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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Broken Linkages

This post was first published on my original site Sept. 26, 2017

When the board adopted its coherent governance policy, board leaders pledged that it would streamline and clarify much of what the district does and allow the board to stay focused on "results" (those results being our stellar students).

I have a lot of problems with the coherent governance policy, but I'd like to just point out one here that was brought into painful relief during Tuesday's meeting: this board spends a great deal of time thinking about and trying to figure out how to schedule and structure its community linkages.

If you aren't familiar, linkages are small meetings where one or more (typically two) board members have talked with a single interest group -- school PTOs, students, community groups and stakeholders, including the teachers' union, the SEA. These meetings happen twice a year, and were adopted as part of the coherent governance policy as a way to ensure that the board heard feedback from the community, but could control the meeting agendas more tightly and stay on schedule during its regular meetings.

While I understand that the twice-monthly board meetings must be focused on a business agenda and actual decision-making, the board seems unaware of the irony of spending so much time during its business meetings discussing the best ways to solicit and receive community feedback, and whether or how to include every member of the board in its linkages.

Specifically under discussion Tuesday night were which linkage meetings each board member should attend, whether the Superintendent should/would attend, and whether the board should host a special linkage for minority and/or non-Shorewood resident families (that last one was nixed for now). The SEA apparently requested that all five board members attend the linkage with its members. This would be one of very few opportunities the union would have to meet with the full board. There was a long discussion about whether that was favoring one interest group over another, and whether the entire board should theoretically attend every linkage.

No one pointed out that there are two meetings a month that every board member attends, but that allow for only comment -- no dialogue -- with community members. (It's worth noting that this discussion was not an anomaly -- linkages are discussed at length pretty often, and the following each linkage, the board members who were present at the most recent linkage will report back to the full board)

I am keenly aware that I just sat with the board and a few others until 9:30 p.m., so I am not in favor of extending the regular board meetings until midnight for the sake of open-ended dialogue, but it sure seems like we could have replaced the lengthy discussion about linkages with some actual listening to people from the groups in question in a structured setting where all stakeholders were present and everyone was on the record.

I am grateful the board members care about the best ways to reach their constituents, but frustrated at watching them spin their wheels in a nearly-empty meeting room. I believe their regular meetings are usually empty in part because their meetings do not include community discussion, but only for one-sided comments that don't usually get a response (I make comments anyway).

Linkages are a poor replacement for public meetings with the entire board present, where action can be taken and everything said is on record. In my more cynical moments I see linkages as a way to contain unpleasant conversations. I sat through a few pretty distressing ones last year, but there's no video that would back up anyone's account of what was said.

I know the board members believe that one or two members is as good or close to as good as having the whole board there, but I don't agree. First, Board President Paru Shah has the power to set the board's agenda, so having her at any linkage is more meaningful, frankly, than any other two members. Second, I've sat through linkages and seen the reports back differ pretty dramatically from what I experienced. Not because board members were lying, but because their interpretation of conversations was different -- there's no replacement for showing up. All the board members can't claim to be hearing feedback from every group with a linkage in the same way -- they get back filtered feedback that typically comes a week or two after the fact.

Rather than worrying so much about who will attend which linkage, I think the board should consider asking stakeholders to periodically attend their meetings, and set aside some time for Q and A during those meetings. Everyone would be present and the conversation would be on the record, because board meetings are videotaped and recorded for audio in addition to written minutes. If they're worried about endless meetings, they could limit the time designated for the discussion.

I doubt the board will take me up on this suggestion, especially because board members are having a "retreat" -- really an all-day meeting in a tiny conference room at the high school -- on Friday with their coherent governance consultants. I may have imagined it, but I felt like the weeks after the last retreat, the board was extra enamored of the promise of coherent governance, and was even more committed to letting the district administrators run the district while they watch respectfully in the background.

I don't want to end on that sour note, though. Here's the thing: opportunities for feedback are still there. The board won't know what's on your mind and you won't know what they're up to unless you attend or watch the recordings of their meetings. I think the linkages are flawed, but they're still an opportunity to get face time with your board, so you should still go. Part of the reason the board feels so comfortable with the current meeting/linkage structure is that so few people take advantage of the opportunities that do exist to meet with them, ask tough questions or share concerns and ideas. Don't let your elected representatives -- any of them, from the school board to the White House -- off the hook like that: show up and speak out.

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