Saturday, August 2, 2008

Operational Amateurism

While this post may appear on the surface to be of local interest, I thought it was worth posting to a larger audience because it’s so typical of the operational amateurism practiced by too many school boards throughout the year.

It will continue to be exceedingly difficult to solve the complex challenges facing public education today until local school boards become more professional in the way they conduct discussions and make decisions.

This story involves an appointment, but as you read it consider how this could just as easily be about a budget decision, or a multi-million dollar construction bid, or a complex curriculum review.

The Rochester school board recently appointed a local citizen to fill a vacant board seat. The man chosen is a retired Colonel and West Point graduate, who will undoubtedly bring valuable skills to the board. His written career credentials were impressive, and he did a fine job during his interview. He offers thoughtful perspectives on some of the issue I believe are important, and I'm eager to hear more from him. I voted to support his appointment, and I don’t vote “AYE” unless I mean it.

“West Point – a school that has produced a man to meet every emergency that has ever confronted the county.” Col. R. Ernest Dupuy, March 12, 1952

The condition of public education certainly warrants a man of this caliber!

My frustration lies not in the appointment, but with the school board’s method of conducting business.

The board cobbled together an applicant "narrowing process" at a public meeting, only to then tweak it via email – out of the public eye. I had concerns about the Open Meetings Act and raised them, only to be ignored. Subsequent requests for public discussion, as well as my request to finalize the process before the final interviews, were completely ignored.

The board proceeded to conduct hours of interviews with the candidates, grilling them about budgets, curriculum, facilities, and so on. Both the questions and the answers were thoughtful, and I fully expected that the board would recess in order to consider the answers provided by the eager candidates (I had 14 pages of notes to review.)

But the board didn't take a single minute to reflect upon the interviews. In fact, there was absolutely no discussion by the board about the answers given. You’d think some collaborative effort to compare and contrast the responses would’ve been in order, given the importance of the decision.

Instead, the board quickly leapt to tear strips of paper into makeshift ballots, and board members were instructed to rank the candidates – in secret.

It was a fait accompli at that point, almost making one wonder whether the decision had already been made prior to the meeting.

Afterwards, board members were reluctant to explain the reasoning behind their rankings, and offered no explanation of the criteria used to evaluate interview responses. However, they were willing to give speeches about the personality features they found appealing in the person selected. Based on their comments, I'm left to conclude that the interview questions had no bearing on the decision.

Of course the district’s video system – which could’ve recorded and broadcast the proceedings in an open way -- was down for those few days… a pure coincidence I’m sure. None of the local media was present to watch, and of the 15 people in the audience at least half were district employees.

So while I believe this board has a strong and valuable new Trustee, it’s hard to say that it happened BECAUSE of the board, and not DESPITE the board. The community is quite fortunate it had such a strong stable of applicants.

Again, my objective here is to illustrate how boards operate. Consider how a decision-making process like this might apply to almost any agenda item. Currently, a topic will appear on a public agenda on a Thursday night; the board meets the following Monday, hears 15 minutes of presentations, has almost no discussion, takes no time to think about the presentation or the comments from other board members, and then provides a unanimous (or near unanimous) approval – every single time.

And oftentimes it occurs under the watchful eye of only a small handful of people.

Any hope of improving our schools must start with a more engaged public, and absolutely must include a more professional approach to decision making.