School board concedes they don’t have much to do with what goes on in the LA classroom, considers changes
Mike Szymanski | September 30, 2016
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Some school board decisions get ignored, all board meetings are too long and most decisions have nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom.
That’s some of the conversation that came out of an all-day session Tuesday with the LA Unified School Board and superintendent. The meeting, led by a private facilitator, was held to discuss the strategic plan and vision of the nation’s second-largest school district.
They didn’t make any binding commitments, but the discussion could lead to some major changes in the way the school board deals with the public, and how the superintendent deals with the board.
“Everybody knows low-performing schools should not exist, everybody knows this, so why does it still keep happening?” asked board member Monica Ratliff. She noted that the school board doesn’t have much to do with what goes on in the classroom and then answered her own question with: “There’s this giant bureaucracy and layers of bureaucracy and you can get help from one layer and then get stifled by another layer. And sometimes you have to go to a school board member and have that member advocate for them, but it should not have to be that way.”
Ratliff said that even the agreements made at board meetings seem to go nowhere. She said a few members nod in agreement, but sometimes nothing gets done unless she writes a resolution forcing them all to vote on it.
“I see some people (on the board) throw out the same ideas over and over and we all nod our heads and it doesn’t go anywhere,” Ratliff said.
Board member George McKenna agreed and said, “When we throw out an idea, who is supposed to pick up on it? The superintendent? I hope others can pick up on it and will come up with something.”
Superintendent Michelle King admitted that she has to prioritize what the board throws at her. “There are great ideas, but we can’t take the focus off of where we have to go,” King told the board. She noted that if there are five new things for her to do that are suggested by the board, and money is already allocated for other things they must do, she has to “clear the must-haves and stay centered and focused on what is aligned to our mission and where we are trying to go.”
King said she preferred that school board members come to her directly with issues. “I prefer direct contact and we can talk about issues, that works best for me,” she said. “I appreciate clear expectations and where it will go, and that is how I operate. The more the specific the better.” That way, board members can avoid so many resolutions.
McKenna said to King, “I’m concerned what stimulates your office is a private meeting with a board member. You start doing something because a board member is asking.”
The issues brought up were not supposed to lead to direct solutions, said facilitator Jeff Nelsen, of Targeted Leadership Consulting. A coach to more than 2,000 principals and school leadership teams over the past decade, Nelsen said the exercise with the board is to identify dysfunctions, and he said, “some underlying issues naturally surfaced.”
For example, the board members and superintendent were to put dots next to items on a board that had a list of dysfunctional characteristics. Most of them put dots next to: “Disagreement among members on goals and processes,” while others pointed out “Unfocused agenda that wastes time on unimportant, peripheral issues.” A few noted: “Disagreements get personal in public” and “Members represent special interest groups or only certain areas of the district.”
Others suggested problems, including: “Board members play to other district staff, go around superintendent” and “Board plays favorites with press.”
“I think as a board we get in your way,” board member Ref Rodriguez told the superintendent. “You report to seven people rather than one board.”
King suggested that some decisions like business contracts could be handled during the various committee meetings rather than the marathon monthly board meetings that often start at 9 a.m. with closed sessions and then start again at 1 p.m. and often last until 9 p.m.
“It takes me a whole day to recover from those board meetings, I would like a more humane process,” said board President Steve Zimmer, who is in charge of the agenda for the board meetings.
Board members threw out some ideas, such as moving closed sessions to another day, getting board materials earlier than the Friday before the meeting and holding more board meetings.
Rodriguez said some media reports “try to polarize us as a result of expressing our viewpoints and that is a shame.” He admitted, “My 4-year-old self may come out, but there’s so much value that we have different perspectives.”
King said she doesn’t mind the diversity of the board and said, “It is healthy to see the diversity of the board and their districts and how it all fits together as one. It is healthy to be aware of what it looks like in other parts of the district and it’s really not the same. We talk about poverty and there is poverty everywhere, but it does not look same everywhere.”
King suggested field trips or meetings in other parts of the district to see the diversity. Board member Richard Vladovic, who said he has worked in every district, said, “I don’t think that would be helpful for me.”
Vladovic suggested that the district consider decentralizing or even breaking up more to allow more local control.
“We as a district can’t change instruction, we can tinker with it, but the real change works at the school,” Vladovic said. “We need to stop thinking central, we need to divest ourselves of that.”
King agreed, adding, “I don’t believe one size fits all, and each school has a unique DNA. I need to see them get the results and not dictate that this is the way you need to do it. I agree that decentralizing is one of the best ways to serve the kids with the budget.”
Vladovic said he remains frustrated that the same schools continue to fail and said some solutions have become political. He said, “Union leadership doesn’t share our vision. State and federal laws don’t necessarily share our vision. We’re all together in this.”
Board member Scott Schmerelson said that when he asks staff a simple question, he often gets back a detailed five-page report that isn’t necessary. King defended the process and said, “Not every board member is satisfied with the same level of response.”
Another idea that came up is putting high-performing teachers in low-performing schools. Ratliff suggested that teachers would go if there were incentives, but McKenna said the existing teachers may resent the newcomers.
Zimmer suggested increased investments in 3-year-olds not yet into the school system. McKenna replied, “Why should we make investments on 3-year-olds when we are graduating students who cannot read?”
Zimmer said, “I am interested in a revolution of mindset and how it can be a dynamic and synergistic confluence that has to come from the messaging and framing from the district level.”
Zimmer and board member Monica Garcia both said they wanted to learn more from employees who have chosen to educate their children in the schools they work at, even though those schools may not be their neighborhood schools. Their choices show the schools are doing something right. “You want to have people proud of the school they send their children to, and we should look at that. I do not want to see any school tumble.”
Rodriguez quipped, “I have the intestinal fortitude to take on the lowest-performing schools, but I take a lot of Tums.”