By Theresa Harrington
It was a bit like a marriage and family counseling session for school board trustees.
“How does this work?” Trustee Lynne Dennler asked, during a Mt. Diablo school board retreat Sunday. “I’m a ‘Let’s all get along person.’ When you disagree, do you get up and scream, or do you privately tell the person? When you think someone is nuts, you can only tell one (other person)?”
Dennler, a retired teacher, is one of two new trustees on the five-member Mt. Diablo school board. Trustee Cheryl Hansen is the other newbie, although she has had experience working with boards as a school and County Office of Education administrator.
The board and Superintendent Steven Lawrence met at the district office with Kirk Berger, an operational performance consultant, to discuss norms, procedures and strategic planning. Their goal was to help the board work together more effectively.
“How you communicate with each other sends a message,” Kirk told trustees.
He laid out the following formula: PO + RUA + AD = Board Behavior
PO stands for “personal orientations,” he said. “Some of you are bottom-liners, some of you are relationship people. This is all about blending.”
RUA stands for Role Understanding and Acceptance. AD is the ability to Adapt and be flexible, he said.
Berger suggested trustees should agree to norms of behavior that would foster trust, open communication and a supportive culture within the board. He said protocols are more tangible than norms, because they involve procedures that could also be regulated through bylaws.
Board President Gary Eberhart said the public seems to be picking up on an undercurrent of negativity on the board, especially related to the school closure process.
“I want to get to know how we as a board and the superintendent are going to proceed through the meetings without blaming each other, without blaming the past, without trashing the district and its past practices,” he said. “How are we as a board going to move forward in a positive way and advocate for decisions based on the merits and really do what’s best for students?”
Eberhart proposed the following norm:
“We argue on the merits, ” he said. “We don’t attack the board. We don’t attack the school district, because we are the school district. That requires a truce.”
Yet, Eberhart admitted that he has not always followed what he preached.
“I’ve been on both sides of that,” he said. “I’m not an innocent one in that kind of an argument. But, as I look back at all of those arguments, I don’t know that anything was ever gained by arguing about personalities and arguing about the past.”
Berger said trustees should create a culture that allows them to question each other when they don’t think they’re living up to the spirit of their bylaws, norms or protocols. They should feel comfortable pointing that out responsibly, he added. If it’s not done in an accusing way, he said, trustees being singled out shouldn’t feel defensive.
“As long as we understand what our expectations are, it shouldn’t be a problem,” Berger said. “Half of our problems are we don’t know what to expect of each other.”
Some boards check in with each other at the end of their meetings to review how well they stuck to their principles, he said. But Trustee Sherry Whitmarsh said she’d prefer to address lapses in behavior right when they happen.
“I’d actually rather call another board member out on it when they’re doing it,” she said.
Hansen said she wanted to focus on expectations, standards and practices. She said the board should spend more time discussing issues and that each trustee should explain why he or she is voting a certain way. Hansen also stressed the importance of strategic planning, saying the district should become proactive instead of reactively “putting out fires.”
“It’s not about our egos,” she said. “It’s not about our agenda. It’s about our common purpose around student learning.”
Trustee Linda Mayo said she wanted “no surprises” and that she would like to prohibit board members from communicating with others electronically during meetings.
“Are people who are not attending a board meeting having more influence on particular board members than the public who is there?” she asked. “The way it’s discovered is that someone on the receiving end of a communication from a board member forwards it to someone else.”
Lawrence said he only recently found out that people can comment online during board meetings on the mdusdblog where meetings are webcast.
“You’re asking that people don’t participate in that interactive community?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mayo said. “My feeling is we are a team as a board in the middle of a meeting first, working with staff and working with the public that’s chosen to come to a meeting.”
Berger said it’s important for trustees to be focused on the meeting and that electronic communications can cause board members to pay less attention. He suggested trustees could look at the California School Boards Association’s (CSBA) new electronic communications bylaw as a guide.
“The issue of the public communicating with you during the meeting to me fails the transparency test,” he said. “I think that breaks down the integrity of this kind of sacred thing we have here.”
Trustees agreed to look at the CSBA bylaw when they continue discussions about norms, protocols and bylaws from 7-9 p.m. March 3.
Mayo also suggested that the entire board should receive a Brown Act presentation, so all trustees are on the same page regarding what is and isn’t allowed. Dennler was surprised she couldn’t send an e-mail to all other board members if she had a new idea she wanted to bounce off of them.
Comparing school boards to city councils, Berger said trustees should not shy away from meeting late into the night to discuss important issues, such as student achievement. Trustees should delegate less important issues to the superintendent, he added.
“You can hold your staff accountable,” Berger said. “But, you can’t go out there and solve all the problems.”
He also addressed trustees’ concerns about how to move on after split votes.
“You don’t have to be a 5-0 board to be a good board,” Berger said. “I think it’s very helpful to explain before you vote why you’re going to vote that way because it suggests good process and it’s transparent. People respect people who stand up for their beliefs. When you’re voting against the majority, that’s what you’re doing. But if it’s the same one or two people who are voting against everything, that’s a governance problem. I would expect it to rotate naturally, just based on the issues.”
Lawrence said negative comments hurt the process.
“If it becomes personal and moves beyond a conversation around the ideas,” he said, “I think it then becomes more difficult to work together in a positive way.”
Berger said trustees have four options after losing in a split vote: advocate the outcome, honor the outcome, remain silent or fight it. He said advocating it is the highest and best choice, honoring it is good, remaining silent is “unfortunate” and fighting it defeats the whole purpose of a democracy.
“There are board members who are on the wrong side of split votes who go out against them and it makes you look bad,” he said, “because our democracy is built on honoring the majority.”
Trustees will meet about school closures at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Glenbrook Middle School gym, discussing Eberhart’s idea of closing Westwood Elementary and sending Glenbrook students to El Dorado Middle School and the former Westwood site.
Berger said Lawrence could have alerted trustees to Eberhart’s idea individually before the Feb. 8 meeting so they wouldn’t have been surprised, even though Eberhart himself could only speak to one other board member, due to the Brown Act. He also suggested the board could hold “work session” meetings, where they could brainstorm about new ideas without making decisions.
Berger said the board should inform the public about how trustees are making their school closure decisions, taking on their roles with humility.
“You have to look at collective interests, not self-interest,” Berger said. “You have to rise to the occasion and let the public understand what’s going on and understand the process. Answer all their questions, even when they’re angry. You don’t have to take personal abuse, but do a good job of mediating this whole thing of ‘who’s in charge.’”
Ultimately, he said, the public is in charge. The best time for public comment, he added, is after the staff presentation and initial discussion by the board.
This way, he said, the public understands what trustees are considering and can comment on the direction trustees appear to be heading in.
Trustees have agreed to close Glenbrook and Holbrook Elementary in Concord. They have also agreed to eliminate the recommendation to close Monte Gardens Elementary in Concord and Sequoia Elementary and Sequioa Middle School in Pleasant Hill.
They have not voted to remove Silverwood or Wren Avenue elementary schools in Concord from the recommendations.
Here’s what Silverwood parent John Pamer wrote to me in an e-maill today about the school closure process so far:
“The Silverwood community has been in a state of uncertainty for some time about our future. It’s been frustrating at times to watch a process unfold over which we have limited influence that will affect our children’s education and social life, as well as the quality and livability of our neighborhoods and our home values.
Most organizations looking at cutbacks would start by eliminating who and what is not performing well. There are schools in the district that have low capacity utilization and are not meeting their academic performance targets. Silverwood isn’t one of them. Silverwood should be held out as a success story in the MDUSD — a neighborhood-based student body that is ethnically and economically diverse coming together to create a sound level of achievement. Instead, we have been targeted for closure under the guise of saving money.
At the January 19 Board Study session, Board President Eberhart directed Superintendant Lawrence to see if there was a way to combine some programs and repurpose closed campuses to save enough money to perhaps save one school. On January 25 I was encouraged to see that Dr. Lawrence presented a proposal that did not require the closure of Silverwood.
On February 8, I was surprised as everyone else to hear the proposal by Chairman Eberhart to send Glenbrook to El Dorado as a unit, and in turn to send Westwood as a unit to Mountain View. I was disappointed to hear that Silverwood was still under consideration for closure.
While I am encouraged that this latest proposal would spare Silverwood, I am not happy that it would come at the expense of another school. That being said, I think it makes more economic sense than simply closing Silverwood. The biggest difference between Westwood and Silverwood is that the Westwood student body would move to a new site intact, while Silverwood would be split three ways, destroying the synergy we’ve built. Mr. Eberhart’s proposal would also preserve Glenbrook’s grant funding, which is paramount given the budget crisis MDUSD is facing.
Linda Loza, a Walnut Creek parent who attended the board retreat, said she agreed with Berger’s suggestion that the board should focus on student achievement and allow the superintendent to oversee day-to-day district operations.
She was also encouraged by the board’s willingness to address the way it is perceived by the public.
“I believe that this board has an incredible problem with a lack of public trust and confidence and that anything they can do to repair that has to be a priority,” she said. “And the fact that they are willing to do some meetings that are like ‘work-study’ meetings — I think that will go a long way toward making people feel more comfortable about the decisions they’re making. I thought that was a great idea.”
Do you think the board should hold more “work-study” meetings, where trustees can brainstorm about new ideas?