Friday, September 14, 2012

Defining the Role of a School Board Director

Someone asked me the other day how I would define the role of a school board director.  It was a good question and after our initial discussion, I pondered it some more and decided to share my thoughts here.  

As I see it, the school board is elected from members of the general public in the district as representatives of the public.  Some districts have the district sectioned up and elect a board member from each section and often, one "at large" member.  That means that each section is represented, in theory, by someone who cares a lot about those neighborhoods and schools.  Everett just has general Directors from any part of the district.  The only requirement is pretty much that you live IN the district.  

Once a school board member is elected, I believe their number one obligation is to the public who sent them there with their vote.  In my mind, they should be in constant contact with the public.  If there is an important issue, they should reach out to the voters for feedback. Their own votes should be cast only after taking the pulse of the taxpayers, not based on some assumption or personal political agenda.  

It's so easy today to do this.  Decades ago, reaching out to the public meant phone calls, letters, paper surveys, expensive postage, time, etc.  Today, the district can reach out to every parent with an email address.  Yes, I know, there are more taxpayers than just parents in the district.  But, I am sure that for the purposes of the school board, a list could be set up of non-parent taxpayers who want to be informed about what the school district is doing with their money.  After all, 46% of all home-owner's property taxes go to fund schools in this state.  I have several neighbors without children in the schools, but I believe they should have say in the matter, too, since their dollars are there.  

But with social media and other tech advances, reaching out to the public is as easy as a few clicks of the mouse.  It took them a long time to start videoing the school board meetings.  Director Olson had requested it for over a year.  I believe they started mostly because SHE was videoing them from her own seat.  Suddenly, a camera quietly started appearing in the back corner of the room (of course no credit was given to her for the suggestion).  However, suggestions they involve high school students in web-casting them live was ignored.  

I am puzzled as to why our current School Board doesn't maintain a Facebook page.  Actually, I'm not THAT puzzled, because they seem to not want anything to do with social media.  One current Director called our group on Facebook, "Social Media Chatter" with a disdainful tone. I don't expect them to all take to Twitter, but come on - how hard is it to set up a Facebook page and allow people to hit "LIKE" to get updates?  They must believe their web page is user friendly and interactive.  It's not. Meeting reminders and links to agendas, minutes and videos showing up in Facebook feeds is a lot more user friendly and interactive.  The public doesn't know where to find this stuff so, if you truly want the public involved, you'll make it easy for them.  

Are they afraid of knowing what the public thinks?  I think so.  Director Jessica Olson has her own Facebook page and she has faced some uncalled-for attacks there.  But, for the most part, she is just sharing information and listening to the public - which should be the desire of the other 4 members of the board.  They represent the public, yet, at the same time, seem to not want to hear what the public thinks.  

The Everett School Board Project has our own Facebook page and with almost 200 parents and taxpayers over there, we often have good discussions about our schools.  I know the Everett School District (and the media) are paying attention, but none of them, except Director Olson, has chosen to participate in our discussion.  They most likely sit around mad because we are often critical.  But, if we feel like they aren't listening to us, what else are we supposed to do?  We feel like we have no voice in the people we elected to BE our voice and we all understand how easy it would be for them to connect with us.  Choosing not to sends a clear message.  

We must remember that these 5 people are all equally elected to represent the interests of the public with regards to the schools and to oversee the schools on behalf of the public.  They should be talking to the public and they should be asking the hard questions the public wants them to ask.  I am often dismayed to sit in a school board meeting and listen to a presentation about MSP scores or new programs, etc. and at the end of the presentation, when the directors are given the opportunity to ask questions, most of them sit silently as if there was nothing to ask. REALLY? There's nothing in that presentation that you'd like clarification on?  You don't feel the desire or need to question how things are REALLY going, how the money is being spent or whether or not a new program was effective?  That is shocking to me.  

Think like the public and be aware of what the public thinks. Then communicate with the public - all simple "Marketing 101" concepts for entities that would like to serve their "customers" well.  These are things we should all expect from the five directors of the Everett School Board but don't feel like we are getting.  I hope that in the next election of 2 school board members in 2013, that the public chooses people who feel a sense of obligation to the public and not to the Union, the superintendent or the other board members.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

September 11 School Board Meeting Report

Sat through the first school board meeting of the new school year last night.  At times, it becomes a personally victory to outlast every other non-district employee in the room.  When I finally left after 3 1/2 hours, it was just me and the education reporter from the Everett Herald left in the cheap seats.  I think she was about to leave, too.  We should have gotten a prize as we left.  

The meeting had two main purposes last night.  First, to present the district-wide results of the Washington State MSP (Measurement of Student Progress) test.  And, second, for the board to vote to accept the new three year teacher contract including a lengthy justification of the new "Early Release Fridays" to provide collaboration time for teachers.  

A whole lot of time was given to the newly accepted three year teacher contract last night.  The calendar is actually a good thing.  Instead of what seems like endless amounts of random early release days throughout the year, they have decided to put most of them on Fridays from October through May.  So, our kids will get out 75 minutes early (not totally a half day) every Friday.  Thank goodness it's FRIDAY.  The scuttlebutt was that it started out as Wednesday which was totally useless.  At least on Friday you can hit the weekend a little early if you're going somewhere.  

Some of our breaks were shortened a bit and there were fewer half days of other types.  The result is that we get out in the TEENS in June (17th) which has been almost unheard of for a lot of years.  Last year we were out 10 days later than that.  Most parents I'm talking to like the calendar.  

However, the point of early release Fridays seems to be lost on a lot of people right now.  I heard the word "Collaboration" no less than 200 times last night (I should have counted.  I wanted to start screaming whenever I heard it after a while).   I agree that teachers need to be on the same page for continuity.  However, I am not entirely convinced that weekly sessions for an entire school year are needed to accomplish this.   But, the district seems to think it's the most brilliant plan EVER.  Oddly, most of the districts around us are already doing this or started it this year.  School Districts love to keep up with each other!

I appreciated the question asked by Director Pam LeSesne.  She wanted to know how the district was going to prove to the School Board and the Public that collaboration time improved student scores.  Throughout the presentation, I heard two disturbing assumptions.  First, that collaboration time was every bit as important as instruction time, and, second, that it shouldn't matter WHO your child gets for a certain subject.  With collaboration, all teachers should produce the same result.  Really?  That is sort of offensive to teachers.  That kind of implies that you could train anyone to present material and produce the same result.  I have no problem with a GREAT teacher helping an average or even poor teacher to be a better teacher.  But, teachers are not the same.  Two can present the exact same material and one will inspire and excite the students and the other can put them to sleep.  Personalities are different as are students.  There will never be equality to that extent no matter how much time is spent "Collaborating".  

Anyway, the answer to Director LeSesne's question was basically, "ANY increase in student test scores will be assumed to be a result of these collaboration Fridays."  Well, that doesn't prove ANYTHING.  If scores go DOWN, will THAT be assumed to be a result of a loss of instruction time because of these collaboration Fridays?  I'm thinking that would be a "no".

I HOPE that teachers will use this time as it's intended.  Like everyone, I want to see greater success among our students.  I want to be more than "average".  This is a huge change in the calendar and somewhat of an inconvenience for parents and if we can't measure results, then we need to get rid of it next year when they re-evaluate.  But, my gut tells me they will want more time and Fridays will become true half-days.  

The other very disturbing part of the contract was the Union wanting the school board to issue a statement against Initiative 1240 - the Washington State Charter School Initiative.  We are one of only 9 states in the country without charter schools.  If they are as bad as the Union wants you to believe, then why do 41 other states have them?  The Union wants the assurance that if that law passes (will of the people) that the Everett School Board (supposed to be "the people") will NOT authorize any charter schools in our district.  If they do, the Union can demand the whole contract be re-negotiated with 30 days notice.  It's akin to extortion.  "Permit charter schools here and we might exercise our option to make some trouble for you."  Wow.... The board didn't issue a statement against Charter Schools but DID agree to that provision to re-call the contract.  However, my gut tells me the majority of the members don't support Initiative 1240.  But, if it passes, I expect the board to honor the will of the people and not the will of the Union. They represent US (in theory but not reality).  But, then, we like "average" here so we wouldn't want a charter school to make us look bad....  

My final thought about the meeting last night was the pettiness that continues to plague the school board.  During Board Comment time, Director Carol Andrews felt the need to bring up the fact that Director Olson was absent last night (she was sick) and pointed out the exact percentage of meetings she has missed. She then spit out, "I thought we were a FIVE member board."  Then, she must have realized how ridiculous she sounded (given the fact that I am relatively sure that when Director Olson called in sick that there was some internal celebrating going on in at least 3 members and the superintendent given the content of the meeting last night) and said, "Well, I know there is a lot of sickness going around this time of year."  It was so petty and disingenuous because for nearly 2 years, it's been a FOUR member board with one member who is always the beaten down (literally and figuratively) outsider.  Carol got her dream last night - a discussion on a three year teacher's contract with a lot of unanswered questions in it and the presentation of very average MSP scores and no "Contrarian" to ask too many questions and make it "messy".  I am sure she was happy about Director Olson's absence so to act like they have this warm and fuzzy relationship with the 5th member and they missed her presence was just "Theater".  

Fun times....

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Happy September!

We kick off another school year on Wednesday.  Get involved so you can be informed of what's happening in our schools.  

  • Volunteer - if every parent gave just three hours of time each year, we could make a real difference in education.  If classroom volunteering isn't your thing, offer to help the teachers by saving them time.  I spent about half my kids' elementary school years as the "Copy Mom".  At first, the teachers were not sure they needed me to come in and copy their homework and worksheets every week.  But after a few weeks, they started to see how much time I was saving them.  Why have a teacher stand in the copy room?  Do it FOR them.  They always thanked me profusely and the end of the year and when I'd see them around the school the next year, they always said, "I miss you doing my copies for me!"
  • Network with other parents - help with parties, join the PTA, attend events and get to know other parents at the schools your children go to
  • Attend the School Board Meeting - I never realized what was actually going on with the school board until I went to my first meeting a year ago.  They are ultimately in charge of running our schools and just casting a vote may not be enough to make sure they're doing the job you would like to see them do.  There isn't nearly enough real public involvement with the school board.  Unfortunately for the public, though, the school board meetings is at 4:30 on a Tuesday.  It's the worst time possible for the public who is either at work, just getting elementary school kids home or about on their way to pick up older kids from sports. But, as Director Olson told a concerned member of the public who commented on it at the last meeting, "they are scheduled for the Board's convenience."  Sorry, but they should be scheduled for the PUBLIC'S convenience.  I have looked and there isn't another district around here who holds their School Board meetings at such a ridiculous and unfriendly time.  
  • Use Social Media to network and get information about our schools - Unfortunately, the Everett School District hasn't caught on to the idea of Social Media.  But, many PTAs and Booster Clubs have Facebook pages you can join.  Later this month, I'll try to get a good list compiled to post here for you.  Here are a couple of relevant pages to get you started, though. 

Make this year the year you finally get involved in the schools.  In 2013, we will have the opportunity to vote for two new School Board members and in 2014, we will be asked again to provide money for the schools.  Knowing what's going on with your schools is going to give you a far better perspective on your vote than reading a voter's pamphlet ever can.  

Calendar Now Available in Klingon

This cracked me up.  When the district sent out the link to the newly approved calendar, this is how it showed up in Google Chrome.  I was laughing so hard.  I didn't realize that Klingon was the new language of the Everett School District.  

I think the first day of school is 1/01 3 IT somewhere between V and DC but I'll have my kids ready to go on 1/01 STD 2 just in case I'm reading it wrong.