Friday, July 11, 2014

I Reached Out and Got Slapped...



The week after school was out, another member of the Everett School Board Project and I went and had what I would call a nice meeting with School Board President, Pam LeSesne and School Board Director, Caroline Mason.  

Was it testy at times - yes.  We haven't exactly had a friendly relationship. But, overall, it was a respectful and productive conversation.  I decided that it was time to go talk about the historic double bond failure and talk about possible reasons why it failed.  The district's official line seems to be that people just didn't have enough information.  Not sure where THAT information came from, but it seemed to be merely their opinion.  As far as I know, they did nothing to figure out why it failed twice.

Well, we did make an attempt to at least get some ideas and opinions from the general public as to why it may have failed.  We took an informal informational survey through Facebook and paid several hundred dollars to "boost" the post onto the Facebook walls of over 15,000 Everett school district voters age 18 and over.  It was as random as we could possibly get.  And, while the gist of the survey was to figure out WHY it failed, we didn't prevent anyone who voted to approve the $259 million bond package from participating.  The result was that about 40% "yes" voters and 60% "no" voters.  It was roughly flipped from the actual results, but it was NOT an extreme amount of "no" votes that would have made the survey extremely skewed.  We also kept a close eye on the responses so no one from the district could try to skew it as happened with a previous poll we posted (we can see multiple answers and trace the IP address to home addresses - we remove multiple votes before analyzing results). And, we allowed comments on some of the questions - which we felt would be more beneficial than just marking a box.  We understand that our opinions may not be the opinions of everyone.  So, where appropriate, they got to create their own response.  

Mark Twain famously said once, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics".  My educational background is in sociology and my favorite class (oddly, because I'm not a math person) was Social Statistics.  I understand and can smell a badly written poll or survey a mile away.  And, let me tell you, if anyone is guilty of "voodoo" polls that practically guarantee the outcome they want, it's the school district.  I attempted to provide a platform in our poll to let people express their opinions if they chose to participate.  Was it somewhat biased towards the "no" voters?  Of course it was.  But, the point of the poll was to figure out WHY people voted against the bond.  

So, as my compatriot and I wandered into the new administration building on a Monday morning, I had in hand, copies of the results of our poll thinking that since the district didn't reach out to voters with any sort of poll to figure out why the bond failed, that they might find our information useful as they construct another package for the future.  

The meeting was just four of us.  I specifically requested that it not include any district staff.  This was a meeting between two voters and two elected school board members.  It was the second time the ESBP has sat down with the district.  The first time was quite unproductive due to the absolutely rude nature of then Board President, Jeff Russell.  It was clear from his body language that he had no intention of being mentally present at that meeting. This meeting was at least productive because we had two Board members willing to listen.  

The discussion revolved mainly around public perceptions.  The district might feel perfectly justified in doing what they do, but they can't ignore the perception of the voters.  Continually patting themselves on the back about spending $29 million that could have gone to solve some of the needs in the schools doesn't sit well with the taxpayers.  There is also the issue of the vague numbers and needs. The public is having a hard time seeing the crisis.  Are some of our schools overcrowded?  Yes.  But, the problem may be solved for less than $259 million with a little creativity and courage on behalf of the School Board.  We have some schools with empty classrooms - they just aren't in the areas of growth. 

The package I left Pam and Caroline with included a copy of the poll we did and several pages of other information that we felt provided some positive examples of good bond language and packages.  I'm not sure we came away as "friends", but the lines of communication are now open in a way that they haven't been before.  I felt like it was a good step forward.  The Everett School Board Project members should be shown the same respect as any PTA, Rotary Club or union membership.  When you operate for the public, it's unreasonable to think you can ignore dissenting voices. 

So, with a little hope in hand, we left the new administration building.  I had no delusions that a full report wasn't going to land on the Superintendent's desk within minutes of us leaving.  In fact, part of me believes we may have been recorded since we were in a public building.  But, I figured that if we didn't reach out after being so critical during the two bond campaigns, that we were not really serious about wanting to be part of the solution and, more importantly, part of the change.  

Every Friday, Superintendent Gary Cohn produces an internal report for district staff. It's a "newsy" report of what's gone on during the week - awards, grants, retirements, meetings and communication between board members, administrators and the general public.  Since it's public record, our ESBP member and blog contributor, Rodman Reynolds, makes a request for the reports and posts them at the ESBP.  While most of the report isn't of much interest to those outside the employ of the district, there is often commentary in the section labeled "Board-Superintendent Communication" that may be interesting to members of the public.  It's where the Superintendent selects and links (although we don't get the links) emails between members of the board and/or himself and the general public.  I'm not really a fan of that section, though. While I understand that when you email an elected official, it becomes public record, I think that people expect a bit of discretion at times. For instance, last Summer there were some complaints about a teacher getting a contract renewed even though the district had essentially re-assigned that teacher and was hiring a replacement.  When the teacher was re-instated at the last minute, several parents complained.  Those emails (with the last name of the family in the link) made it into the Friday report.  I think it's inappropriate to create contention between parents who must then support that teacher and the teacher who must then teach their children.  I don't know how the Superintendent determines who gets a mention in the Friday report, but it's usually just a handful of emails that are included and I'm assuming it's not ALL that were received.  And, even if it IS all that were received that week, he doesn't have to put them in the report.  It appears to be either thoughtless or petty at times.   

Anyway, Rodman posted the Friday Report from June 28 and, no surprise, the string of emails I sent back and forth to Pam LeSesne and Caroline Mason are included.  I assumed that as I had the communication exchange with the Board members that I would probably land in the Friday report.  And, I did. However, what I didn't expect was to land in the Friday report with extremely condescending commentary and a dismissal of credibility by the Superintendent.  You can read the whole report HERE.  Or, the short version is:

The second and third are brief exchanges between a patron and Director Mason and Director LeSesne as a result of a recent conversation scheduled in response to the board president's call for community members to contact her to provide opinions regarding the recent capital bond elections. (An Internet website poll is also attached. See below a Daily Herald editorial criticizing a city council for relying on unscientific Internet polls for policy making decisions that are responsibility of elected officials.)

Essentially, my attempt to provide some clarity into why the bond might have failed was dismissed as "VooDoo Polling" by the Superintendent, who apparently thinks The Herald is the expert in polling because he also links THIS opinion piece to his snide remarks.   Side Note:  The Herald endorsed me when I ran for school board.  I hardly think he called them "genius'" when they did that.  This is without knowing the details of how we gathered the results or conducted the poll.  He must assume we just put the link on The Everett School Board Project and no where else.  It wasn't simply enough to say, "An unscientific poll taken by the patron is attached".  He had to passively-aggressively tell the staff to completely ignore whatever the poll says.  And, he also managed to tell those who took the time to complete the poll to "shove it" - their opinion doesn't matter.

His comments are extremely ironic, though.  Through the process of building the new administration building and during a few other issues, the district has either employed someone to conduct surveys for them or constructed them themselves.  They have not been scientific, but somehow, the results were "holier" than the results of our survey (which - again, we NEVER claimed was scientific).  

In 2011, many Everett voters received a phone call "survey" that lead us to believe was being conducted by the district.  It was to gauge community support for the proposed "Community Resource Center".  It was so incredibly biased that we put it on speaker phone and laughed our heads off over it. Every single question was designed to sweep you into a corner so that your "support" could be declared in the end.  If you didn't answer positively to one question, it was rephrased and asked again in another format that started with something like, Which of these are you MOST LIKELY to support?"  You always had to offer a measure of support.  It was hysterically biased and manipulative.  And, later on, through the Public Disclosure Commission, I found out that the district paid about $14,000 to a lobbyist group in Oregon to conduct the survey.  The general goal of their group is to get "yes" votes and support for governmental agencies seeking increased funding and new projects.  Clearly, the survey was totally unbiased.... *roll eyes*

Then there was the survey sent out by the district when they were discussing messing up the start and end times of the school day to work out some busing issues.  It was probably one of the most confusing and poorly written surveys I have ever seen.  The results were presented in a very skewed manner that when analyzed correctly, basically said that parents were opposed to the change of school day times.  But, that's not how it was presented.  In the end, the idea was scrapped.  

Then there are the district's "Public Forums" in which they pay a highly trained moderator to come control and manipulate the unsuspecting public to "prove" that they agree with the district's goals and wants.  You can read about it HERE.  It's hardly scientific and open dialogue when you seek to control the conversation to the point that the only option the public has is to support at least one of your proposals.   

And, then, during the first bond campaign early this year, another phone call from the same lobbying group was made to district voters and again, was so badly manipulative that a friend told me she interrupted the caller and asked, "When do you let me express my opinion on this because so far all you're doing is just attempting to force me to agree with yours."  Yes, totally scientific and unbiased....

So, as The Everett School Board Project reached out to the School Board and tried to find ways we could come together on getting some very needed projects done to upgrade and remodel our schools, I feel like the Superintendent just punched us (all four of us in the meeting) in the face. Rather than appreciating that his critics are willing to work with the district to improve education for our kids, he clearly implied he wasn't interested in our help, opinions or information.  

And, then he cashed his paycheck with his new 5.5% raise....