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MDUSD board president asks superintendent to be more welcoming and transparent to press and public regarding meetings

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, January 24th, 2013 at 12:54 am in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Covering the Mt. Diablo school district is never dull. But, this week, I had to stand up to Superintendent Steven Lawrence to insist on my right to attend an Equity Advisory Team meeting where a committee was discussing the district’s draft plan to address the fact that the state has found it significantly over-identifies African-American students for special education, labeling many “emotionally disturbed.”

This is an important issue that the district has been working on for more than a year. In addition, it over-identifies African-Americans and Hispanic students for suspensions and expulsions, according to the state.

I heard a report about this at a recent special education Community Advisory Committee meeting, where the presenter invited other members of the committee to attend the Tuesday Equity Advisory Team meeting.

But, when I started to walk into the Equity Advisory Team meeting, Lawrence quickly stood and said, “Ms. Harrington,” (while the meeting was in progress) and asked me to step outside.

He tried to prevent me from attending the meeting, saying that it wasn’t open to the public. I told him the CAC presentation had given me the impression that anyone could attend. He said he didn’t know who made that presentation, but that wasn’t his impression.

I also told him another district administrator has encouraged me to attend, saying it’s important for the community to know about the work the committee is doing. He said he didn’t know why that administrator would have invited me.

Lawrence said it wouldn’t be good for just any member of the public to drop in and start making suggestions, since they wouldn’t have been to all of the other meetings and wouldn’t have reviewed all of the materials. I pointed out it would be easier for the public to review the documents if they were posted online.

He said the district can’t possibly post agendas and minutes for all of the various committees online because there are so many. But, he said the public could see the finished report when it is presented to the board on Monday.

Further, the superintendent said it was a “working meeting” and it wouldn’t be good if I was there videotaping or blogging, since it might inhibit discussion.

When I saw how intent he was on turning me away, I decided to compromise. So, I asked him if I could attend the meeting if I agreed not to videotape or live blog, although I said I might blog later. He said if I just sat there and took notes, it would be all right for me to go in.

So, true to my word, I sat and took notes on my laptop. I didn’t videotape, live blog or tweet.

But, I was surprised when I looked at the agenda and saw that it was in fact a public meeting after all and that recording was allowed.

Under “introductions,” the agenda stated: “Please notify the audience during introductions if you are recording the meeting and let us know if this is your first time attending the Equity Advisory Team.” The agenda also allowed for “Public Comment” from people who were not on the Equity Advisory Team.

So, why was he trying to bar me from the meeting?

After the meeting, I happened to see Board President Cheryl Hansen and relayed my frustrations to her about the superintendent’s attempt to exclude me. She said she would ask him why he did that, since it is her hope to make meetings more transparent, not keep them secretive. She also said the district needs to change its mindset and allow the public to see how business is being conducted.

Hansen informed me today in an email that she spoke to the superintendent about his actions. Here is what she wrote:

“I followed up with the superintendent about the incident with you yesterday. I told him that we have to find ways to be more transparent and welcoming to the public and the press. It’s just better PR (Public Relations). I suggested that the district:

1. Post all meetings on the district’s online calendar and, when people click on the posting, they would be able to see agendas and other information showing the purpose of the committees and what they’re discussing. Relevant documents/reports could actually be linked there as well.

2. Take the initiative to inform and actually invite the press to our public meetings.

3. Make sure committee members are emailed information prior to the meetings so they can prepare ahead of time and make meetings more productive.

Thanks for letting me know what happened because it helps keep the focus on more transparency and accountability.”

Somewhat ironically, the need to communicate better with the public also came up during the committee meeting. The draft report stated that one of the root causes of the over-identification is that some parents don’t trust the district and may not feel comfortable discussing their children’s needs with school staff. The draft plan emphasizes the need to warmly welcome parents (and the public), so they don’t have a negative impression of the district.

Bill Morones, director of secondary education, said: “For some of our parents, visiting a school is not a positive experience. When they walk on a campus, we want them to feel welcomed and loved and part of the Mt. Diablo family. One bad experience can turn them off.”

After the meeting, I tweeted about the superintendent’s attempt to exclude me. Recently elected Trustee Brian Lawrence followed up with this tweet: “(Thomas) Jefferson: ‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.’”

Do you agree with Hansen’s suggestions for greater district transparency?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

  • Sue Berg

    WAM, send me your contact info so we can interact without bothering others. You have my name. You can reach me. I can’t say the same about you.

    As for what name we use when we comment, that’s a decision each poster has to make for him/herself. For about a year after I retired from MDUSD I posted as Long-Time Board Watcher as everyone seemed to prefer anonymity. In time I decided that if I was moved to say something, I should be willing to use my name. And so I have. Perhaps one day you’ll decide to do the same.

    As I’ve said ad nauseum, I post when I have information that may help others (e.g. where to find all MDUSD Board agendas and minutes for the past 50+ years) or when I read something that I know from my nine years of working directly with the Board and Superintendent to be significantly incorrect or misleading. Many people posting on this blog seem to have become interested in MDUSD within the past four years. Four of the five Board members and the Superintendent himself have been in their positions for four years or less. Sometimes it helps to have some institutional history when talking/posting about district issues. That’s all I see myself doing here.

  • Wendy Lack

    @ Jim #148:

    Well said.

    “Bizarro parallel universe of unaccountable school district monopolies” — quite a mouthful. That phrase sums up the disconnect between government schools and those they are supposed to serve.

    There’s no doubt public schools are a weird world unto themselves, which is one appeal of the charter school model — it cuts down a wee bit of the calcified bureaucratic sludge.

    Increased accountability of school officials combined with school choice are two avenues for change that hold promise.

    The status quo doesn’t cut it.

  • Doctor J

    @Sue Berg#151 I don’t want to get caught in the cross-fire between you and WAM but thought I would refresh your memory that it was on Sept 20, 2011 when you were posting on the same thread using both your real name and your psuedoname. My recollection is there was even a couple of times you made it appear you were two different people, complimenting your own posts. That was until you posted under “Long Time Board Watcher” and accidentally signed it Sue Berg — you then went silent for months. I am comfortable people using a psuedoname to post, as long as they don’t keep switching names — after all Mark Twain was a psuedoname.

  • Doctor J

    @Jim#148 I would only add to your post that what made it even more bizzare was one of the BIG5 was the “General Counsel”; who not only approved the proposal, but also went on months later to draft the agreements [according to Steven Lawrence].

  • g

    I have to disagree with Jim on the Brown Act debates. Other than Charter or pulling out of public schools altogether, both which are very difficult to pull off and will only help a few, we the people only have two tools available to direct those who are supposed to serve us and educate our children.

    The Brown Act, and the Polls.

    The polls don’t come often enough or right when you need them.

    For the first 50 years the Brown Act was largely a limp noodle for all but a few. For those same years, voters by a majority, in my opinion, only voted to choose the President, maybe in a hot year, a senator.

    For the rest of the ballot, I firmly believe ‘the masses’ chose which box to check based on important things like “I never heard of any of them, but that’s a nice enough name.” Or, “I think I heard someone say something about this Bill was a bad idea.”

    Of course there were always very astute people voting too, but the masses? If they voted at all it was without a clue.

    The 21st Century brought us something new besides a close-up look at our enemies near and far and a war that has us all PO’d at not only that but everything around us where we have no control.

    The 21st Century brought us cheap, electronic, seat-of-your-pants or on-the-fly Information and Communication! Instead of trying to remember what the person looked like on a campaign poster–we go to the internet and read what they stand for and who pays their way and what did they do and care about before this election. You get my drift…that’s how we prepare for the polls now.

    Boil all that down to our cities and school districts. Unless we had had a run-in of some sort with either one, until lately Average Joe floated around in la-la land and ignored them and let them do their own thing. Some years things ‘felt’ good enough and some they didn’t–but we didn’t know why.

    But that was then. If there’s a roadblock to what we need and want and are entitled to, we have to use the tools we have and with great vigor.

    The Brown Act is the pick. The polls is the shovel.

  • Wendy Lack

    @G #155:

    And – if I may extend your metaphor? — citizen activism/citizen journalism/blogging is the dynamite.

    It’s unreasonable to expect voters to keep on top of the issues. Sorry, people are just too busy with their lives to hassle with such things — that’s the reality. After all, most people (or, as my apolitical kids would say, “normal people”) pay little attention to politics until the week before a general election. Understandable.

    In-the-trenches citizen activism/journalism, social media and the press all work together to 1) cut through the noise to inform voters about what’s important; and 2) elevate issues to ensure press coverage.

    “With great vigor” — I like it.

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    @G155 — I have nothing against the Brown Act. It’s a very good, well- intentioned law. The only problem with it is that it is often not followed and virtually never enforced. DAs don’t like to go after school boards, who (some still believe) are in it “for the children”. But really, does anyone need the Brown Act to tell them that MDUSD has been operating as a murky cesspool for years now?

    Ultimately, it’s not just about the transparency that taxpayers and parents deserve. There are basic organizational processes at stake here that MDUSD just can’t seem to get right. If ANY group is going to have a useful meeting, for heaven’s sake, have an accurate agenda. Decide who’s supposed to come. CIRCULATE the agenda IN ADVANCE. If a document is going to be discussed, MAKE THAT DOCUMENT AVAILABLE TO REVIEW. If a staff member is going to present information, MAKE THE PRESENTATION AVAILABLE, both before and after the meeting. Keep accurate records of what transpires at a decision-making meeting.

    These are all things that MDUSD apparently can’t master — despite years of pleading from the public and the media. It’s not just transparency that has suffered. How can a board make good decisions when such simple organizational basics are beyond their grasp? Of course they can’t.

    Devious? Or just dumb? Once again we are left wondering.

  • Sue Berg

    Dr J. there’s been more than one poster using some form of the name Board Watcher, as there are many different people using “Anon,” and I don’t know if “g” is the same as “G.” Still, you have to appreciate the irony that I, who use my name, am arguing with people who hide behind screen names as they level some pretty harsh criticism at others. I’m ready to let this subject drop. I hope you will do the same.

  • g

    Wendy, you may, and I wish I had thought to add that myself!

    Jim, we agree.

    Sue, I enter g, a fault in the system (trying to make everything correct I guess) changes it to G when it posts.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Kudos to the district — the CAC agenda for the Feb. 5 meeting is already posted: http://www.mdusd.org/Lists/UpcomingEvents/DispForm.aspx?ID=302&RootFolder=%2FLists%2FUpcomingEvents

  • Doctor J

    Kudos ? for complying with the law ? I don’t see the FCMAT report on the agenda. Why not ?

  • Doctor J

    Just to keep this issue at the forefront, where o where is the FCMAT Special Education report ?

  • Theresa Harrington

    The superintendent still hasn’t responded to my Friday morning email asking him about that. So, I left a phone message for him this morning. I will also try to find out if Kerri Mills has any information about what’s taking so long.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here’s a look at a very successful supt. in Cincinnati, who helped turn around 16 low-performing schools in four years:
    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/02/06/20ltlf-ronan.h32.html?intc=EW-LTLF13-TWT

    So far, MDUSD Superintendent Steven Lawrence has closed one of the district’s lowest-performing schools (forfeiting a School Improvement Grant), but saw Sun Terrace Elementary sink to Program Improvement, keeping the district’s number of Program Improvement schools at 10. Still, those with School Improvement Grants did make impressive gains last year. Will they be able to sustain their progress and climb out of Program Improvement this year?

  • Doctor J

    The key to the SIG schools improvement was the “increased instructional time” mandated by the SIG grant which when the audit exposed that Steven Lawrence and Rose Lock had not complied with the promises in the grant, the Feds and State cut off the funding until a “Corrective Action Plan” required the increased instructional time: the results were impressive — massive gains. Now Steven Lawrence will cut off the SIG schools from increased instructional time — it will be back to underpeformance. What a crime against the humanity of these children.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Speaking of the great gains being made with SIGs, Mary-Louise Newling invited me to come to Meadow Homes Elementary to see how they are implementing their grant, when she saw me at the Equity Advisory Team meeting. (She didn’t seem to be concerned about my presence at the meeting.) I appreciate the fact that she is excited about showing the press and public how the SIG money is being spent. As Wendy points out, all district administrators should share this commitment to transparency about every aspect of the district budget.

  • Doctor J

    I would hope that Dr. Newling can match Toby’s 57 point API gain before he got fired so she could replace him.

  • Theresa Harrington

    On the subject of transparency, our Oakley reporter says that city is planning to allow residents the chance of scanning a QR code to pull up a meeting agenda and all the backup documentation on their smartphones! If MDUSD did that — AND if MDUSD posted its Powerpoints BEFORE the meetings — people could follow along more easily.

  • g

    I ran across this quote and thought how fitting it is, but how sad that we are sitting here in 2013 still wrangling with something that shouldn’t even be an issue; simple, easy, hyper-local, school district accountability to the taxpayers!

    “It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error,
    It is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”
    – Robert H. Jackson, 1892-1954.
    Chief Judge at the War-Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here’s a blog post with the agenda for tonight’s CAC meeting, in case anyone want to comment on it: http://www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment/2013/02/05/mdusd-special-education-community-advisory-committee-to-hear-report-on-infant-services-tonight/

  • Anon

    I agree G. but when you have people like Linda Mayo who believes in the ” We can’t tell the children” approach to government; we being the children, of course; it creates the cesspool of incompetence and distrust that we’ve experienced the past four years.
    The good news is we seem to be moving in a new direction with a board president who believes in being open and accountable and two new board members who, hopefully, believe it too.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Speaking of this, Trustee Lynne Dennler reported to the CAC tonight that the board has done some “bonding” during its closed sessions. Also, Board President Cheryl Hansen told me she’ll ask why it is taking so long to release the FCMAT report.

    I shot some video of the infant presentation, which I’ll upload to http://www.youtube.com/tunedtotheresa. I also shot the assist. director’s report, which should be uploaded now at http://www.qik.com/tharrington.

  • Anon

    Thanks for the updates, Theresa

  • Theresa Harrington

    You’re welcome. There was also a great deal of interest in how the district will decide where to place special ed students next year and who will receive transportation. A detailed handout was passed out, which I’ll try to upload to googledocs. I also shot video of Carolyn Patton’s discussion of it with the CAC, which is at http://qik.com/video/57143017.