Saturday, August 8, 2009

To Rubberstamp or Compromise, that is the question!

I had received enough FACEBOOK invitations requests that I finally decided to setup an account. If you haven’t done so, you should! It’s very active, although it can be very distracting. Mine's here.

Anyway, in the process of searching for friends I stumbled across a few fairly recent articles about my friend Melanie Kurdys, a Board Trustee in Portage Michigan.

Mlive: Portage school board: Same song, new verse (06/01/09)

Mlive: Tensions linked to trustee aired during Portage school board retreat (07/15/09)

Melanie is an outstanding trustee, one who works tirelessly to reform an education system that is simply not very effective by any measure. I wrote about her efforts to address the fact that many high school graduates must take remedial math in college. The article can be found here.

She’s being exposed to the same complaints many reformers face, which is that she should simply sit at the table and vote “AYE”.

I posted these two articles because they provide great insight into the ugly world of school politics.

The articles are sad because they show a clear divide in the district. You can read the comments posted on the newspaper site, and see there are those who root for the majority, and those who root for the underdog. It should not be a contest, at least not like this.

Unless that board majority can learn to compromise, then the community will stay divided and ultimately the children will lose.

The articles focus on the tired old debate about whether a trustee should actively understand an issue before voting, or whether they should instead simply rubber stamp whatever is put in front of them.

This is exactly the problem we have in Washington right now, where the Obama Administration wants Congress to pass bills without reading them.

I fail to understand the logic in the rubber-stamp approach. If the administration’s proposals cannot withstand a little scrutiny, then maybe they shouldn’t advance them.

And if a majority of board members don’t want to understand what they are approving, then they are free to change policy so that the administration has more leeway and the board has less oversight. Or, they can conduct offline study sessions or sub-committee meetings, where the administration can make its case to those board members who are interested in understanding the issues before they approve it.

But instead, this Portage board whines about Melanie asking reasonable questions. They call it “micromanaging”. They hope to bully Melanie into capitulation.

Furthermore, they offer the absurd claim that, “You're holding almost the whole school district hostage." How is that possible if they have a 6 to 1 majority? They are free to ignore Melanie, as is done when the autocratic board President Shirley Johnson says, "We're moving on." (That's happened to me several times, where board members have been OK with "Calling the Question", which according to Robert's Rule ends discussion.)

So why exactly is this an issue for the Portage board?

Because Melanie goes against the cultural grain of their "social club", which expects members to not only go along, but go along happily and quietly.

Melanie is doing neither. She asks intelligent questions – questions the board cannot ignore – and they resent her for that.

But it's more than just petty resentment. The heart of the problem – and I see this whenever you have a reform-minded trustee on a school board – is that the status quo majority doesn’t compromise. Either they don’t know how, or don’t want to.

If they don’t want to, well, then that’s the end of the story.

But I often wonder whether school board troubles are caused by the fact that trustees don’t know how to compromise.

So here are some suggestions for Portage:

1) Believe that compromise is important. Board trustees like those in Portage offer an interesting logical conflict. They have the majority, and can do whatever they want. But that is not enough for them. They not only want to have it their way, but they don’t want anyone to complain about it. If they truly want to eliminate the complaints, then they need to forge solutions in which everyone has some skin in the game.

2) Stop viewing issues in isolation. If a particular item only has an “either/or” option, then try to couple a few items together. This might allow for a little “give and take”, which is the fundamental ingredient in compromise. You might never get all trustees to support everything, but if each trustee is satisfied that the compromise is in some way advancing an objective they find important, then you are likely to see a substantial reduction in the volume and frequency of objections.

3) If it’s clear that there is substantial disagreement on an issue, then consider tabling it for a meeting, in an effort to find some common ground (see suggestion 1 & 2 above!).

Many school issues have no “right or wrong” answers, but are instead more a matter of perspective or philosophy. This leads to messy school politics, and that is not likely to change. However, the present practice of the majority exerting absolute rule without regard to compromise is a proven loser.

I've pasted below the articles in case the links don't work.

==> Mike.

Portage school board: Same song, new verse
Posted by jmack June 01, 2009 23:04PM
Are we surprised that things got a bit tense during Monday's Portage school board meeting?


Are we surprised the squabbling was sparked by whether Melanie Kurdys, in the opinion of her fellow board members, was trying to micromanage?

No again.

It's a familiar pattern. And, incidentally, another interpretation of the tussle is that Kurdys was asking questions in the interest of accountability and transparency, only to be slapped down by her colleagues.

I report. You decide.

First, Kurdys asked about the proposed traffic pattern for the new Central High School, which has been repeatedly criticized as unsafe by Portage resident Bob Schafer. Superintendent Marsha Wells and others told Kurdys that state and city officials had signed off on the traffic plan, but Kurdys said she wanted to see the paperwork herself, saying it was possible that state officials had approved the plan while expressing reservations. When Trustee Dale Posthumus suggested, in effect, that Kurdys overstepping her bounds, she said she was willing to file a Freedom of Information Act request if need be.

Then came a discussion about the brickwork for the new Central High School. One of the bidders was upset his bid had gotten rejected, and the construction managers said it was because the project called for extra-large bricks and they wanted to go with a firm experienced with making that particular size. Kurdys suggested that perhaps the real problem was the design of the school, and questioned the use of the extra-large bricks, saying her research found those kind of bricks can lead to leakage around windows.

The other board members seemed openly exasperated, saying they weren't going to second-guess the administration and the building contractors about the school design at this point. "This is not a board-level decision," Vice President Jennifer Whistler said. "If we get into this, we're opening a can of worms."

Then came Round Three, when the board was briefed on a proposal for technology for the new Twelfth Street Elementary. Kurdys said that perhaps installing new technology for teachers at the new school is a big mistake, considering that the staff already will be adjusting to a new building, a new student body and a new districtwide math curriculum. Plus, Kurdys questioned if the new technology would actually improve student outcomes, and how the district would collect data to establish that fact.

At that point, the other board members didn't even pretend to hide their annoyance. "To say, 'Why are we doing this?' is to revisit a decision made a year and a half ago," board President Shirley Johnson said. "We're moving on."

Tensions linked to trustee aired during Portage school board retreat
Posted by Julie Mack Kalamazoo Gazette July 15, 2009 22:47PM

KALAMAZOO -- A Portage school-board retreat on Wednesday resembled "Survivor" crossed with C-Span.

In the midst of a day spent talking about policy governance, the seven trustees on the Portage Public Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Marsha Wells engaged in a frank airing of grievances and a candid discussion about board tensions.
Six trustees, including two who have been on the board for less than eight months, suggested the board was being paralyzed by the actions of the seventh trustee, Melanie Kurdys.

"I have to say, in my 36 years of professional life, I've never seen one person so totally dominate an organization," said Trustee John Whyte, who joined the board in December. "This is a nonfunctioning board, and we don't get things done, Melanie, because all of us are too busy trying to satisfy your wants and your needs. ... You're holding almost the whole school district hostage."

Kurdys, who was elected in 2007 on a platform of transparency and accountability, considers herself the board watchdog, making frequent requests for information and seeking public input on school-district matters large and small.

During the two board meetings in June, for instance, Kurdys questioned the traffic-safety plan and choice of bricks for the new Portage Central High School, the installation of state-of-the art technology in 12th Street Elementary, which is to open next month, and various budget issues.

Other trustees said Wednesday that they appreciate her perspective but not her approach. They criticized Kurdys for micromanaging administration; monopolizing board discussions, leaving little time for others to talk; launching surprise attacks at board meetings; and making public comments that undermined fellow trustees and administrators. They also said she often resurrects old disputes, preventing the board from moving forward.

For her part, Kurdys said the board has a history of trying to silence dissent. "Individuals who see things differently than the majority either end up quitting or leaving bitter," she said. "It seems like this board spends a lot of time trying to control me."

Trustee Randy Borden, who was elected in May, said he ran for office without taking sides but that he already sees why other trustees are displeased with Kurdys.
He said he was startled, for instance, that during last month's vote on the district's budget, that Kurdys turned to the audience and said, "No one is accountable for this budget." Borden said the comment left the impression that the administration and board are not to be trusted.

"The grandstanding that goes on at meetings is continuous," Vice President Dale Posthumus said to Kurdys. "It seems at every turn you're taking some opportunity to make the school district look bad."

Kurdys said she is raising important issues. "Do you really think I'm intentionally trying to find things wrong in the district?" she said. "Why would I do that?"
She said, however, that she appreciated the honesty of her fellow board members in addressing the "elephant in the room."

"I see the pieces I need to do to be more effective in getting my ideas into the room," she said at the end of the retreat.

Prodded by facilitator Mike Washburn, a retired superintendent from Forest Hills, Kurdys and other trustees agreed to several procedures to help ensure board meetings stay focused and respectful. For instance, when a board member brings up issues that others feel are not board-level matters, they agreed they will decide as a group whether to discuss them or move on.

At the end of the seven-and-a-half-hour retreat, trustees agreed the meeting was helpful and offered optimism.

"I see the change in the atmosphere already," Secretary Deb Polderman said. Then she added, "but we've said that before."

1 comment:

Bill said...


I know nothing of this situation other than the two stories you've linked here. But I'm not sure your thesis (she's being persecuted because she's a reformer) and your attempted connection of the Portage Board to the Obama administration is fair or supported by your evidence.

If the first story is correct, it sounds like your friend was raising a lot of questions very late in the game--well, in fact, after the game had been completed and the teams had gone home. In the case of the computers, a year-and-a-half after the teams had gone home.

The second story actually sounds like it was a productive session for this person and the rest of the board to go into a retreat to resolve differences. Not sure that story is negative to any of the parties involved.

It's been my experience that almost everything boils down to personalities and the ability of those personalities to interact by being able to get their views out there without insulting others. For whatever reason, it doesn't sound like that's happening in Portage. While I don't know that your friend is "the" problem--there is also no evidence she isn't a big part of the problem, or that she's just being persecuted for asking tough questions and being a reformer.

Take, for example, Wendy Day. Say what you will but she is public relations trainwreck of the first order. I don't think I've ever been witness to a sitting board member actively circulating petitions for recall for her fellow board members--and blogging with the tone of a 4th grader in the process. Again, who's right, who's wrong, all the details--who knows. But outsiders looking at her conduct and her blog have to ask themselves "what the hell?"

If I take a seat as a board member next January, as it looks like I might, I sure as hell won't be blogging about it and tying in my personal political beliefs and religious beliefs to the school, its actions, and its employees.

Good freaking grief already. Are you really that mystified why these types of behaviors don't work?