Wednesday, September 09, 2009

School Board Election: Now Work Begins

September 9, 2009, 7:00 a.m.

It's Swisher, Dorau, Cooper;
Old Board "Starting Off Backing Up" With Consultant and Tough Decisions;
Meanwhile, Part of $6 Million that Mysteriously Disappeared Miraculously Reappears

(brought to you by*)

Sarah Swisher led the race from the beginning as the returns came in last night, and ended up with 54% of the votes (2393) in an election that brought out a better than average 6.07% (4392) of the District's 72,000-plus eligible voters. Tuyet Dorau, at 50% (2197), pretty much retained her second place rank throughout the night. Third place shifted between Jean Jordison and incumbent Mike Cooper, but when the North Liberty vote came in, and the counting stopped, Cooper had 47% (2066) to Jordison's 38% (1685).

And a big shout out of thanks from me, on behalf of the District community, to Anne Johnson and April Armstrong, in addition to Jean Jordison -- and Joshua Kaine and Jeffrey Manthey (who dropped out of the race in August) -- for having enough interest in our children and their schools to put themselves out there, invest the time and money in a campaign, and risk the political loss that, in the end, was theirs. I'm pleased to read this morning that a number of them have indicated they intend to remain informed and active in addressing the District's K-12 issues.

See, Rob Daniel, "Swisher, Dorau, Cooper Win in Election; Area Sees Higher Than Average Voter Turnout," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 9, 2009, p. 1A.

The Consultant Curse. Meanwhile -- unfortunately -- the old School Board, with the election results only a couple hours away, chose to rush through approval of the Superintendent's proposed no-RFP, no-bid (so far as I know), $80,000-to-100,000 contract for unspecified services with the out-of-state consultant RSP from Olathe, Kansas -- without including, or even alerting, the two new Board members. I still don't understand what that was about, but if anything it looks even worse this morning than it did when I last wrote about it. Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly," August 28, 2009. And see, Rob Daniel, "School District to Hire a Consultant," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 9, 2009, p. A1.

Daniel reports the consultant is supposed to "figure out its [the District's] high school enrollment and districtwide boundary issues . . . [including] analyses of enrollment trends, facilities, grade configuration and boundaries . . .." There will be a "telephone survey of 400 registered voters," public forums in "October or November," with more "forums in January and February." This is to be followed by "a committee of community members, teachers and school board members in March" tasked with coming up with a "boundary scenario" -- whatever that might mean -- which will then be handed to the Board.

Although irrational, chaotic, manipulative, misleading, unnecessarily expensive, and destructive of the Board's proper role, this approach will at least have the virtue of providing the layers of political protection that confusion always offers -- to both the Superintendent and the Board.

Hopefully, the Board will at least include in its management information reporting system requirements of the Superintendent (it does have a MIRS, doesn't it?) a requirement as to how often, when, and with regard to what, it wants reports of consultant progress against benchmarks.

(If you're not familiar with the reference to MIRS (management information reporting system), sometimes MIS (management information system), although normally a tool of management, it can also be modified for boards as a tool of oversight, or governance. Sometimes the MIRS would relate to Board goals (that are also CEO job descriptions, and basis for bonuses -- or dismissal if not met). But they can also be used to monitor delegated management responsibilities unrelated to Board goals and responsibilities, merely to enable the Board to oversee and keep informed (as distinguished from the basis for Board action). In either case, there would usually be a project, an articulation of the purpose or goal of the project being monitored, a metric for measuring progress toward that goal, often "benchmarks" or "mileposts" of accomplishments along that path, and agreed upon times at which reports will be brought to the Board -- often in the form of, or accompanied by, charts and graphs of some kind. See, e.g., my old The Marad Management Information Reporting System (1965).)

Come on, folks, this is not rocket science.

1. Here's what the Board does. It's the job of the Board, and only the Board, to propose, and revise as appropriate, the standards, the parameters, the goals, the metrics to be used in drawing boundary lines in order to implement the policy decisions made by the Board.

2. Here's what the Superintendent (or the consultant) does. It is then the job of technicians (albeit very skilled, well-educated technicians!) to do the actual drawing of the boundary lines that will carry out the Board's orders, apply its parameters, and reach its goals.

3. Here's what the stakeholders do. Those members of the public that care about this process have numerous ways of participating. They can email (phone or meet with) Board members and District administrators, write letters to the editor of the local papers, attend and speak out at Board meetings and forums scheduled for the purpose, discuss the issues within their local PTOs, PTAs and other organizations to which they belong that might be willing to get involved. Some may serve on committees.

To illustrate: The hot button issue involving boundaries is equity -- the disparity in the allocation of "free-and-reduced-lunch" students among the elementary schools.
First off, I believe there are some federal and state legal requirements. If true (I haven't looked into it), presumably all would have to agree we at least need to comply with the law. OK?

Next, what does the Board want the future levels of disparity to be? (This could be a slow transition over six or seven years to ease the impact on current students and parents.) Within the limits of the law, it can keep them what they are, increase them, or decrease them.

If the Board wants less disparity it can propose to make the percentage (a) equal in all elementary schools, or (b) within a range of 3%, 5%, !0% of each other. (Similarly, if it wanted to increase the disparity it could set a parameter permitting even greater percentage variations.)
After, but only after, a majority of the Board has taken a position on these issues, and proposed a "parameter," then and only then District administrators (or the folks from Olathe) can create some alternative boundary line maps that would produce those results.

But these decisions simply must be made by the Board, and the earlier on they are made and the Board's ownership of them is established, the less will be the wasted time and money invested by others. The longer you keep stirring the soup the less likely you are to get clear broth. For the community to keep going round and round about this with no direction from the Board is in no one's long term interest. (Want a national analogy? Think President Obama's delegation to Congress of the major policy decisions about "his" healthcare reforms, as well as the writing of the 1000-page H.R. 3200.)

We don't need to create forums to know that there will be howls of protest from some parents in some elementary schools that now have very low percentages of free-and-reduced-lunch students and under a new, more equitable plan ultimately will have more. Anyone who doesn't know that hasn't been paying attention.

The new Board can decide, and decide now, whether it's willing to stand up to individual schools' opposition for the sake of the entire District, or not.

Do I mean that the Board should ignore public input and ram through what it wants without either truly listening, or responding to, all stakeholders (as the old Board was perceived as doing)? Absolutely not. I would like for it to produce reasoned, rational, respectful, responsive written opinions explaining why it is doing what it is doing, and why it is proposing some courses of action and rejecting others.

What I am saying, and all I am saying, is that the Board should be the first out of the starting gate rather than the last in establishing parameters. Will it refuse to budge in any respect from what it first proposes? I would hope not. But it should be the Board -- from first to last -- that is doing the research, discussing the parameter options, responding to public reactions, making the parameter proposals, the revised proposals and ultimately the decisions as to parameters -- not some consultant from Olathe, the Superintendent, or some community committee (whose job it is to draw the lines that carry out the Board's parameters).

(And since the article makes some reference to designated Board members sitting with the committee I should also note that, in my opinion, this is the worst of all possible worlds. (1) The Board should act through a Board of all members, not individual Board members. (2) I don't think delegating major policy decisions to a committee of citizens telling the Board what to do is a good idea, but (3) if there is to be one it needs to be truly independent of the Board, rather than a neither-fish-nor-fowl creature that is part Board and part not.)

The same analysis can be applied to other boundary related issues.
Equality of occupancy. We have a total number of elementary students in our District. Each school is designed for an optimum occupancy. Hopefully, that total population is a percentage of (rather than greater than) that total optimum occupancy. However, as the boundary lines are now drawn some elementary schools are overcrowded (have a number of students in excess of their optimum occupancy) while others have empty classrooms. The Board can (and I believe should) set a parameter for this percentage occupancy as well: each school should be at the same percentage of optimum occupancy as all the others, or that they should only vary by some fixed percentage from each other. Board's choice.

Equality of class size. Class sizes (for example, how many children their are in each third grade classroom in all of the third grade classrooms throughout the District) vary significantly. This is also something that can be essentially solved with parameters about boundaries, but I don't want to take the time and space to explain that now.

Flexible allocation; long term boundaries. In order to maintain the Board's parameters regarding allocation of students over time (whatever those parameters may be), more or less flexibility can be provided the Administration. This can take the form of what I believe it now calls "zones" (from which students can be assigned among two or more schools) or what I've described as "cluster schools." How much (if any) of this kind of flexibility also needs to be addressed, and resolved, by the Board.
Finders, keepers. How does a school district accidentally lose $6 million? It's a mystery. Fortunately, there are still miracles as well. A good deal of it has recently miraculously reappeared. See Rob Daniel, "School District to Hire a Consultant," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 9, 2009, pp. A1, A5.

Wait, there's more. I've written about many of these issues before. If you're interested in looking at more of my writing this year on K-12 issues generally, and board issues in particular, here are some links:
Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Election: Now Work Begins," September 9, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Labor and Schools Deserve Respect, Support," September 7, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Members' Advice; So You Want to be a School Board Member," August 19, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
The election's over. Now the work begins.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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