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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

An Open Letter to our School Leadership

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

I understand that only two of you -- specifically, our board president and our superintendent, are really supposed to speak for you all in most cases. But I'd like to challenge each of you individually to answer a question I have about what has happened on your watch:

I would like you all to say to the audience and the cameras at tonight's board meeting that you believe the $152,418 we paid to Aspen Consulting International between 2015 and the end of 2017 was money well spent. I want to believe this wasn't throwing money into the wind. (Click here for a Google folder full of pdf receipts provided to me by the district)

As you know, I recently requested to see all of the invoices and receipts from Aspen, and this request was quickly fulfilled. My relief at having access to the records was unfortunately replaced by deep disappointment in what I found.

I am told that we hired Aspen in an effort to bring structure to the way our district is run, and to clarify lines of accountability. Aspen offers a corporate governance model for government boards, called Coherent Governance. Under CG, our superintendent acts as a "CEO" responsible for day-to-day operations, and the school board acts like a corporate board, setting policy as guardrails for those operations [Click here to see PowerPoint slides Aspen used to explain this model in another district]. I see why what Aspen is selling is attractive -- it seems like it would make everyone's job easier. Everything becomes measurable, and tied to a result. [Read more here about how other districts have adopted CG]

I believe that like a lot of expensive consultant work, the promise of Coherent Governance is too good to be true. I wonder if you feel the same way, or if you are still convinced that this was money well spent. Maybe more importantly, what evidence would we have of any return on investment?

In case you haven't seen them -- and I wonder if all of you have -- the invoices show that we paid Aspen $100,000 in consulting fees over the period from August 2015 until Dec. 31, 2017, and that we spend another $51,018 reimbursing the senior partners in the firm, Linda J. Dawson and Randy Quinn, for their travel, meals, rental cars and airport shuttle rides.

Over the course of their contracts, Aspen held 11 training sessions for the board in all, staying one or two nights in Milwaukee. Their travel expenses varied quite widely: sometimes they ate at fancy restaurants like Harbor House or Wolf Peach, sometimes they just ate at their hotel buffet and airport fast food. Most of the time they rented a car, sometimes they just used Uber. Once, a two-day workshop cost us $2,378, but a year later, a one-day training set us back less than $1,000.

Maybe most disappointing to me was seeing that as our contract wound down, Aspen got $1,400 more from our district so that our board president and superintendent could attend a "wisdom sharing" event at a resort in Vail, Colorado (The Sonnenalp, shown below). We paid at least another $1,100 in expenses for that trip. [Click here, see top of page 4]

I want to be clear that I have no problem with the district hiring consultants or with board members or administrators attending conferences. But I believe consulting only makes sense when you don't have specialized skills to get something done yourself, and when you have a way to hold the consultants responsible for delivering what they promise. Travel is merited when we can get something in person far away that we can't get at home, by email or virtually -- and when what we bring back is valuable beyond the cost of the trip.

I also recognize that these expenses are a very small part of our budget. It's not the dollar amount, it's that I am unconvinced we got anything for our money. For me, reading these receipts felt like watching you dump a bag full of $20 bills into Lake Michigan.

I realize that some, maybe all of you believe that what we paid Aspen has been a bargain price for a better-run district -- you truly believe that our district has benefited greatly from this model. In my email asking for these records, I asked Dr Davis and Dr. Shah to tell me about why they felt these costs were justified because I wanted to understand that perspective.

The answers I got were deeply unsatisfying to me -- Dr. Shah attributed virtually everything the district has been able to accomplish -- its new curricula, its facilities planning, the adoption of Expeditionary Learning -- to Coherent Governance.

I don't think it's honest or accurate to attribute these things to CG. Parents demanded new curriculum for science, and called for new leadership to oversee our curricula across the district. Facilities planning hasn't happened quickly or comprehensively, and our buildings look worse than they did two years ago when you adopted the CG model.

The the way Dr. Shah characterized the district -- as full of clarity and uniformly high-functioning administrators -- conflicts with what I see. But no matter. I will take the answer at face value: If she's correct, that this board, this district, would have been unable to accomplish these things at all over the last two and a half years absent this governance model, then simply put, we have paid dearly for something we should have gotten for free: effective leadership.

It should not take consultants to tell you how to be responsive to stakeholders by holding regular meetings with them. It should not cost $50,000 a year to understand not to micromanage employees but to hold yourselves accountable for ensuring they are clear on the scope and expectations of their jobs. It should not take two days and two trained consultants' guidance to understand how to hold our superintendent accountable for creating and maintaining one of the top districts in the state.

These ideas are free.

Perhaps you were unsure how to put them into concrete policy, so you turned to these "experts." But you need not have. You could have asked your constituents. You may have noticed that Shorewood is full of very intelligent people, willing to give of their time to serve our school system. How you implement those guiding ideas should reflect your community's values, not a consultant's template. The way you operate could -- and should -- reflect our progressive community, not a corporate board room. You could have held multiple two-day sessions with some of us instead of consultants. You could have retained your citizen committees under the model that continues to work for our village government, rather than flying out consultants from two different states.

Instead, we paid thousands of dollars for you to hear how to hand over an increasing amount of leadership responsibility to your Superintendent. You are now less burdened with responding to and resolving complaints about non-working toilets, bullied, injured children and incompetent staff -- these are operational concerns that are now not part of your job description to resolve. You can refer basically anything to an administrator or in the case of concerns over policy -- to Dr. Shah. You and your friends and neighbors paid for the rest of you to have that privilege. Was it worth it?

It appears we thought we were buying our way to effective leadership. Did we get what we paid for? Effective leaders run meetings that stick to a reasonable time limit. Effective leaders schedule curriculum reviews and facilities management on a long-term schedule and understand their details well enough to explain to constituents. They read through line-item budgets and understand what's changing year to year, and why. They think through whether our budget reflects our values. Effective leaders are not taken by surprise by operational issues, because they are always welcoming and listening to the people who work for the agency or business they are accountable for running. They encourage staff to talk to them, and they listen. They make clear that whistleblowers are protected and retaliation never tolerated. Effective leaders don't punt to the people who work for them when it comes time to make a tough decisions about how we will spend limited resources. They don't protect each other or their staff above children and families. So no, I don't think we got what you paid for.

You may think I am wrong, or unfair. Wouldn't you like to have something concrete with which to answer my supposition that we overpaid for leadership? Wouldn't you like to know the real return on investment from Coherent Governance? Good luck.

Apparently the primary means of evaluating anything under CG is self-assessment. The board assesses itself and finds it is doing well. The Superintendent checks to make sure he is meeting expectations, following the rules set out for him on his recommendations, and surprise! He has. That simply does not pass the smell test.

Yes, I am frustrated. But the money is already gone. I didn't come here just to complain about what's been spent. I came with specific recommendations and requests:

First, I will repeat my request for each of you to affirm for me that you believe what we paid Aspen was worthwhile -- that our district benefited, and how. If you can't say for sure that you agree, then I would request for the board to meet and discuss whether coherent governance is right for Shorewood, how you would know if it were not, and under what circumstances you would consider adjusting or adopting an alternative.

Consider, please, whether the district could not run at least as well without the massive amounts of reporting and required by CG, which mostly falls to your staff. Consider how much time and energy they would have if they were free of these reporting requirements and instead could operate under simply what is called for by state law -- oversight by a panel of elected board members - board members who understand their own roles without having to pay for clarity.

Second, I would like you to consider bidding out all professional services above $10,000, and make a policy of favoring local and minority-owned businesses, as far as legally permissible.

I also ask that that you more carefully consider when hiring consultants makes sense and consider putting that criteria in writing or amending whatever is in place today. I would suggest it should be considered only when real expertise inside our district is lacking -- for example if we are considering adding mental health services, or need to establish a policy manual and schedule for building maintenance. I would have been 100% content with a bill of $152,000 for any of these services over a few years.

Third, I would like Dr. Shah and Dr. Davis to tell us how their November trip to Vail, Colorado was worth the thousands of dollars -- at least $2,500 -- it cost the district to send them to "share wisdom" for two days with other school district leaders who are working under Aspen's Coherent Governance model. As far as I can tell, the main outcome of this meeting at a ski resort 1,000 miles away was a plan to meet regularly with other districts in Wisconsin who run under the CG model. That sure seems like something you could have organized over the phone or by email.

While that's being discussed, perhaps the board could set or amend guidelines for what constitutes appropriate travel for your board president and Superintendent. It might not be wise to fly across the country sharing wisdom," while you poor-mouth the public over the district's state aid, its lack of funds to replace playgrounds, and supposedly meager "maintenance budget."

Fourth, I recommend you host a public meeting to talk about what the district has gained by using this governance model, and answer questions about its implications for some of the major work the district has before it, including our facilities planning process. The public deserves to hear more about what we purchased for this not insignificant sum, since it supposedly underpins everything you've been able to accomplish since 2015.

If we gained as much as you say we have, please tell us more. Convince me, so I can stop thinking of what might have been: $152,000 could have helped paid for a few functioning windows, maybe a wheelchair ramp. It might have paid for new equipment to our playgrounds. Maybe it could have even paid for a part-time social worker in our high school -- a small investment that could even have been life-saving for one student.

Please tell me that what we bought instead was more valuable.

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