Friday, April 16, 2010

School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways

April 16, 2010, 11:00 a.m., 9:00 p.m.
[And see the following day's blog entry, "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010.]

Options Include: (1) Others' Practices, and (2) Common Sense
(brought to you by*)

The cost of our local School Board's approach to redrawing school boundary lines, the cost in both money and the even greater value of thousands of human hours, is incalculable -- both because the total is so huge, and because it would be so embarrassing were it to be revealed.

Have you ever thought during the past few months, "There's got to be a better way"? Of course you have. Because there is -- or, rather, there are. One way of going about it is illustrated by a sister school district down the road. Another is a common sense approach consisting of a summary of what I've been advocating over the past decade or more.

The Rock Island-Milan School District

The ICCSD is not the only school district from among the 15,000 in the U.S. that is confronting the need to redraw its schools' boundary lines. It's a challenge most districts confront at one time or another.

However, most districts also manage to resolve it without months of undirected chaos, changes in direction, and the "assistance" of expensive consultants.

A friend sent me this story from the Quad-Cities Dispatch-Argus Online of April 14.

You want to know how that school board and superintendent handle significant boundary changes?

Affected parents received letters two days ago, April 14, notifying them of (a) what the boundary changes would be, (b) when and where public meetings will be held next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and (c) that the matter will be resolved by the Board on April 27.

In case you haven't yet calculated it, that's less than two weeks from start to finish -- with at least no evidence from the story of any role for major direction and decisions being outsourced and delegated to expensive consultants.

Now don't get me wrong. I've spent a professional lifetime trying to increase public interest and participation in governmental decision making. And, yes, I think two weeks is a little quick for such major decisions. But it does offer an illustration of the proposition that this process needn't be quite as complicated, confused, lengthy and expensive as our Board members continue to make it.

My own personal recommendations as to what they should have done will come later. For now, here's the story from Moline:

The Rock Island-Milan School District is recommending boundary changes for the next school year that would affect students at six schools.

Affected families received letters Wednesday about the proposed changes and planned community meetings to discuss why the changes are needed.

An expected increase of 125 students at the planned Rock Island Academy, an increase of 60 students within the Denkmann boundaries and a proposed housing development near the Rock River prompted the recommendations, said associate superintendent Mike Oberhaus. The increased enrollments at the Academy and Denkmann mean both sites would approach or exceed their capacities if changes were not made, he said.

Sixth grade students next school year would have the choice of remaining at their current school.

If the school board approves the recommendations, as scheduled, at its April 27 meeting, the Rock Island Academy/Frances Willard boundary change would affect the largest number of students, moving 103 students into Frances Willard.

* * *

Rock Island-Milan boundary change meetings

Families affected by the recommended boundary changes are invited to attend one of three community meetings. All will begin at 5:30 p.m.

- The April 19 meeting will be held at Church of Peace, 1114 12th St., Rock Island.
- The April 20 meeting will be held at the Century Woods Community Room, 1400 5th Ave., Rock Island.
- The April 21 meeting will be held at the Rock Island Intermediate Academy, 2100 6th Ave., Rock Island.
Nicole Lauer, "School boundary changes may move Rock Island, Milan students," Quad-Cities Dispatch-Argus Online, April 14, 2010.

Common Sense, Uncommonly Applied

Because there are 23 prior blog entries or other writing, below, that expand on the following themes, this section is truncated rather than repeating their content at length.

So, what are the steps for a school board to go through to become fully functioning when it comes to drawing boundary lines and selecting superintendents?

First, Governance. Board members who refuse to give focused attention to devising and articulating their governance model are doomed to spend their terms in a chaos and confusion that will leave their school district worse off than when they arrived. They need not adopt the John Carver model; there are others. But there needs to be a level of agreement with regard to who is doing what and where and how and why; relations among the board members, and between the board the superintendent and other administrators; delegation orders, use of consultants, and the process for interacting with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders; and the other elements that go into rational thinking about the procedures of governance. It's not clear to me that our Board has yet done this.

Second, Goals, metrics and management information reporting systems. As Yogi Berra is credited with having said, "If you don't know where you're going, chances are you will end up somewhere else." Or, as the Farmer's Almanac once put it, "To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer" -- to which we might add, "or a school board." It's not enough to have a "mission statement" such as "to educate our children for a global economy." The Board doesn't need to use Carver's "ends policies," but it needs something similar: goals that it would like the District (and its superintendent) to reach; goals that are measurable and can be charted against time. It needs to be able to answer the question, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?" Beyond board-created goals, it may also want to track other data about the District with management information reporting system charts, even if they deal with matters delegated to the superintendent.

Third, K-12 innovations. A school board need not implement every educational fad of the month. As is said, "the cutting edge can become the bleeding edge." But neither should it stick with the status quo as a default because it doesn't know what alternatives are available. Every institution needs an "institutional cerebral cortex." For a school district that's its school board. Principals, teachers, parents -- and, yes, the superintendent -- all have their hands full with a backlog of urgent tasks. Only the board members have both the time, and the responsibility, to think about educational innovations that might improve the quality of education received by the students. Board members need to read the literature, including the trade weeklies, to inform themselves, and think through ahead of time, how they feel about things like magnet schools, cluster schools, team teaching, alternative high schools, optimum high school size, alternative approaches to the high school senior year, and the rest of the vast array of available and tested innovative reforms of conventional, still largely 19th Century K-12 schools.

Fourth, School boundaries. The Board needed to take the reins on what anyone could have predicted would otherwise become this runaway wagon. It needs to announce, at the outset, which of the educational innovations it has studied (discussed in "Third," above) that it would like to try, at least on a pilot basis, especially if their implementation would impact on boundary lines. It needs to announce up front not just its vague priority list of principles, but the precise metrics it intends to apply, such as optimum percentage occupancy of buildings, students' maximum distance from school, and the acceptable range of the percentage of "free-and-reduced-lunch" students in each building. That's not to say it should not, or cannot, modify its opening standards as it receives public input. It's just to say that this is the Board's responsibility and one that cannot be delegated to a superintendent, consultant, or extremely large "community committee." In any event, it is the most efficient way to proceed -- if one wishes to conclude the process in something more like Moline's two weeks than our one year plus.

Fifth, Selecting a superintendent. When I was on the board and it was in the process of coming up with architectural plans for a new school building, without having gone through the process described in "Third," above, I commented that, "Normally before one engages an architect one is able to tell him or her whether they intend to build a courthouse or an outhouse." Similarly, unless and until a Board has gone through "First," "Second," and "Third," above, it is not in a position to go searching for a superintendent. 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.

The Press-Citizen reports this evening in its online edition that the Board has come up with the names of three finalists. "School District Announces Superintendent Finalists," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 16, 2010.

There are a lot of questions I'd like to ask those fellows. Perhaps I'll post some of them on this blog tomorrow.

Related Blog Entries Regarding School Board
Governance, Boundary Line Drawing and Superintendent Selection

1. Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways; Options Include: (1) Others' Practices, and (2) Common Sense," April 16, 2010;

2. Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Can't Do Job? There They Go Again" January 7, 2010;

3. Nicholas Johnson, "Drawing School Boundaries: Clarity vs. Chaos; Bumps on the Road to Boundaries," November 11, 2009;

4. Nicholas Johnson, "Only Board Can Do Board's Job; Drawing School Boundaries Made Easy," November 2, 2009;

5. Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Election: Now Work Begins; 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," September 9, 2009;

6. Nicholas Johnson, "Labor and Schools Deserve Respect, Support; Labor Day Monday, School Board Election Tuesday," September 7, 2009;

7. 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;

8. Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue," September 2, 2009;

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

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

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

12. Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District? From this morning's [June 3] Press-Citizen . . ." June 3, 2009;

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

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

15. 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).
And a sampling of . . .

Earlier, Related Writing
16. Over 80 regular Press-Citizen columns (during term as school board member) dealing with K-12 issues; e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "We Can Direct Coming Changes," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 26, 2000, p. 9A;

17. Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice,"
April 28, 2000;

18. Nicholas Johnson, "Boundaries: An Opening Think Piece," November 14, 1999 Ver. 3.0;

19. Nicholas Johnson, "Quick Fixes Are Too Disruptive," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 23, 1999, p. 15A (boundary setting);

20. Nicholas Johnson, "Reality: We Just Can't Have it All," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 27, 2001, p. 7A (how to create equity/equality in class sizes across the District);

21. Nicholas Johnson, "Educational Opportunities and Class Size Equity: A Proposal for the Iowa City Community School District Board," March 25, 2001;

22. Nicholas Johnson, "Smaller Schools Are Better," Iowa City Press-Citizen," August 28, 2001, p. 9A, in "K-12 Alternatives to Calling Police," July 2, 2007;

23. Nicholas Johnson, "The SILO Sales Tax for K-12 Schools" in "UI Held Hostage Day 379 - Feb. 4," February 4, 2007

* 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
# # #

No comments: