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Mt. Diablo school district paves way for strategic planning

By Theresa Harrington
Sunday, October 10th, 2010 at 11:48 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

By Theresa Harrington

Since there seems to be a lot of interest in the district’s intention to begin strategic planning, I’m going to do something a bit unconventional and post excerpts of my edited notes from the special board meeting Oct. 5. I’m doing this in the interests of time (less editing and rewriting necessary) and to give the public a picture of how the discussion evolved, since the meeting was not well-attended. Note: comments may be paraphrased, since I can’t always type as fast as people talk.

Linda Ortega, who teaches second grade at El Monte Elementary in Concord, said she’s worried the district’s board-adopted educational goals and objectives are too focused on testing.

The board received a PowerPoint presentation about the strategic planning process, which you can see here: A consultant also gave trustees a two-page handout with 11 different definitions of “strategic planning,” as well as sample plans from the Aurora (Colorado), Austin (Texas), and Long Beach school districts.

Here are a couple of the strategic planning definitions:

“….a disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, what it does, and why it does it. To deliver the best results, strategic planning requires broad yet effective information gathering, development and exploration of strategic alternatives, and an emphasis on future implications of present decisions.” (p. 5 – Bryson, 1995)

“…a community-based and on-going process of imagining a preferrred future and then developing the strategic and operational actions required to make that plan a reality.” (p. 27 – Cordell & Waters, 1993)

Trustee Sherry Whitmarsh noted that there wasn’t much difference between the sample strategic plans received.

Discussion questions:

Question 1. What would the board want from a strategic planning process:

Whitmarsh: Getting input from our community as a whole and looking at where they see the school district in five to seven years. In 2015, where do we think we need to be and what’s our strategy going forward? What do they see us looking like, in terms of reprograms, goals, facilities, things like that.

Trustee Dick Allen: I agree. I think a good strategic plan has input from all the stakeholders in the community and it’s got to start witht them. It can’t be: ‘This is the plan. This is what we’re going to do.’ I would want to kow how our cuurent plans, such as technology and school individual plans, how all those fit into it. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I would want commitment for five to 10 years, not only for oversight, but follow-through. l think this is about the second or third time we’ve strated strategic planning.

Trustee Gary Eberhart: This gives us a way to engage with the community in a way that’s much more meaningful. I think it’s imporant to get to know the expectations our community has and for us to understand the challenges they face and for them to understnd the challenges we face. I certainly expect that a stratetic planning document, once it’s initially completed, my understanding is there would be opportunity for it to evolve as time passes. I would hope that would provide us with an understanding of what we’ve decided as a community. What are the goals and objectives of this district and what direction we’re headed in. I would hope it would help guide us as we make choices in terms of how we spend our money, what we spend time on. It would really be a guiding document for the board.

Whitmarsh: I think one of the problems businesses and even school districts get into is they create the document and it looks nice and they put it on the shelf. It should be a living document with a cycle of inquiry. Are we meeting it? You should be updating the strategic plan and use it to guide the decisions you’re making. Hopefully, schools will be getting more money. We can plan where to use those funds and look at what’s important to the community as a whole — parents, city government, students, senior citizens — to give their input on where they see the school district five to 10 years from now.

Turstee Linda Mayo: I agree around community input and commitment from the board. I would want to look at the strategic plan at least annually. One district has an annual convening of three committees, which provide recommendations to the board to consider as they’re looking at the plan each year. I think that’s the only way it can be a living document and also be reacive to changes in legislation and needs of students.

Allen: Budget development should really include meeting the strategic plan, including human resources. I think in any school district, you have two sides of the house: the business and the education side. Right now, I’m not sure which is the dog and which is the tail ad what’s waggihng what, but I think finances are the key thing we’re dealing with.

Whitmarsh: When you have huge changes, in finances, or other big changes, the best-laid plans don’t deal with those devastations and I think we’re in one of those devastions right now with the state budget.

Mayo: I think we would have to assure all of our stakeholders that no one would be harmed through our process. There are small groups of students who require services and we need to be sure we consider the needs of those students as well.

Question 2. Pluses and minuses of doing a strategic plan now. We’re in a difficult financial time.


Mayo: Hopefully it would provide hope to our community about supporting the district overall, long term and perhaps enable us to look at school funding measures.

Allen: The involvement of the wider community.


Mayo: We have fewer admnistrators to help us with the community input, because I think they are critical to that part of the process. Certainly we would be able to bring in community members, but administration has always been expected to help us facilitate that. With a smaller workforce, both with teachers and admnistrators, there’s a greater burden for them now. Also we have the school closure committee and possibly some other concerns that are competing for time.

Whimtarsh: The expenditure of people resources and monetary resources that come about with the strategic plan. It would be a plus if we could find a business partner who would give us a grant to do strategic planning.

General discussion:

Board President Paul Strange: I think we need to get on it because we’re always going to be dealing with some sort of challegne. I don’t see us rehiring admnistrators. The sooner we do it, the better, so we’ve got something to look at. One of the reasons we haven’t done it before is because we’ve had major challenges, such as the state budet and staff layoffs. Those challenges have really made it very difficult to be able to engage in a strategic planning process. Also, ballot measures. Luckily, we were successful with one of those measures (Measure C). I don’t think the district should be going in the a very short term for another ballllot measure. The focus is not going to be on that for the near term. Plus, if we don’t have a ballot measure now, I think it will lead to more effective pursuing of local measures (in the future). Also, we don’t want to be trying to do everything all at once.

Strange: Not sure if this is plus or minus: How can the board assist staff in doing this? We’ve got a lot we’ve asked staff to do. Everyone has a lot on their plate. What cah we do to help people deal with the full plate syndrome they’ve got right now. How do we keep business running as usual and add one more thing in an already understaffed resource workload.

Consultant: Process is typically a year.

Allen: Two new board members come in December, so they need to be involved and they will be.

Strange: We’re assuming there’s a board majority that lasts through the election and assuming the board majority would want to move forward with strategic planning. If you wind up having a 3-2 split with two board members saying, ‘No, we don’t want to do strategic planning,’ it would be a very difficult battle to get strategic planning going well. I think it would be a very good learning opportunity for new board members and I think the community is supportive.

Whitmarsh: We could survey the community and ask: ‘Do you support strategic planning?’

Strnge: Mentioned the cost of surveys.

Whitmarsh: We could use ‘Survey Monkey.’

Mayo (asked Strange): What is your evidence that the community wants strategic planning?

Strange: It was a part of the platform in the last race (of Whitmarsh and Eberhart in 2008) and got overwhelming support.

Eberhart: I often hear from members of the community that they’re not confident that the school district has a focus that’s shared at all levels in the district. What’s the focus in the classroom may not coincide with what’s the focus of the parents. I’m not saying that’s accurate. I think in any large or small organization that has a well-articulated focus and a set of goals that are measureable that the clients and members understand and can articulate, tend to be much more successful than organizations where you can…not even get a close articulation of what the goals are of that organization. I think a lot of it is perception. The goal is to educate kids, so to the extent we can all pull in the same direction to accomplish that goal, I think that’s a huge plus for the kids.

Quesion 3: Is this the time to do a strategic plan?

Strange: I think this is the time. We should wait for change in the board, probably until the first of the year, so people have a chance to get past the holidays. There will be two new board members.

Mayo: Possibly three.

Strange: I doubt it.

Eberhart: Need to know approximate financial cost for this district, so that we can actually make a decision as a borad to go forward.

Whitmarsh: What is the low or upper limit, ie. $40,000 to $50,000.

Consultant: It depends how you wanht to go about doing it. What I’m hearing is you really want to have community involvement and getting tha community feedback is very important to you. Maybe get input on goals and objectives and have some openness to new ideas, communication and feedback. Rather than an outside committee, maybe board is that commimttee. You might choose to do some in-between things.

Whitmarsh: We probably want to look at setting up specific meetings with employee groups and then general: city government, senior citizen groups, forums for parents, feeder patterns, potentially our high school leadership classes. I think we need five or six target category groups and then others.

Consultant: A strategic planning committee could be administrators and community that could look at data and share with board.

Allen: With the plates full, I’m not so sure we’re seeing the consequences of things we’ve done. I think what’s real critical is the human resources at the district office and at the sites.

Consultant: I think having focus groups and listening, you would learn a lot about needs and issues.

Mayo: The board should consider a retreat, establishing protocol and developing a strong leadership team along with the superintendent. Everyone will debate what we use for mission and vision and we need to craft and agree upon a common mission and vision.

Superintendent Steven Lawrence: I agree with bringing in new board members (to the process). At a supterintendents’ meeting, we discussed midyear budget cuts, because the new state budget uses rosy projections. We should craft alternatives looking at cost and employee time. Maybe a better financial picture. Maybe see if we can solicit any business funding to help facilitate this effort. Have a retreat in January. There’s many positives and many reasons to do it. Bringing it forward in January, with new board members, having a strategic plan that would help guide their three to four years on the board would be a positive.

Strange: My thinking would be that from this day forward you proceed along the plan that there will be a stragtegic planning process in January.

Whitmarsh: We may take longer to do it becasue of funding. If cant’ get a grant. Maybe meet once a month instead of once a week. I know it’s ugly but I’m also cognizant of what each of us has on our plate.

Allen: I think that’s a good idea.

Allen: Our strategic plan would include school plans.

Whitmarsh: We would take the strategic plan and when sites make plans, they say, ‘How is my site going to achieve that goal?’ So, it’s differfent because what Foothill (MS) might do is different from what another school might. But, the strategies as far as where we want to go are the same for everyone.

Eberhart (to Lawrence): As you present a process and a timeline for us, show the community that there is a very easy way to show that our process is going to really take that input from our community members and that the input gets used. Many school districts have input from the community, but that input is just dressing. They put it on white boards and say the community has been a part of the process. They need to be a part of the discussion, not just asked, ‘What are your inputs?’

Whitmarsh: It sounds more like a strategic planning committee and creating more of a draft. You want the input from as many people as you can get, 500-1,500 people giving input, maybe more.

Eberhart: I do see a commmittee process that involves 25-30 community members.

Whitmarsh: We’ve got (33) community members involved in school closure, different bargainig units have a different rep on there. We do have to understand having a committee that size can be a challenge unto itself, to get 50 people to commit.

Eberhart: I think we need to establish the dates beforehand. This is very important. I would argue more important than closing schools.

Mayo: Assuring that community input is treated as relevant and important, means during board retreat, the outcome of a strategic plan might take prioiroity to an individual board members’ viewpoints. (She gave the example of a board member having an interest in performing arts, but finding through stragtegic planning that’s not a priority of the community). And that’s just an abstract example. In some instances, some of us may need to understand that our top priorites may not be the top priority of our community and we would have to accept the outcome of the strategic plan.

Eberhart: I think if we have a committee and that committee has taken input and maybe we’ve done a survey, it would be my opinion that we would need to trust the process. We know there are issues from compliance issues, for instance. I think it’s incumbent on the district to make sure the committee members are educated as to what’s possible and what’s not possible at the end of the day the board is going to have to agee to a plan and move forward. I don’t know how that process is going to go. If we want the community to buy in, they have to be involved in the process. It can’t just be come to a little forum with seven or eight peole and write it on a white board. We may not get the global buyin unless we tell peolpe, ‘You’re going to be at the table when we craft the plan.’

Whitmarsh: We should consider having an independent faciliator, so there’s no preconceived notions, who listens independently, without having skin in the game. People (such as members of bargaining units) whould not feel things they would say would be held against them at a later point in time. I would want an independent facilitator not affiliated with the payroll of the district.

Eberhart: (Referred to a teachers’ union survey). It focused on teachers providing some assessment of how things are going at the site. I’d like to see a survey like that expanded. It had great questions that talked about, from an administrative perspective, how successful is the administration? I would like to see that expanded to the parents: ‘What do you think of the site, the teaching, food serviece, cleanilness?’ Real questions that allow people to provide input so we can see from the parents and the clients we serve how we are doing as a school district.

Whitmarsh: Should survey five years out.

Eberhart: It helps me to see what does our community think of (the job we’re doing).

Whitmarsh: Would like annual feedback from students and community members: ‘What’s your perception of the school that’s in your backyard?’

Eberhart: I woul like to see it prior to putting a stratgegic plan in, as a benchmark.

Strange: If you spend a money to build a poll you don’t ever change it.

Whitmarsh: (Said it might be necessary to change certain questions to reflect changes in district.)

Allen: I think we really need to look at our communications plan. To keep the whole community informed, I think we need to make a stronger effort.

Consultant: One of the primary benefits of a stragteic plan is that communication: we have something we’re all working toward.

Eberhart: As we look at makeup of committee, administration should be represented. We need represenation from a lot of different groups. Don’t want committee to be overrepresented by any one group.

Consultant: What I’m hearing is there is interest in a strategic plan. You would like to have a retreat in January with the new board to address strategic planning — different models which would address different levels of commitment — so you’d have some options to choose from.

Mayo: (Suggested two separate meetings, one to focus on working together and one on strategic planning.)

Lawrence: (Talked about everything the district is already working on, such as school closure, state budget crisis, balancing district budget for three years, union negotiations, six swchols on persistently lowest-performing list, updating core curriculum standars and No Child Left Behind.) I think the strategic planning process is a very valuable process and will be helpful, but there are other major initiatives going on. I think if we’re going to plan meeting, we need to wait for new board members.

Strange: Potential board members, clear your calendars!

Eberhart (to Lawrence): (Asked for a timeline starting sooner than January, sometime after the new board is seated.) Most importantly (it should include) what the process looks like, including a timeline and level of expenditures and time commitment.

Lawrence asked if he could continue to confer with Whitmarsh. Strange said he has appointed Whitmarsh and Eberhart to an ad hoc subcommittee to work on strategic planning with the superintendent.

Do you think the district should move forward with a strategic plan?

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