Thursday, March 15, 2012

R*E*S*P*E*C*T - find out what it means to me

Someone recently asked me why I'm doing what I'm doing.  It wasn't a hostile question (although I'm sure some would love to ask me that in a hostile manner).  It was just a "why are you worrying about the school board and what do you want them to do?" question.  

Do I want to be on the school board?  Nope.  That is not my intention at all.  So, what DO I want?  I'm sure inquiring minds want to know.  

In the words of Aretha Franklin, I want R*E*S*P*E*C*T.  Not for me personally, but for the parents and students of this school district.  I said as much after a particularly bad day for the school board last year.  

In the last few years, many members of the Everett School Board have been on a roller coaster of disrespect and disregard for the general public. You can view a quick timeline of events with links from the Everett Herald HERE.  The paper has way too many articles of the troubles we've faced and way too few of good things going on in district.  Yet, changing the tide of public opinion would be SO EASY.   From 2001 - 2009, I was a consultant for small specialty retailers.  I helped people start businesses in the Memory Preservation Industry.  I beat one drum over and over - that the greatest thing they could do is to provide knock-your-socks-off service to their customers.  DELIGHT them in simple but unexpected ways.  For example, when I order from an online pet medication site, the box of medicine always comes with a Milk Bone for my dog.  How simple is that?  Yet, I'm delighted to know that someone put in an extra treat for my dog.  It doesn't take much to make people happy, but it takes the right attitude and the knowledge that they don't have to be your customer so you better give them a reason to.  

Business lessons can and should be applied to government agencies.  But they aren't very often because of the attitude of "where else you gonna go?"  School districts have somewhat adopted that attitude, but they shouldn't have.  People moving into our area have choices.  If you work at Boeing, you could live anywhere from Stanwood to Seattle.  How many school districts is that to choose from?  We should be known as the BEST one in terms of leadership and academics.  Right now, we are known for the dozens of newspaper articles dating back to 2007 that chronicle one problem after another.  

I saw a news report online today about a school board president and a teacher getting into a cat fight at the school in front of students. You know what my first reaction was?  "Hey, at least our physical altercation didn't happen in public."  Nice...

So, what do I want to see done?  Do I want them all to resign so we can have a do-over?  Okay, in the world of Rainbows and Unicorns, that would be my fantasy option.  However, who's to say we would get a different or better mix?  But, what can THIS group do?  I believe the dysfunction is nearly terminal at this point but the fact of the matter is that these 5 School Directors were equally elected by a vote of the people.  They stand on equal footing.  Four are not superior to one and one is not superior to four.  They MUST find a way to resolve this - they are obligated to, in my opinion.

So, here are my suggestions:

  1. Marriage Counseling - if you will.  I believe this group needs mediation.  They need to sit down with a professional and hash out their issues without any fighting, yelling, sighing or eye-rolling allowed.  Right now they are like an old pressure cooker waiting to explode.  I believe a mediator should be at every executive session - that's where the disrespect really seems to shine - away from the public eye.  And, through mediation and perhaps outside legal counsel (not the attorney they usually use), settle once and for all the official district definition of transparency and then everyone agree to it and adhere to it.  Ironically, they held a public meeting on government transparency and then went back to fighting about it the very next week.  
  2. Communication - the one thing that seems to be a sore spot is that Director Jessica Olson has a Facebook page.  At one point, someone said there was a lot of "Social Media Chatter" surrounding all the issues of the board.  I assume they were referring to Director Olson's page and the Everett School Board Project page.  But, hey, welcome to the 21st Century!  I cannot believe that the school board doesn't maintain it's own Facebook page.  Information on meetings and the workings of the board could be posted.  One of the members said that I wasn't telling anyone about the good things they do. I wanted to say, "What would those be because I'm not seeing any right now".  So, fine, get your own page and inform the public.  Fight fire with fire.  That's what I would be doing.  
  3. Ask with a Desire to REALLY Know - A few years ago, my husband and I attended some public meetings regarding some massive budget cuts.  We were given a list that included everything from cutting staff at the district offices to raising lunch prices to cutting buses.  We sat at a table and came up with our top solutions.  Then each table shared theirs.  The reoccurring theme was to do things that caused the least disruption to students but might inconvenience the adults a bit.  I thought the room had provided some really thoughtful ideas.  Guess what happened the next Fall?  Virtually all elementary school children living within 1 mile of the school lost their bus.  Okay, not a big deal for most - I mean, we all walked and survived.  However, the school my kids had gone to was on a state Highway and from the first day that school opened, parents were told that under no circumstances could children walk or ride bikes to school - even those who literally lived next door to it - because the 45mph 5-lane highway was too dangerous.  But, suddenly, due to budget cuts, it magically became "safe".  I knew that would happen.  Prior to the start of the meeting in a little chit-chat with the superintendent, I suggested that government always goes for the throat in cuts.  They don't cut staff that no one cares about, they go for the biggest bang like closing community pools and parks.  They want to make the most taxpayers ANGRY so when they come around to ask for more money, they have a good sob story to stand behind.  Dr. Cohn looked at me and said, "Do you REALLY think they do that?"  I said, "Yes, I do".  And, several weeks after this meeting, they did.  

    So, the game is that the public is invited to meetings to talk about stuff, but at the end of the day, our opinion never feels like it matters.  For instance, this $27 million new district office building being built with dollars they skimmed off of our bond votes was never voted on by the public.  On paper it looks like it was because the board added this project to the list last year - like 3-4 years AFTER we voted.  But, they simply want to believe everyone is happy and on board with them spending this money.  Why are they afraid to ask?  With a few clicks of a mouse, they could send out a simple survey to 10,000 families to ask them if now is the time to spend every penny we have in our Capital Funds account on a new district office building.  This is money the taxpayers gave them for schools.  You can hear the back story about how they amassed the money HERE.  But, why not then ask the people who GAVE you the money if this is appropriate use of it?  If they were to do that and the majority of the respondents said, "yes" to a fairly-worded simple survey, I promise, I would be the first person to shut up.  But, when I talk to the families in the district about it, they are shocked and more than a little upset about what's going on.  

    I want the board to be unafraid of the public they were elected to represent and I want them to find ways to ask AND listen.  It's so extremely and stupidly easy to do today.  No money needs to be spent on postage.  Just fire out an email and ASK.   
  4. Meet At a Convenient Time - our board meetings start at 4:30 in the afternoon.  That has got to be the stupidest, most unreasonable time ever thought up.  Meeting at 10am would be better.  But, guess what's happening in the Everett School District at 4:30?  Kids getting off buses and arriving home, kids finishing up after school activities and needing rides, music lessons, moms and dads still at work, dinner prep, etc.  It could not be more inconvenient for the very people who should be openly invited to be at these meetings.  In order for me to go to the meetings, I have to have my husband work from home that day so he can drive kids around after school, and, if the meeting goes long, get them to their evening scout meeting.  I miss dinner myself and they end up eating fast food.  I know I am not alone in this challenge.  Their reasoning is that they also hold their executive sessions after the public meeting so it makes for a long night if they start later.  Simple solution - hold your executive session FIRST or on another night.  This goes back to providing good "customer service" to the public.  Will it fill up the room if it's at 6:30 or 7pm?  Probably not.  But it will at least be convenient for those wishing to come to the occasional board meeting.  
Four simple ways for our board to start turning around and making themselves more attractive to the media and the public at large.  I will give them one point.  When some of our group met with a couple of board members and the superintendent, we suggested they spend more time talking directly to the public.  Right now, the public makes a comment at board meetings and they are faced with stony silence. No dialogue between the board and the commentator is allowed.  We suggested they have some sort of round table discussion once a month where a board member sits with the public and discusses a certain topic.  It's something at least one School Board in our area does.  The board was somewhat considering that already and had their first one last month.  They have three more scheduled.  I didn't make it to the first "Talk to a Board Member", but reports are that it was a good thing.  Hopefully they will continue to do this and the public will grow more interested in attending.  

So, there you have it.  I don't want to be just a nag without a purpose.  I don't like the feeling I get when I walk into those School Board Meetings.  The thought bubble I see over the heads of several board members and the superintendent is "Oh crap, SHE'S here." I know they don't like what I'm doing - which says it needs to be done.  No one likes to be criticized and I get that. However, the public doesn't like to be marginalized - which is what has been going on for far too long in the Everett School District.