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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Who's the Boss, Part 2: July 11 regular meeting

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

This post first appeared on my original site July 12, 2017

It turns out that much of the board's job under its current governance model is to monitor and to delegate. At both the special meeting and regular meeting Tuesday night, the board wrestled with the boundaries of their role, discussing when and how they can and should listen to district employees' concerns and make sure the administrators running things are doing what the board has asked them to do. Since I've been watching, the board has had a lot of these conversations, and they show no signs of slowing. Maybe they end up spending a lot of time talking through their own boundaries because their governance model is weird, and it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to get to a place where it makes sense.

As is not too unusual these days, there weren't a lot of actual decisions made, if any, at either meeting. I think they settled on holding a new linkage meeting -- periodic evening meet-ups with PTOs and community groups -- with students from SIS, in addition to one with high school students. I'm stumped trying to think of anything else.

Consideration of a revised policy around board-superintendent communication will be delayed until September. This policy signals to district employees who is in charge, what they can expect from the board, and whether they have any recourse if things go bad with their principal or any administrator. The proposed revisions state even more clearly that the superintendent is the first and primary contact for district employees, basically up until someone has a concern directly about him or her specifically.

As I noted in my preview, I don't think it's healthy for the Superintendent to be the one and only recipient of communications from employees. The most recent revision allows for concerns that are explicitly *about* the superintendent to go to the board president. But as I brought up to the board during public comments, there's a lot of gray area between what is purely operational stuff that belongs to the superintendent (e.g. "I need more resources to teach kids about soil erosion,) and what would clearly under this revision go to the board, (e.g. "I suspect the superintendent is embezzling public funds.") What's wrong with allowing -- even welcoming -- staff who reach out the board about matters that fall in between those two?

It's possible the board is receiving a lot of messages from district staff that really belong on the superintendent's desk -- that would explain making these revisions. I doubt it, but even if it were true, it's not that hard to forward those messages, and it can't hurt the board to see what's heading to the superintendent's desk. Why do we need to so explicitly limit employees' communication to the board? Based on the little bit of the special meeting I did hear, it sounds like new board member Pablo Muirhead is not comfortable limiting communication between board members and staff. While the other members listened to his concerns, in general to me it appears that the rest of the board is most interested in making sure that the boundary between board and superintendent is as crystal clear as possible, and that 99.9% of concerns from staff go to the superintendent's inbox and not their own.

Although the revised policy was on the agenda for the regular meeting, Superintendent Bryan Davis said that representatives of the Shorewood Education Association, the local teacher's union*, and its state counterpart were reviewing the policy revisions and needed more time to offer comments. Because Dr. Muirhead and board member Rodney Cain won't be at the Aug. 8 meeting and the Aug. 22 meeting will be the district's big annual budget adoption meeting, this policy adoption will be on hold until at least September.

At the end of the regular board meeting later, I told the board that I hope they will think beyond the corporate model where the buck stops with the CEO -- in this case, the superintendent. For a private company, maybe that's OK, but for a public agency with elected representatives, the superintendent should not be the only recourse for staff with concerns. The district is a public entity and its transparent, fair and smooth functioning makes our community healthy. We should allow for as many healthy communication channels as possible.

As for the other big item on the agenda, the report on the district's "learning environment," I wish I could tell you the board's response to survey results from teachers and students was one of deep unease and tough questioning. It wasn't really. Board President Paru Shah and others did press for details about how the superintendent and Director of Pupil Services Jeff Cyganiak will address the apparently inconsistent manner in which the district's behavioral standards are enforced.

The plan is to better communicate the standards with teachers, parents and students, and to also take the first part of the school year to revise the Code of Conduct (as was previously planned). But it didn't feel like this was framed as an emergency response so much as reassurance following a disappointment. Maybe that's all it is for some folks - a disappointment -- but I see a significant crisis in the figures in these survey responses. Dr. Shah mentioned, for example, that not only did just 30% of district staff say that student discipline is consistently enforced by all staff, but there was some major inconsistency by school. At SIS, only 8% of teachers agreed that student discipline was handled consistently by all staff. That's a big problem, right? For one thing, doesn't inconsistency like that leave the district vulnerable to litigation? What if your kid was suspended and it hurt him academically, and you found out that punishment was pretty much arbitrary? Just sayin'.

These numbers are not a surprise, I suppose -- it is in fact just verification of what parents were saying to district leadership all of last year. (which I did point out in my comments, and urged the board to remember and take to heart as a reminder that parents know what's going on ... you're welcome). Dr. Davis did mention that the new Dean of Students at SIS will hopefully give teachers the support they said they needed, which is good -- but I'd like to see the board think more deeply on this issue, and come back with more questions for the administration. I'd also love to see them revise how we think about measuring success when it comes to discipline. Is it only consistency we're after, or do we want to simply see trust, a sense of fairness, and a thorough understanding of the rules from students, parents and staff? Why aren't we measuring those things?

Again in the vein of considering how and when the board is supposed to be engaging with constituents, the board set a draft of linkage meetings for next fall. Along with adding a meeting with SIS, the board may look at ways of getting feedback from or debriefing with the folks like the PTO leadership or students or teachers. Typically only a few of the board members will attend a linkage, and then report back to the board. The "other side" of the linkage doesn't really have a chance to concur, add to or dispute the way the board members characterize the meeting to the rest of the board. I told the board it would be great to somehow get a second viewpoint, either in writing or at the full board meetings following linkages.

Oh, and one somewhat embarrassing note -- I said in my preview that the board was taking up a resolution to become a sanctuary district -- but in fact they were just taking up a follow-up item for the resolution they already adopted earlier this year. I was there when they did it, but I'd forgotten they took a vote! Also I didn't read the agenda item for this week carefully enough. The board in fact just took a moment to go over the ways in which the registration process follows the intent to protect students. They confirmed with administrators that the district will not keep or share any records with law enforcement that would make undocumented students vulnerable. All good stuff -- my apologies if anyone was expecting a new or different resolution to come up.

More to come as I look at the survey responses more deeply. This is the only board meeting in July, so I'll have a little time before the next meeting. Mark your calendars now for the Aug. 22 "Annual Meeting" for the district -- more on that soon as well!

*In my preview I incorrectly stated that the teachers don't have a union, which I realize is not the case -- I meant a union in the sense that the union was able to protect teachers' jobs before Act 10 was passed. It remains a useful and important voice for teachers, but thanks to our governor, it is limited in its ability to advocate for and protect its members. I should have been more specific.

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