Board meeting at Central HS tonight, with a special presentation on the Consent Decree

The Champaign School Board is going to start shaking things up a little tonight when they conduct their “Special Session” at Central tonight. Keep your eyes open for more changes to special sessions in the near future. Among the items on the agenda (available on the district’s boarddocs website) are an obligatory public hearing on the budget and formal acceptance of said budget, a presentation from Molly Delaney of the CU Schools Foundation who will be covering the CUSF strategic plan and summarizing CUSF initiatives (good stuff!), and a Consent Decree presentation from Sally Scott, an attorney from Franczek Radlet who represented the district during the Consent Decree; the presentation will set historical context for how we still have equity issues to address especially in regards to where a potential new high school is built. There are many documents on boarddocs that are related to all these presentations.

Also keep your eyes on the board’s nascent blog, u4boardcorner.blogspot.com. In fact, the latest post (“The trouble with transparency“) starts to address issues of transparency, which is kind of a hot button topic because it is a buzzword used very loosely in all sorts of circles – what does it really mean? Just this past weekend, I was talking with parents at an un-conference (kudos to EdCampCU!) about the current board, and there are a wide variety of opinions about how many steps backwards we might be taking or whether they are truly trustworthy. This is purely my opinion, but I think the current board has been making a number of steps that align to the IASB’s “Foundational Principles” vision, and I believe this will pay huge dividends in the long run, especially in generating and building trust, transparency and establishing healthy communication habits, not to mention a strong, public and shared idea of what the board does.

Update: Nicole Lafond writes about the Consent Decree in this morning’s NG:

http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2015-09-28/champaign-school-board-review-rules-building-locations.html

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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

 

A totally new school board

Tonight’s short meeting resulted in four new board officers, and personally, I am glad that the President and VP votes were unanimous:

  • Chris Kloeppel (President)
  • Amy Armstrong (Vice President)
  • Kathy Shannon (Secretary)
  • Jonathan Westfield (Parliamentarian)

There were a number of tweets, and Nicole followed up with an NG article. It is exciting to witness and hear about the synergy that has already been building between various board members (new and old), not to mention some of the things they want to tackle. For instance, how to take advantage of social media? How to engage the community and make board meetings more “friendly”? How to work together as a board but still have individual passions? And with Mr. Kloeppel being the youngest board president in a very very long time (ever?), their path as a team will be both challenging and exciting.

My number one priority for the board is that they continue to more fully embrace the model espoused by the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), called “The Foundational Principles of Governance.” The IASB model does several things that I like, taking a lot of cues from John Carver’s Policy Governance; one of the most exciting things, in my opinion, is “Effective Community Engagement”. The model also establishes clear relationships between the board and the Superintendent, the administration and the community. And finally, it guides the school board in focusing on policy and school-wide direction, not falling into the trap of micromanagement, which I think has been a sand trap for quite a while now. All these facets will be even more critical as this school board contemplates the process to select a new superintendent in two years time.

The new board will have a Board Retreat later this month, where I believe they will meet with IASB representative Patrick Rice, Dr. Wiegand and other members of the administration to lay the ground work for their collective goals and ambitions for the coming year. In the meantime, I am going to go out on a limb and put forth the idea that board members (all of them) really want to hear from the public, so I encourage you to contact them at:

u4boe@champaignschools.org

Exam Cram: 2015 school board candidates

I know many of you are suffering withdrawal because Early voting is closed today; have no fear, you can get your fix here and learn all about the school board candidates. Recently I added Nicole Lafond’s News-Gazette interviews of each school board candidate:

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/misc/2015-board-candidates/#lafond

There are eight folks vying for four 4-year seats, and Jonathan Westfield is the sole runner for the 2-year seat. How to decide? Who are you going to vote for? With the two current board members in the middle of their own 4-year terms (Laurie Bonnett and Lynn Stuckey), plus Jonathan, there are 70 total unique combinations:

potential_school_board_combinations (excel spreadsheet)

Will you vote based on a single (big) issue like the $144 million referendum? Will you vote based on how well you know each candidate? How many yard signs you have seen?

I suggest you to think about what kind of board you want as a whole; what qualities and characteristics of a school board do you value the most? For myself, I am pushing for a board that adheres strongly and visibly to the Illinois Association of School Board’s “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance“.

After talking to many candidates and reflecting on the marathon of forums and other encounters with the public, I am very encouraged to hear that most candidates have already formed a strong rapport with each other; that even though they definitely do not agree on everything, they have already started to exercise respectful deliberation. One of the “Big Ideas” I am hoping shakes out of the new board are more informal “gatherings” where folks can simply hang out with board members and have agenda-less conversations, maybe even to the point of doing so with more than two board members. We shall see.

April 7th quickly approaches. While I encourage you to vote, I think it may be more important to be an informed voter. If you have questions, please ask.

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.

Governance and civic responsibility, take 2

I recently talked to representatives of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB). As mentioned previously, I really like their mission statement and the ideals they lay out for board members of all school boards. After a wonderful and in-depth chat with Cathy Talbert (Associate Executive Director of Field and Policy Services), I came to learn that the IASB is going “all in” with John Carver’s “Policy Governance model“. This is reflected primarily in how the IASB has recently re-architected its own policies, and further trickles down to how the IASB will be training new board members. It is a model that utilizes servant-leadership and clearly states organizational purposes with the sole intent of having those purposes fulfilled. Again, the word “accountability” comes up – not with the intent of going on a witch hunt, but rather, for the good of us all, seeking out mutually beneficial solutions.

This is the kind of mindset I have when I ask various city managers/planners and the school district Business office about Tax Incremental Financing (TIF). TIF, and it’s brother “Enterprise Zones”, have a very strong focus on “economic development”. Which sounds all good and dandy. What really concerns me is that 1) the public is largely uneducated on these issues and 2) a significant lack of accountability on promises and goals. I believe city managers and planners have good intentions at heart. I think there is a systemic mentality about meeting the letter of the law but not really addressing the intent of the law (another example of normalized deviance).

Let’s take another example – the district’s Promises Made Promises Kept (PMPK) committee. I have harped on this before, and I will probably do so again. Back in June of 2010, I attended a PMPK meeting and personally asked Mr. Gene Logas if he could post online some of the awesome documents that they share at PMPK meetings. Again in March of 2012, I formally asked Mr. Logas, the Board and Dr. Wiegand the same thing, to post all informational documents on the committee website. In October of 2012, I again made the request that documents be posted online for Unit 4 committees.  In February of 2013 I made a post of documents I had personally received. Another post in March of 2013, with a little bit of delicious irony (Agenda Item V: How to Effectively Share with the Community the Work and Oversight of the Committee). At various times throughout 2012, 2013 and even this year, I asked individual committee members for relevant documents, and asked them to convey my wish that documents be posted online. On Feb 10th of this year (almost three weeks ago), I asked the Board (again) to have these documents posted on the PMPK committee page. I was told by the Board that these documents are indeed online. Imagine my surprise! So I asked where.

Silence.

Why am I so anal about this? Why am I “wasting” the time of various administrators and board members? Why am I making a big deal about this?

I hope to make it a point that I am not shaking my finger at individuals; entire Administrations have come and gone, and the Board has changed many times since 2010. The problem is that nobody else really cares (from my point of view), we have all come to expect that the PMPK committee (and other Unit 4 committees) have a standard way of operating, and that’s how it is done. Yes, I get it that the public is invited to attend any and all committee meetings (with the rare exception). I get it that information is freely shared at these meetings. Good job, keep it up! But sharing information at meetings does not equal engaging the community, nor engendering a sense of ownership. I realize posting informational documents isn’t a silver bullet either – it will not magically, instantly make all the stakeholders suddenly enjoy all the sunshine and transparency. This is just one step among many.

The exact same thing applies for the City of Champaign and TIF. The same thing applies in many areas of “governance” in our lives. We have lost the art of being informed and holding each other accountable.

The solution? Society itself must change. We have to think about others.

In Lisa Delpit’s insightful and enlightening “Other People’s Children”, she quotes a Native Alaskan teacher she had the honor of befriending; “In order to teach you, I must know you.” We must allow our walls to break down and get to know each other.