Last night the school board approved block scheduling for the middle school and high school. This issue had never before come in front of the board, but we whipped out our giant rubber stamp and jumped up and down on it. Not content with one major underconsidered decision, a 5- year technology plan was approved after the very first time we saw the presentation. Poof! A device for every child k-12! White boards and projectors in every classroom!
These decisions affect every single child in our district and have monetary consequences – yet the board is herded into sham votes on the very same night we’re given a presentation.
How does this happen? Let me tell you the story of school board standing committees.
The Timberlane Regional School Board has nine standing committees. These are committees that meet in public and conduct critical school board business such as writing policy, curriculum considerations and determining facility improvements. Unlike other districts with better governance, each standing committee is co-chaired by an administrator. Not only that, but our standing committees are composed of a majority of paid staff and administrators with full voting rights. This fact becomes important soon.
The CIP Standing Committee
School Board chairman, Peter Bealo, assigned me to one and only one* standing committee, the Capital Improvement Committee, which has had some very heavy lifting to do because the district was without a functioning CIP since the new high school was shot down by voters about 9 years ago.
In order to do intelligent capital improvement planning, one must have a strategic plan. Where do we want to be in ten years and how are we going to get there? Will we need new science facilities? Should our athletic facilities be given priority? What is our enrollment going to be and can we project what our future students will need by way of vocational instruction and technology support? The questions are numerous and imperative. The answers serve as the foundation for a capital improvement plan.
Right now we have formulated a capital improvement plan without any reference to a strategic plan because a strategic plan doesn’t exist for our district. How was the CIP Committee able to do anything at all, you wonder?
We invited everyone with budgeting responsibilities in the district to send us their wish list for now and 7 years in the future. This, we hoped, would give us a baseline to understand the needs (and wants) of the district. We got requests for a multi-million dollar athletic field house all the way down to automated basketball hoops. ($10,000 was our threshold to be considered a capital improvement rather than a Facilities Committee issue.)
Unfortunately the system is easily gamed and has been gamed already. Simply describe projects for Facilities Committee consideration as two projects under $10,000 rather than one project over $10,000. Poof! No longer a CIP project. This was actually done at the last Facilities meeting. Once that bit of dishonesty was accomplished, the committee then voted to recommend to the school board that the $10,000 threshold be changed to $25,000. This will of course allow the same game to be played with bigger numbers. If the school board agrees to do this – and they will -the entire CIP process is undermined. (Not today, not tomorrow, but some day I’ll explain the political incentives at play.)
In any event, all of this is a long way to explaining why my involvement with the CIP has given me an active interest in the Strategic Planning Committee.
Yesterday’s Strategic Planning Committee Meeting
The newly resurrected Strategic Planning Committee held a public meeting at 5:30 pm. in the small meeting room adjacent to the SAU boardroom. Assistant Superintendent Wilson was chairing the meeting. She told me in a stern teacher inside voice that I was permitted to attend but not participate. I said, “Thank you for telling me. That is very gracious of you.”
Perhaps I don’t need to remind my readers that I am Dr. Wilson’s boss and that the meeting was a school board committee meeting. I am a member of the school board and she is not. I am not, however, a member of the Strategic Planning Committee and she is.
I sat silently throughout the meeting while other administrators in that small room worked hard to avoid giving me eye contact. The two assigned school board members to this committee (yes, only two!), Rob Collins and Greg Spero, were both absent. Two other members of the school board, who are also not members of the strategic planning committee, chatted freely – Sue Sherman and Peter Bealo. They were presumably invited.
The point of this story is not to complain but rather to demonstrate that the duty of working on a school board standing committee has been perverted into a privilege and those board members not assigned (or invited by administration) please stay away. **
If you don’t think this is pernicious, let me share another experience with you about a standing committee of the school board.
Safety Committee Meets in Secret
Since Kelly Ward has been co-chair of the Safety Committee, he has called a number of non-public meetings. I attempted to attend one of these meetings – again a standing committee of the school board- and was denied attendance in person. What this means is that a small clutch of insider board members are conducting business to the exclusion of other board members. Although I don’t dispute that the subject of the meeting justified a non-public session, I do dispute that other board members should be excluded from attending even though they may not be named to the committee. Excluding other board members from non-public sessions is wrong and in other hands could lead to very serious problems on the board and in the district.
Don’t even get me started on the 17, yes SEVENTEEN, Superintendent Advisory Committees that meet in non-public and do not report to the board at all.
What we have in Timberlane is the breakdown of elected official governance, and an SAU administration that has taken over every proper function and responsibility of the board right down to our standing committees. Your school board is merely a cover for decisions already made by the administration. Your elected officials allowed this to happen through laziness, irresponsibility, and a cult of superintendent worship.
Why should you care? Well, because this leads to sham school board meetings like last night, with proforma votes on giant issues that are seriously underconsidered by the board. Apart from the obvious effects on education which we can only hope are positive (because we’re given no data to prove it), these hasty decisions push expenditures out of control. I predict you’ll pop your eye sockets when you see the proposed budget for 17/18.
This is the government you have. It becomes the government you deserve when you do nothing about it.
*Mrs. Sherman subsequently motioned to have me added to the Wellness Standing Committee that she co-chairs. I now sit on 2 standing committees. Mrs. Sherman is on 7.
**Also, Mr. Sapia is very gracious in chairing the Facilities Standing Committee and invites my participation . His predecessor, Nancy Steenson, on the other hand, turned gangrenous when I entered a Facilities meeting and did her utmost to discourage my participation.