Friday, September 04, 2009

School Board Governance: First Things First

September 4, 2009, 9:00 a.m.
For other, related, blog entries, see:

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).
School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit
But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?

(brought to you by*)

By any reasonable standards last night's (Sept. 3) ICCSD School Board candidates' forum was a great success.

For starters, the producers of the "show" -- the Press-Citizen's Jeff Charis-Carlson and the Iowa City Education Association's Tom Yates -- brought a little creativity into an event that, without imagination can become a little tedious before the night is out. They avoided the usual format of one question-at-a-time answered by each candidate in turn. Candidates could speak up whenever they felt like it. They were permitted to respond to, and converse with, each other -- creating an evening more like a real Board meeting. Charis-Carlson and Yates could ask follow-up questions, cut off the candidates who rambled on, and otherwise interact with them. The evening was divided into roughly two, one-hour segments interrupted with a break; the first with questions from the moderators, and the second addressing written questions from the audience.

For the most part, the candidates did relatively well in responding to the questions and in demonstrating considerable Iowa civility in interacting with each other.

And a wide range of topics and issues were covered:

- inequity between the schools
- SINA designations (Schools in Need of Assistance)
- No Child Left Behind
- students' stability and mobility
- reading development
- federal and state standards vs. lobbying to change them
- District's budget; why are we dealing with a $6 million shortfall?
- if and when to build a third conventional high school -- or alternative solutions to the projected 450 students beyond West, City and Tate's capacity
- the amount of the District budget going to highly paid administrators
- appropriateness of, and proper role for, consultants
- elementary, junior high, and high school boundaries; need for District-wide approach
- the need for long term planning generally
(See, Rob Daniel, "Candidates Debate Issues at School Board Forum," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 4, 2009, p. A1.)

My only real disappointment was the candidates' failure to address what I consider any Board's (for-profit and non-profit corporations, Regents', school boards) "Job One" -- designing the rules of the game, how the board members are going to interact with each other and the CEO, what they expect of each other in terms of the minimum time and effort each should put in, and most important: what do they think is their job, their role, what are they going to spend their time doing, what are they going to delegate to others and what are they going to do themselves? (In fairness, Sarah Swisher did address governance issues at Tuesday's candidate forum.)

Many school boards seldom, if ever, design and hold a board meeting. They attend superintendent's meetings at which they have very good seats, but for which the superintendent and his or her staff have prepared the agenda, the reports to be presented -- and sometimes (as with one superintendent I worked with) are even told how to phrase and vote on what are in fact the superintendent's motions.

To the extent the board members get off into issues of their own choosing the discussion is relatively desultory -- not unlike the conversations in which our candidates were engaged last evening.

My own preference is that boards focus on long range planning, measurable goals, mileposts at which progress toward those goals is measured and reported to the board -- and that the primary system for tracking the rest of what's going on in the District be provided in the form of management information reporting systems.

That means the board members get to work on the jobs they've assigned to themselves (the goal setting) and dispose of the rest with clear delegation orders -- or the "go-until-we-say-stop" approach of "executive limitations" (leaving the CEO/superintendent free to chose whatever approaches s/he thinks best for reaching the board's goals so long as s/he doesn't do what the board has forbidden him/her to do).

For example, under this approach our school board would not literally draw the boundaries around each school. That clerical task could be delegated to others. What it would do would be to discuss and make the really tough, decisive decisions with regard to the parameters that would drive that line drawing: How much disparity can there be between the percentages of free-and-reduced-lunch students in each school? Can we have "zones" within which students can be assigned to any one of a number of schools to meet parameters (or do we want "boundaries" around each school so tight that, together, they include every square block within the District and preclude any flexibility for the Board and Superintendent in future years)? Is there a fixed percentage occupancy of each school building, equity with regard to overcrowding, or are we willing to accept variations in crowding?

From my perspective, such decisions should only be made by the school board -- not the superintendent, and certainly not by out-of-town "consultants."

Until any board arrives as some majority view (it need not be unanimous) as to how it intends to govern itself and its relations to others, and what it believes to be its primary function and responsibility -- obviously it need not be my choice in this regard, only that it have some articulation of its job description -- it's unlikely its District will ever reach the goals it has never articulated (however lively and interesting may be its "bull session" discussion of fascinating topics).

* 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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