In Partnership with 74

‘Equity’ and ‘urgency’ beat out ‘respect’ and ‘transparency’ as board chooses core values for LAUSD

Mike Szymanski | August 31, 2017

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Scott Schmerelson drew a school house — and quipped that he minored in art.

“Respect,” “transparency,” and “teamwork” only got one vote each. Oh, and so did “humility.”

The seven members of the largest school district in the country with an elected board gathered Tuesday at their first off-site retreat of the year, where they took a deep dive into health benefits but also hashed out core values for LA Unified.

As part of their opening exercise, each member had to place dots on the words or phrases they most valued for the district. Each person had six dots; there were 20 choices.

The most votes (six) was for the awkwardly titled value: “Everyone in schools work for success of each and every child.”

That phrase originated with board member Scott Schmerelson, who noted that when he visits a school, the teachers, administrators, custodians, and cafeteria workers all say they work for the school board. “No, I remind them that everyone is working for the kids,” Schmerelson said.

And so, echoing the “Kids First” agenda that board President Ref Rodriguez has emphasized from the moment he was elected, the board members cobbled together the phrase that ended up receiving the most votes.

The last one ended up getting six dots, the most.

“Equity” and “urgency” received five votes each. “Accountability,” “courage,” “diversity of strength,” and “meaningful collaboration” got four votes each.

These agreed-upon values are now supposed to be the guiding principles that dictate the board’s behavior and actions.

Some of the frank discussion during the retreat reflected the differences of philosophies among the seven board members, which go beyond even the widely discussed divisions that emerged after the May election and the resulting 4-3, pro-reform majority on the board.

“I am not politically correct. I believe in straight-up talk and I will be blunt,” said George McKenna. “This is more than education, it’s about a community with employees too.”

Rodriguez, who has criticized media for hyping the board’s disagreements, said he wanted to have more retreats so the board can get to know each other and explore key problems. The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which holds such think-tank seminars, volunteered their time for the day to help the board members outline priorities.

“We need some vocabulary on how we work together in public,” Rodriguez said at the beginning of the meeting. “Particularly in public.”

And so, the first retreat was held at the LA84 Foundation conference room in West Adams. Rather than sitting on the elevated horseshoe at LA Unified’s Beaudry headquarters, the board members sat facing each other, and they shared lunch during discussions.

McKenna said he didn’t like the restrictions of the Brown Act, which keeps him from discussing issues with fellow board members outside of the public eye. He said it stymies some of the board’s teamwork.

Board members place their dots on the words they thought should be core values for the district.

“I would like to include the word ‘teamwork’ as a core value, adding to what Dr. McKenna was saying,” said Nick Melvoin. “And I also think that ‘urgency’ is important because kids only get one shot in our schools. Also ‘courage’ because the first thing we have to do is take on other government partners and be courageous. And also ‘humility’ in understanding what we are in charge of and what we are in control of, or not.”

Most of Melvoin’s suggestions received only a single vote, but “urgency” scored high.

Mónica García suggested “high quality,” “learning,” and “trust,” but won others’ support for “equity.”

Rodriguez suggested “pursuit of excellence,” which got one vote.

Kelly Gonez suggested “honesty,” “joy,” “meaningful collaboration,” and “autonomy” for teachers, but McKenna challenged her on that last one.

“How autonomous can you be in teaching a subject when you have to stay within state guidelines?” McKenna asked. “It is fine to put words out there, but what does it mean?”

“There are laws,” Gonez said, who has most recently been a teacher.

“I would call that ‘flexibility,’” McKenna said. “When you educate, you are part of the system and guided by boundaries, and when I teach the class I have flexibility of how I teach it, but can I choose not to use that book? No, you can’t do that.”

Gonez answered, “There should be a feeling (by teachers) to know that decision makers trust you to do that job and balance between accountability and oversight to do their best work.”

Monitoring the discussion was the California Collaborative’s Carl Cohn, a former superintendent of Long Beach and San Diego, and Karen Polacheck, a past board member of Long Beach Unified, where they sometimes had meetings only 17 minutes long.

Cohn said, “The difference (between LAUSD and other districts) is that the media covers you every single day and it’s very, very tough.”

Superintendent Michelle King noted that LA Unified is “in a cycle of the way things go, and that’s how it keeps the machine running, month after month. We can consider streamlining some things and prioritizing some things.”

Schmerelson suggested that fellow board members don’t take the staff briefings as seriously as they should and could ask clarifying questions in advance and not at the board meetings.

Rodriguez said the superintendent has to deal with seven different personalities and styles. “As an elected member, we have constituents we have to answer to.”

Board members were asked to bring artifacts that represent their “leadership journey.”

Melvoin brought a photo of the two students he worked with when he brought a lawsuit on their behalf against the district in 2010 with the ACLU.

Kelly Gonez showed a picture of her first group of sixth-graders, which was her screensaver.

Gonez brought a photo on her computer of her first graduating class of sixth-graders “as a constant reminder of why I do this work.”

Richard Vladovic pulled out a piece of paper that he has carried for 20 years from “Chicken Soup for the Soul” about a man who throws starfish back to the sea.    

García brought in a shirt commemorating a demonstration of a school civil rights walkout that happened 20 days before she was born.

Rodriguez brought commencement announcements from Loyola Marymount University, his alma mater, including a recent one announcing King receiving her doctoral degree.

King brought the book, “Things I Want My Daughters to Know,” by Alexandra Stoddard and explained how it played an important part in shaping her leadership style and how she brought up her daughters. King also talked about her teaching days when she had an open classroom and how she saw the value of conversations with her students. “I saw the power of relationships, and as a leader I saw the transition of that to adults. I saw that teachers need the same kind of love, happiness, and joy that kids needed, maybe more.”

Schmerelson drew a school on his yellow legal pad and quipped, “I was an art minor, very minor. But my artifact is a school house. I have 102 schools and try to go to all of them a few times a year. I always think about the schools and the work they have to do.”

McKenna stood up and said, “I am the artifact, and it’s not the same as a relic, you don’t have to dig me up.”

He talked about growing up in the segregated South and then serving as principal and turning around a failing school. He spoke about proudly watching a former student graduate from medical school.

During the day of frank talk, McKenna raised concerns about the new task force advising the superintendent. “I don’t know who they are until I read about it in the newspaper, these people weren’t elected, and we are the supervisors of the superintendent,” McKenna said. “If the superintendent wants to have an advisory group, that’s fine, but our advice is more meaningful.”

McKenna challenged the board members’ commitment to the entire district, pointing out it’s not just kids, but “when we lose student enrollment in the district, it means we are not hiring cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and janitors, and it has an economic impact. The seven of us have that responsibility of fiscal solvency, or be content with the disaster that will come.”

McKenna asked his fellow board members to not be enablers in the hemorrhaging of students leaving the district, which includes authorizing enrollment in independent charter schools instead of district schools.

“It killed me when we had to get rid of all those new young teachers years ago and Nick Melvoin was one of them,” McKenna said, pointing out how Melvoin had to be laid off due to budget cuts. “Now he is back, and we need to make the best choice to be the school that’s right there in your neighborhood.”

McKenna said, “I am the artifact.”

McKenna turned to García, with whom he has sparred in the past, and said, “She has always been a warrior and she probably came out fighting, always on the side of justice and wanting to do the right thing. I respect that and I’m concerned that in our frustration to want to do something we become reckless.”

Vladovic pointed out that the expensive board elections come with baggage. “You may not be asked for a specific vote, but it’s an expectation in philosophy from the moneyed interests from whence you came,” Vladovic said. “Those interest groups have a specific agenda and any deviation and you will be out of it. At our last meeting, the papers picked that up right away.”

Melvoin spoke of the “corrosive influence in politics” and said it was good to set up “core values and have documents to go back to and see how we are spending our time. Are we debating things that are brought to us by other folks?”

Gonez added, “The board meetings are public spectacles. While there is the polarization, we have to know who we are behind the public persona and what the media and others create.”

Rodriguez suggested that more one-on-one discussions go on privately among the board members and said, “We can’t live on the same floor in seven different silos, we have to spend time with each other and be completely open and honest. The world will paint it differently and show our polarization because not getting along is more interesting. Let’s be boring.”

After the meeting, the board members chatted individually, and Melvoin brought up some of the core value words they discussed.

“I wished more people would have put their dots on ‘transparency,’” he said. “But I’ll keep working on it.”

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