of other cases. These latter examples (from the INVOLVE stage) are typically not well published or well-known, but they do happen. To truly give ownership to the voters and tax-payers, I firmly believe we need to fortify what the board does for the last two stages, INVOLVE and COLLABORATE. I will reiterate that the responsibility for this work falls under the board; whether they set out to achieve all four stages directly or delegate, it should be clear that the board’s fingerprints are all over the efforts involved.

 

From page 23:

“It is important to keep in mind that as the board builds these partnerships with the community the ultimate end goal of community engagement is to enable school boards and public schools to work effectively as truly democratic institutions that provide a collective benefit. The benefit is public education.”

After going through all these materials, I started to wonder, if the IASB provides a bulk of the training for school boards, why do we not see this framework behind the work of the board? I think I might have an explanation – it is my hope that once we realize what we have been doing, we can set about a new direction.

The IASB provides two “classes” as part of the “mandatory*” board member training (* mandatory as in required by Illinois State Law). One is the Open Meetings Act (OMA), which can be done either through IASB, or even online through the Attorney General’s office. The other is “A minimum of 4 hours of Professional Development Leadership training, including Education and labor law, Financial oversight and accountability, and Fiduciary responsibilities”. Isn’t it odd that the “Foundational Principles” are not even part of the training? When talking to representatives of IASB, I learned that they view themselves as an advisory group – they do not audit, police or monitor boards to ensure that they are actually following the IASB stated “best practices”. I will also note that the training events hosted by the IASB tend to be a little expensive, which is really a shame. Maybe we sponsor a single passionate board member (or candidate?) to attend one significant training event with the expectation that they will then be able to train others. Any other ideas?

 

Bottom line

So here is my challenge for current and future board members:

  1. Commit to reading, researching, and practicing the “Foundational Principles” as espoused by the IASB
  2. Commit to reading, understanding, and implementing the “Connecting with the Community” paper
  3. Sign this promise

 

Next post: I plan to follow-up with a post about what characteristics I am looking for in a board president and board members. My goal is to vote on April 7th (Consolidated Election) for those that are willing to sign the promise, or at least give me a very good explanation of why they cannot. *grin*

 

The Purpose of the School Board, part 2

Two years ago, I wrote a post about “The Purpose of the School Board“. Recently, a number of events have persuaded me to revisit this topic. In particular, at least two groups (possibly more) are actively seeking to form a slate of board member candidates for the April 2015 elections. I have asked, but I am not yet at liberty to disclose more details. I will say that I am involved in one of those efforts.

 

But this post is more about what role the school board plays. Or to look at it from a different angle, what would happen if there were no school board in Unit 4 as it currently exists? Who would hire the superintendent? What else would be different?

 

I have an ongoing conversation with Ms. Cathy Talbert of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). She has been very helpful in giving me a broad, 10,000ft picture of how the IASB’s stance towards governance affects the way they train board members. I have also learned that John Carver’s “Policy Governance” has had a huge impact and heavily influences how those perspectives are formed. Ms. Talbert has warned me that while Carver’s philosophy is definitely a significant ingredient, it by no means implies that the IASB follows “Policy Governance” 100%; while giving me some ideas of how to get started in my understanding of IASB’s philosophy, she mentioned that I should read John Carver’s books and also cherry-picked a few IASB websites for me to look at.

Diving into John Carver’s world is kind of like swimming in an ocean; it is vast, deep, and not much land in sight. I started with “Boards That Make a Difference“, the official primer for Carver’s “Policy Governance”; in this post I’ll focus on that which seems ideal for our school district. And hopefully I can present a much simpler, much more concise version while still being true to the source material.

 

The purpose of the school board is to be the moral compass of the school district. Not strictly dividing “right” from “wrong”, but more generally painting the long-term description of the “products” or “benefits” that the “owners” desire of the “organization.” There are several salient points that make this fundamental and critical:

  • The people who pay the taxes and vote are the owners; they must fully take ownership of the public school district (Unit 4 Board Policy 105).
  • The board merely represents the will of the people; they are not necessarily experts in education, but they are the people when it comes to the boardroom table.
  • As such, the board is obligated to build relationships with the community over and above the staff; an inherent part of a board member’s job is to seek out diverse opinions and to make himself or herself readily available to the “owners”; they are to be collectors of opinions and perspectives across the wide gamut of community members.
  • The board policies should be very broad, very global, categorized into perhaps 4 distinct groups, and able to be easily summarized in 5 pages such that every decision made by the school district can be measured against those 5 pages. Carver calls this the “Policy Circle”, and allows for more detail as necessary, but the starting point and the thrust is that these are overarching statements of motivation which drive the direction of the entire school district; in other words, the board policy should succintly determine “who gets what benefits for how much”.
  • The board’s business should boil down to deciding whether or not anything put in front of them is in alignment with the clearly documented, widely communicated, simplified board policies.

 

The IASB’s official “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance” reflects many of the virtues espoused by Carver, going so far as to adopt Carver’s terminology and use of “Ends”. I wish to clarify that while the Board’s primary job is to govern and take responsibility that these Ends are clearly defined and adhered to, it is the people who give breath to the Ends in the first place. The Board cannot and should not adopt Ends as put forth only by the organization and/or its staff, but the board should be engaged “in an ongoing two-way conversation with the entire community. This conversation enables the Board to hear and understand the community’s educational aspirations and desires, to serve effectively as an advocate for district improvement and to inform the community of the district’s performance.”

 

The IASB has another page dedicated to “connecting with the community“; this page repeats much of what is already on the “Foundational Principles” page, but also links to a new report that strives to put forth good community relationship building practices.

 

I do have one major criticism for IASB, and I’ll have to think of a polite way to ask this question of Cathy Talbert when I talk to her next; “If the IASB is responsible for board member training, why the hell do we struggle so much to exercise that ongoing two-way communication?” Obviously this criticism does not apply to all board members – I place this on the IASB shoulders because they are the ones telling board members how to do their jobs.

 

Five seats are up for board positions in April; five out of seven. I think people sense that if they truly want to make changes to the board, now is a really good time to do so. Here is the measuring stick I am going to urge the entire voting community to consider when contemplating board members candidates and even whole slates (taken directly from the IASB “Foundational Principles”):

  1. The Board Clarifies the District Purpose
  2. The Board Connects With the Community
  3. The Board Employs a Superintendent
  4. The Board Delegates Authority
  5. The Board Monitors Performance
  6. The Board Takes Responsibility For Itself

 

This is what board members should be doing. This is what I will want successful board member candidates to set their agendas on. And for any slate, I would want them to fully embrace these guiding principles. Granted, this calls for a lot of work – we have a lot of bad habits we need to correct. I love how Carver casts the ideal board meeting; it should be lively, filled with debate, but also well kept on track (“moral compass”). A 4-hour, boring board meeting means you’re doing it wrong. A board policy manual that measures 8 inches thick when printed means you’re doing it wrong.

 

The people elect school board members to exert their will upon the school district; those five people you elect will effectively become your voice.