Sunday, November 22, 2015

Agenda topics for November 24 meeting

Some of the topics we’ll be discussing at this Tuesday’s board meeting:

Superintendent discretionary leave. Info here. Our superintendent’s contract provides that he can take up to ten paid personal leave days each year for personal business, consulting, and other activities “that will contribute to the betterment of the district.” His use of these days must be mutually agreed upon between him and the board president. Do we need to change this practice going forward?

The Open Meetings Act. Info here. I believe we may have the board’s legal counsel present to take questions about it from the board.

The district’s facilities master plan. Info here.

ThoughtExchange. Info here. See this post for previous discussion.

“Administrator attrition.” We have recently had significant turnover in our central administrative positions, so I assume this topic is to discuss transition plans and the possibility of changes to our organizational structure that might be part of that process. Info here.

And more! The full agenda is here; chime in if anything attracts your attention.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

On not leaping to conclusions

It’s no secret that I’ve had my disagreements with our superintendent. I hope that gives me particular standing to urge people to be fair—not to be quiet, not to be uncritical, but to be fair—in their reaction to the articles this week about the superintendent’s work outside the district. I don’t see any accusations of wrongdoing in those articles or any showing that the superintendent did anything that was not permitted by his contract or by law. Whether the board should have negotiated different contract terms, whether the superintendent should have made different judgments, whether more questions should be asked and more information made available, whether we should have different practices going forward—those all seem like very reasonable questions (many of which probably have two sides to them). But I hope people will recognize that working for a company where other people are later accused of wrongdoing is not the same as wrongdoing. Guilt by association is not only unfair, but also a logical fallacy.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Agenda topics for Tuesday, November 10

This coming Tuesday, there will be a regular board meeting followed by a work session. Both agendas are now available (here and here). Some of the topics we’ll be discussing:

1. The certified enrollment report for 2015-16 is now available.

2. We’ll be doing our annual review of the facilities master plan. Info here.

3. We’ll be discussing plans to create attendance zones for Grant Elementary and the new east-side elementary school (“Hoover East”). Info here.

4. We’ll be discussing the bell schedule. The board already voted to create a task force to re-examine the bell schedule, so this may just end up being an update on that process.

5. We’ll be hearing about the transition planning for Liberty High and the new east-side elementary. Info here and here.

6. We’ll be discussing discretionary busing. Info here.

7. We’ll be discussing whether to add a representative of our before-and-after-school programs to the district committee (“CEDAC”) that supervises those programs. Info here.

And more! Prepare to settle in for a while if you’re watching this one. I am swamped with work at the moment, so will probably not be able to reply to comments, but I will certainly read them, so please chime in on any of the above.

Notice: The only opportunity for community comment at either of these meetings will be at the beginning of the regular board meeting, which starts at 6:00. There is no comment period at the work session, though you can address those topics (or any school-related topic) at the community comment for the regular board meeting.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What kind of help does the school board need?

School board members in Iowa—unpaid volunteers who often serve while holding down full-time jobs and trying to raise kids—inevitably have to depend to some extent on information provided to them by others. That’s part of what our paid administrators do: gather information and make recommendations to the board about school issues. The board also sometimes creates committees or task forces to make proposals on particular issues; at our last meeting, for example, we voted to create a task force that would look into possible changes in the district’s bell schedule.

Nonetheless, the final decision on many matters is the board’s. How can administrators and task forces best help the board make its decisions? I’m worried that our board’s approach to that question sometimes delegates too much of its role to these other groups.

The problem is that the help the board gets is often in the form of advocacy for a particular conclusion. I would rather hear a more objective analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of a particular course of action, including discussion of possible alternatives. A bottom-line recommendation can be helpful, but, on issues where there is a potential for differing value judgments, the best thing the administration can do for the board is to give the board enough information that it can reach its own independent conclusion.

An example is the discussion at our last meeting of the ThoughtExchange proposal. The central administration recommended that we adopt the proposal—and again, I appreciate receiving a recommendation. The administration, though, apparently saw its role more as advocating for its recommendation than as providing an objective assessment of the pros and cons. The only material it provided, other than the $170,000 price quote, was . . . promotional material created by ThoughtExchange. Then, at our meeting, the ThoughtExchange vendor was given the floor for over forty minutes to make a video presentation advocating for the proposal and to take questions from the board.

Whatever you think of the merits of the proposal, hearing only from advocates on one side of an issue is never the best way to make a decision. As every law student quickly learns, a good brief is usually very convincing until you read the opposing brief.

One of the things I liked about Director Lori Roetlin’s proposal to create a task force on the bell schedule is that the task force will generate multiple options and that there will be a period of public comment on those options. In other words, the model is less focused on advocacy and more on providing the board with multiple perspectives.

What board members need is good information. What they shouldn’t delegate is important value judgments. A system that relies too heavily on one-sided advocacy makes it hard to draw that line.