Sunday, April 25, 2010

IC Supers' Email: Bezek Responds, Murley & Meeks Don't

April 25, 2010, 8:00 a.m.
2:30 p.m. update: Murley responds (see bottom of this entry)
April 26, 9:30 update: Meeks responds (see bottom of this entry)

[This is the eighth in what is, as of this morning, an eight-part series on the Iowa City schools search for a new superintendent: "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010 (with links to 23 prior, related blog entries and other writing); "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010; "Bringing Home the Bacon and Bezek," April 20, 2010, "ICCSD's Triple Play: From Bezek to Murley to Meeks; Bezek Can Talk the Talk -- On Four Hours' Sleep," April 21, 2010; "Hurlyburly Over Murley," April 22, 2010; "IC Board Peeks at Meeks; Brad Meeks Rounds Out Three Finalists," April 23, 2010; and "Finalists Responses? Decision Sunday? Finalists Offered Last Word," April 24, 2010.]

Constituent Relations Important -- But No Deal Breaker
(brought to you by*)

Yesterday I reported that I'd emailed an offer last Friday to each of the three finalists for the ICCSD superintendent position. It was an offer to reproduce in this blog, without editing or responsive comment from me, any last minute message they'd like to pass on to the Iowa City community. I indicated I'd report back to you here what happened next. "Finalists Responses? Decision Sunday? Finalists Offered Last Word," April 24, 2010.

What happened was that Mark Bezek acknowledged receipt of the email and provided some comments, and that Steve Murley and Brad Meeks failed to acknowledge the email in any way.

(Bezek's prompt reply said that he "really enjoyed my interview session in Iowa City... I came away very impressed with the community, school system and the administrative team, all were very personable and helpful throughout my day...... [. . .] .... Regardless of what the outcome is, I feel I gave it my best shot even with limited sleep and I feel that my interview was reflective of the type of person/leader I am.... What you see is what you get with me [. . .]." (Bracketed ellipses are mine; others are his.))

So one of those things you see, and get, from Bezek is a reply to your email, in an age in which much of a superintendent's constituent relations are going to take place in that medium.

Do I think the results of this little experiment should weigh heavily in the Board's decision of whom to pick? Of course not. But do I think it should at least be one of dozens of the variables in what I've characterized as a "back and forth discussion and fruitless efforts to resolve a classic, impenetrable, multiple-variable-comparative analysis"? Absolutely. ("IC Board Peeks at Meeks," April 23, 2010, last sentence.)

Look, I know as well as anyone the difficulty of staying on top of incoming email. I maintain a number of email addresses, each of which I monitor more than once a day. At the present time there is a substantial backlog, even after the junk mail and list-serv distributions have been stripped out, that involves the organizations, persons and projects with which I have some relationship or responsibility and for which maintain a folder of ongoing email exchanges -- plus a variety of requests from people, formerly unknown, to whom responses are also provided. My goal is to respond to every email within 24 hours. I am not, now, meeting my goal. During a couple weeks of editing student papers, and holding conferences, on top of other obligations, starting early and working into the evenings, my daily triage of responsibilities resulted in the email backlog I am now trying to dig out from under.

So I can understand and sympathize with anyone undergoing superintendent interviews (often multiple and near-simultaneously) in various communities and their triage decisions about email. There are, in short, many reasons why Murley and Meeks might have not responded other than a disrespect and dismissal of constituent email. That's why the failure to respond should not be accorded significant weight.

But the experience is an illustrative lead-in to a discussion of a superintendent's -- and school board member's, for that matter -- constituent relations by email.

So where do my attitudes and practices regarding personal email come from?

The FCC is an "independent regulatory commission," sometimes referred to as "an arm of Congress." A commissioner has no direct responsibility to the President. As Maritime Administrator, however (my first presidential appointment from President Johnson), and "presidential adviser" (White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services; President Carter), the service was part of the Executive Branch and "at the pleasure of the President."

One of the responsibilities of the Maritime Administrator, as it turned out, was to comply with President Johnson's policy on citizens' mail. (This was the pre-Internet age of postal mail.) Any letter addressed to the President, that involved issues within the Maritime Administrator's areas of responsibility, was (a) to be answered, (b) signed by a presidential appointee, and (c) mailed within 24 hours of receipt. The same policy was applied to all presidential appointees.

Senator John Pastore, of Rhode Island, was Chair of the Senate Communications Sub-Committee. Because he had formerly been governor of Rhode Island, I asked him during an informal conversation how he managed his flow of correspondence when governor. His policy was to clean his desk every evening before leaving for home.

In my later years at the University of Iowa I was impressed with President David Skorton (for a variety of reasons; he's now president of Cornell University) and his equivalent approach to email -- promptly answering seemingly every one he received. Another classy educational administrator the Regents ran off, Mike Hogan (now president of University of Connecticut), seems to do the same (as well as maintaining his own personal blog). I've noticed that other successful CEOs and institutional leaders seem to be able to do so as well.

Needless to say, having started my federal government service at Maritime at the tender and impressionable age of 29, I tried to emulate the practices of my elders.

As a school board member, I tried to do the same thing while noting, "As a school board member you may not get any pay, but at least you get a lot of grief." You also get a lot of email. No one holds a gun to your head and forces you to run for school board. Having chosen to do so and having been elected, however, the position imposes some responsibilities. The effort to learn about the ICCSD, Iowa education law, innovations in K-12 education globally and in the U.S., write a column about K-12 issues for the local paper every two weeks for three years, and time spent preparing for and attending Board meetings -- and answering email -- often added a not-insignificant number of hours to my work week.

When I commented to a superintendent (not Lane Plugge) about the email load and asked for advice, it produced what I found to be a startling response: "Just ignore it. Don't answer. If you answer their emails you'll just get more." Needless to say, I found the counsel neither responsible nor persuasive. But apparently some of the other board members followed the advice.

There have been a number of times, still to this day, when an Iowa City resident will describe some occasion and issue, and say with appreciation, "You know, I emailed every Board member and the Superintendent, and you were the only one who ever answered." That has always been reward enough for the hours and effort.

For a superintendent, or school board member, to simply ignore constituents' email is (in my opinion) the modern-day, electronic equivalent of holding a public meeting for constituent input on some issue while board members sit hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evil silent, with no response, as if to say, "Our decision has been made, don't try to confuse us with the facts."

I made the offer to the finalists of space in the blog sincerely. (1) It is consistent with the FCC's former "Fairness Doctrine" to give someone who has been the subject of media reporting and commentary (with today's definition of "media" including blogs such as this) an opportunity to respond to what has been said. (2) It could have been useful for the ICCSD Board and community members to have the benefit of a final word from each finalist.

But I was also engaged in a bit of an experiment. "If you build it will they come?"; if they are emailed, do they respond?

The answer, it turns out (at least on this occasion, and within this timeframe), is that Mark Bezek responds, does so promptly, and with a friendly spirit; and that Steve Murley and Brad Meeks do not even acknowledge receipt of the email.

Because most everything of what the community knows of these three gentlemen is based on what they (and others) say rather than what they do, perhaps this one example of what they do will be useful.

But to emphasize again: there can be many reasons for the failure to respond, and in no event should the experiment be given more than minimal, marginal consideration in comparing the qualities of the three.

Finally, of course the invitation still stands -- both this week and throughout the years of service of whomever is ultimately chosen by the Board: anytime they want to communicate to this blog's readership directly they can do so with whatever they want to say (including scathing criticism of myself).

As emailed Friday, I wish each of them good luck in their pursuit, have not designated any to be a personal favorite, and look forward to welcoming to Iowa City and the school district whomever the Board ultimately selects this evening.

[P.S. As an interesting sidebar on the saga of superintendent selection for the ICCSD, and the seeming inability of the District's Board members and their search firm to find any possible candidates anywhere throughout the entire state of Iowa (and its 350-plus school districts), our neighbor to the west, the Clear Creek-Amana School District is now considering four finalists for its superintendent position. How many Iowans could it find? Four. Four out of four. All of them (at least one of whom is from the sizable city of Waterloo). Amazing! How on earth could they have done that? Maybe we should ask them next time. Or perhaps we might just check the Iowa Department of Education's list of 361 superintendents with their names and phone numbers and start calling around. "CCA Announces Superintendent Candidates," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 23, 2010; Editorial, "Our Quick Take on Last Week's News Stories; Superintendent Candidates -- CCA," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 25, 2010.]

2:30 Update: Murley Responds

Upon my return home from a noontime event today I found an email from Steve Murley, timestamped 11:34 a.m.

The most significant excerpt from that email, which provides as much or more of his useful and reassuring insight into our Board members as our additional insight into him (which it also does):

One comment that you made in your blog post from April 17 deserves to be revisited. You stated that, "Indeed, one should be extremely suspicious of anyone who would be willing to be considered for the job of working with such a school board." Your comment was made in reference to concerns that you enumerated about the lack of a clear governance system, delineation of measurable goals, discussion of educational innovations, and absence of metrics for results measurement related to boundary changes. I am in full agreement with you that these are indeed important issues for the Board to tackle. However, the absence of these does not indicate to me that the Board has chosen to ignore them or that the Board thinks they are unworthy of attention. In fact, I would argue that from my limited interaction with the Board, just the opposite is true. During my first interaction with the Board concerns about board governance were raised and, to a Board member, all agreed that the issue needed to be addressed to further solidify the work in front of them. The presence of measurable goals is one that we discussed at length and that the Board seems to clearly understand are needed to assess progress over time. The issue of concern about educational innovation was also raised frequently by Board members, most notably, when I asked them to provide for me their thoughts about where they wanted to see the District in 5, 10, or 15 years during the last public interview. Finally, although the boundary discussion has been underway for the past eight months, I felt that all of the Board members were clearly concerned about the students in each of the schools and were sincerely working to find the best outcome. In working with many different Board members over the past 11 years in Wausau I would argue that dedicated, committed Board members who recognize the issues in front of the District and are willing to tackle all problems, big or small, hard or easy, are what best serve the students and residents of a community. That is why I chose to return to the Iowa City School District as a finalist and why I hope to have the opportunity to serve the students of the ICCSD.
As promised in "Finalists Responses? Decision Sunday? Finalists Offered Last Word," April 24, 2010, I will leave his comment to stand on its own, which it is quite capable of doing, rather than responding to it.

April 26, 9:30 a.m. Update: Meeks Responds

And as of Monday morning, here is Brad Meeks response in its entirety:

It was good meeting you last week. I appreciate you taking the time to study the process, perspectives of the candidates and a willingness to discuss the issues. Being a former school board member, I’m sure you can readily understand that selecting a superintendent is one of the most important responsibilities of the school board and having the citizens involved in the process is important. It was an enjoyable day touring the community and meeting the people of the district.

I wish the board and community well as the decision is made on the selection of a new superintendent. Iowa City has a great school system and community.


* 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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1 comment:

Nick said...

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