Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Abusing the Consent Agenda: when a Tool becomes a Weapon

When Director Jessica Olson joined the Everett School Board in 2009, the rest of the school board quickly determined that the public had not elected just another “Rubber Stamp”.  She asked questions and demanded transparency - qualities the public elected her for because the current Board had just suffered through one of the most humiliating episodes ever seen when they approved the secret recording of a teacher in her classroom.  It was so bad that the Superintendent ended up resigning over it.  The public was ready for someone who intended to represent their interests.  

The rest of the board didn't like Jessica’s constant demands that they be as transparent as possible.  She asked a lot of questions - too many for their liking and demanded video recordings of meetings.  

For example, the “Consent Agenda” is the part of the meeting where everything that the majority of the board doesn’t feel needs to be discussed is put and it’s all approved with one single vote - it's generally for recurring and routine items.  It can become a vehicle for abuse and, as one School Board community activist in Florida says, "It's a way to hide sins". 

Traditionally in this district, a Director may submit a request to the board president to pull an item from the Consent Agenda with 3 days notice, but the board president can deny the request - which he seems to do almost all the time when Director Olson makes one.

A second chance to pull an item for discussion was to request it be pulled just before voting.  That had been the policy for many years - until Director Olson started using it.  The reaction of the board was to use their majority to silence her by changing two policies (SEE ABOVE PHOTOS) that had not been changed since 2001. Now, every request to pull an item from the consent agenda for DISCUSSION must have the “second” of another Director.  Guess what happens when she makes a request?  You can hear crickets....  It seems that more and more items are now finding their way onto the Consent Agenda. Not every expenditure or policy change needs lengthy discussion, but when I see something that needs to be questioned, it should be easy to question it. These people are supposed to represent the public and the public wants to be sure it's money is being spent appropriately and in a manner that helps students do their best.  Yet, they consider the Consent Agenda an easy way to shove anything through.  They also consider it their legally required "Audit". So, their strategy is to just say, "Yes".  That sets up a nice little situation for some pretty serious abuse.  (Remember what happened in Seattle?) 

This is an opportunity to turn the tide of pettiness and lack of accountability. I would work to change these policies back.  And, should Rod Reynolds and myself get elected to create a NEW MAJORITY, we would not use policy changes to silence those we disagree with.  We’re more mature than that. Nor would we use the Consent Agenda to approve items that really don't belong on it. But, this board has perfected the art of hiding anything they don't want to discuss on it.  Then, they allow the public to make comments only AFTER they have put their rubber stamp on it rendering any plea for discussion completely useless.  

“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” - Patrick Henry, “Virginia Convention Speech,” 1788

Friday, September 13, 2013

A "Community Discussion" aka a College Level Crash Course in the Delphi Technique....

I don't like the term "Delphi Technique".  It makes it sound like I'm watching for the Black Helicopters while wearing a tinfoil hat.  However, I didn't make the term up and the district would probably vigorously deny they use the technique, but I've read a lot about it and have learned to spot it a mile away.  They can deny all they want to, but they embrace this particular form of public manipulation with a love I can't describe.  But then, most government agencies do.  It's a way to pretend to get public input on projects so when the public complains later, you remind them that they held "public discussions" about it earlier.  I've heard that time and time again about the administration building.  

I could write a book on why last night's "Do We Need Another High School in the Everett School District" community meeting was such a sham and the public was totally duped.  It was pathetic at how smugly they swept everyone right into a corner and sad how many people just smiled and went along "for the kids". 

Nearly the first statement out of Mike Gunn’s mouth was “Trust the process”. Too bad I didn't see red flags pop up on the top of everyone’s heads.  They should have.  Then we were told that Pam Posey was an “expert in this process”.  Yes, she is.  I think the next statement should have been “sit back, put on your seat belts and prepare to be duped.”

There were about 35 people in the room.  I guess about 50 registered so it wasn't a bad turnout.  Each of our name tags had a table number on it.  I happened to end up at a table with another ESBP member.  Some tables weren't fully populated so my friend and the person at her table also got put at ours.  Two of the tables were each given one of three possibilities.

  1. Remodel Jackson and Cascade to add capacity (cheapest option)
  2. Turn Gateway into a small high school and build another middle school (next cheapest option but they claimed would take the longest – so obviously they didn't like that one)
  3. Build a new small high school and a new elementary school side-by-side ($85 million for just the high school alone)

Our table was given scenario 3 and we were told we had to “defend that scenario to the group” later.  So, right off the bat we were essentially told this was not a discussion, but a defense of something that we may or may not like.  Pam Posey said it was to “Get people to take a position they wouldn't normally choose.”  I looked for red flags again and saw none, unfortunately. 

During the discussion, anything negative about that scenario was smacked down.  Unfortunately, one mother of a Kindergartner at our table latched on to that “nothing negative” attitude with a vengeance.  I finally told her that downsides MUST be discussed if this is going to be a real conversation. The district even gave us some “suggested benefits” like the fact that the new high school would have, are you ready for it, AN ARTIFICIAL TURF FIELD!!! Wow…. In 10 years we might have a high school with an artificial TURF FIELD!!!   I think that was the start of my migraine. 

After nailing down some warm fuzzy comments about why we should build an $85 million small high school we’ll probably quickly outgrow (it WOULD be structured to add more classrooms later) at the extreme southern end of our district, we combined with the table next to us for sharing time.  At that point, our facilitator wrote all our happy thoughts on a big white easel pad. Again, every negative was turned to a positive, but by that time, the “positivity” was practically a blizzard in the room. 

A presenter was chosen (a Jackson counselor who was in our group jumped up and volunteered and lead off with a point that nobody really made – he called it our “NUMBER ONE point” – which wasn't true).  Then each group presented our “defense” of our scenario.  I LOVED the group doing Scenario 1.  They had two presenters and one of them happened to be a very tenacious girl from Jackson.  She didn’t always speak positively about the other options and I liked it.  There was no way they were going to shut her down.  She liked the idea of a big high school with greater varieties of activities and classes.  In defending her opinion, she took some swipes at the other options.  I smiled….

Our group presented our ideas last.  The number one point which sounded to me like a “plant” was that “Dollars spent today are cheaper than dollars spent 20 years from now”.  That was merely a re-phrasing of the “construction costs are cheaper now than they will be in the future” that they used to build Club Ed.  That was HIS point, not the group’s point and it’s not completely a true statement. 

When each presentation was over, Pam Posey very CLEARLY said, “Are there QUESTIONS OF CLARIFICATION?  QUESTIONS OF CLARIFICATION????” (“Clarification” is totally Delphi Technique).  That was the only “discussion” allowed.  My friend asked a question of one of the groups and started to make a statement and Pam said, “QUESTIONS OF CLARIFICATION!!!!” to her and I replied kind of loudly, “LET HER TALK!”.  But, most people were just “cowed” into doing what they were told (their plan was going nicely).

After the three presentations, we were asked to go stand by the one we liked the most. Then, those who wanted to got to “defend” why they changed positions.  At one point some people started to chat amongst themselves and Pam said loudly from the middle of the room, “THIS IS A COMMUNITY DISCUSSION!!!”  In other words, “NO private discussion was allowed.”  Heaven forbid people should talk amongst themselves and come to their own conclusion.  My friend and I kept talking….

A lot of people never picked a scenario, FYI.  I just went and stood by the expansion because it was the cheapest.  They want to ask for a quarter of a billion dollars and that is ridiculous. 

One question I had that I don’t think Mike Gunn wanted to answer or didn't really know was, in their THREE expert opinions about growth, did anyone take into account that technology changes so quickly that we simply don’t know what high school COULD look like in 10 years?  Ten years ago we didn't have all the online opportunities we do now.  We might have kids watching lectures from Jackson at home while they get ready for work.  Schedules might be so flexible that the high school may have classes from 6 am to 6 pm to accommodate different tracks of kids.  From what I hear, Mukilteo is expecting their elementary crunch to work itself out by the time those kids get to high school due to the changing nature of what high school COULD be.  I also asked about the possibility of a charter opening and acting as a pressure valve.  I may or may not have seen him have a mini stroke when I said “Charter School” – LOL  But, it’s a valid question that I DO NOT believe anyone has talked about because they are extremely anti-Charter.  Approving a STEM or ARTS Charter High School would probably relieve the over-crowding without having to build an $85 million high school building.  I believe Charter Schools have to find their own space.

I am not denying that we currently have some over-crowding going on which could lead to the same in the future.  But, I'm extremely distrustful of the current administration after what they did to the public with the new administration building.  It's a trust and integrity issue.  They are merely setting a stage to elicit our sympathetic vote for a QUARTER BILLION DOLLAR bond vote next February.  It will be the most amount they have ever asked for and cost us all approximately an additional $200/year on our property taxes. However, and most importantly, according to their own bond language, nothing we want could happen and they can change the list at any time with a vote of the school board, if they deem, say, a multi-story parking garage at the new administration building "more necessary" than a new elementary school.  You think they'd NEVER do that?  Well, you'd think they'd never let kids have sub-standard facilities in exchange for new offices for them, but they did.   

So, there you have it.  My friend and I walked out pretty disgusted with the process.  It was nearly a pure exhibition of the Delphi Technique and now the district can parade around the fact that they got “public input”.   I don’t know how you can be so dishonest with people and sleep at night.  The public isn’t giving any input that isn't given to them first.

BTW - the cost of that Administration Building could have pretty much built a new elementary school... think about that while your 5th grader is sitting in a class of 35 kids.