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All posts for the month January, 2015

The immaculate presidency

Published January 31, 2015 by justicewg

Brannanweb2The presidency of the school board unexpectedly changed in the January meeting, from Douglass to Brannan. Normally there is some public hint that change is on the way. Even if the standard “need to spend more time with my family” is used by the departing president, it give us some reason for the change. There has not been a word from Douglass, before or after the vote.

As the Vice-president, Debbie Brannan was the logical person to take the position of board president. Read below for her amusing take on why the board needed to change. Unfortunately her first official actions as a president show that she is just as firmly in favor of the Policy Governance mode for running the board as Douglass was. It’s not unexpected, but it is disappointing.

No politics going on in a political office

There was nothing written in any of the official school PR material, or newspaper stories, about why Douglass was out and Brannan is in the new board president. I tried asking a few members and didn’t get anything that made sense. Brannan herself had something to say about how she got voted into her new position:

“… My interests and strength have always been with the academic / curriculum side of things, so the transition was natural. No politics. No lobbying. No hidden agenda.” – Debbie Brannan

This statement provokes so many questions.

If Brannan was into the academic side of the board’s duties, isn’t that the opposite of the qualities needed for the board president, which are focused on Public Relations, mediating the relationship between board and Superintendent, and dealing with the politics of the board and the community?

There was no politics going on, in the decisions about board member votes for a political office? Did the heavens open up and a loud voice shout down “DEBBIE BRANNAN! THOU SHALT TAKE THE PRESIDENCY!”

When a politician says the words “no hidden agenda”, you can bet there is a hidden agenda.

Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion, Brannan is 100% better than Douglass as a board president. She is reading my emails and I assume she reads my blog. She answers questions! I know that is a pathetic thing to take as a good quality from a public official, but the school board has had so many poor office holders who refused to answer questions, it is refreshing to find one who takes the office seriously enough to do the job they were elected to do.

Jesse Truett is the VICE-president

I don’t know what happened in the back room dealings that resulted in the change at the top of the board, but I would bet money that the price of Truett’s vote for a new presidency was the position of Vice-president. Nothing so shocking there, that is the way it works for politicians.

There is an implied statement on the election of the V.P. , that the person who holds it is ready to move up into the position of president. Would Grandview Heights want a person who lost their teacher’s license because of an affair with a student be the president of the school board? A guy who has a day job working with charter schools, trying to undercut public schools in this state? I never understood why Truett has enough popularity to get elected to the school board, and again I’m aghast that anyone would want him in a leadership position.

I sent a couple of emails to Truett asking him why he was in a leadership position on the board, and I finally did get him to respond to an email. What he said could be shortened to “I don’t have to answer you, because Ms. Brannan can do that”. If that is what he has to say to any parent who sends him an email, you might as well stop wasting the electrons, he is a firm believer in the Policy Governance mode of school board operation and will not be tricked into stating an opinion all of his own.

He wrote something unique in his email, something I have never seen in an email from any other public official. At the bottom, he added a line:

This message and any response to it may constitute a  public  record, and therefore may be available upon request in accordance with Ohio  public  records  law. (ORC 149.43)

I hope that everyone keeps in mind that all the emails that you send to public officials are included in the public records which can be requested by anyone with a FOIA request. Confidential material about minor students could be exempt, but if you send a profanity laced rant to your local official, it will be held in the official records for all time.

The fact that Truett has to include this warning prominently at the bottom of his emails makes me think there are some people who don’t like him, and say it in some colorful ways in their emails. I wonder what I would find if I requested those emails?

Reading some tea leaves

Nobody will talk on the school board about the reason for the change in the presidency. I don’t see any advantage to a board member going public with that info, so it will probably remain in the dark for a long time.

My best guess is this – Douglass and O’Reilly had some bad blood between them, and I’m guessing that it was Douglass that drove O’Reilly out of his job, with no replacement position lined up (O’Reilly applied for at least one local superintendent job but didn’t get it, and ended up in a much lower paid consultant gig). The highest rule of Policy Governance is “thou shalt not jerk the super around”. Douglass violated this rule, and the political powers of the city united to take his post away from him.

If O’Reilly really was treated unfairly then it was a good thing Douglass got knocked from his post. The problem is that like so much of what goes on in the political machinery of the city, this coup d’état happened in the dark. Instead of a public presentation of the issues that Douglass screwed up, and an open explanation of why he was removed from his post, we got nothing but a ridiculous denial that backroom politics happened in a political board. That’s an insult to the intelligence of everyone in the city. It’s an affirmation to the Policy Governance mode, where the public is not part of the real decision making.

I have to admit though, although I hope Douglass was denied the presidency because people were sick of his arrogant ways, it is just as possible that he was removed because he had a personal fight with someone else in the city, someone outside the board, and this person had the political pull to get revenge. Or maybe Douglass had some sort of personal scandal that didn’t make the papers, but caused his downfall. We don’t know. We are not allowed to know.

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Policy Governance in Grandview Schools

Published January 14, 2015 by justicewg
Data Czar Steve Tankovich, recently sentenced to jail time for his role in the Columbus data-rigging scandal

Data Czar Steve Tankovich, recently sentenced to jail time for his role in the Columbus data-rigging scandal

I have long criticized the Grandview school board for operating in a way that excluded input from parents, stifled discussion between board members, and allowed the superintendent (and the board president) to run the school with little oversight. I called it “Strong Superintendent” policy, in my featured article about the Grandview schools. While I still think that is a good description of the way the board works, it isn’t the correct technical term used by the professional education community. They call it Policy Governance.

Columbus schools failed because of Policy Governance

While Grandview Heights schools have used Policy Governance for a long time, (it’s difficult to pin a date on it because the board has always denied the policy), the Columbus city schools have a shorter history.

In 2006 the Columbus school board determined that they wanted to change the way the board operated. They set strict rules for how they would run the board meetings, conduct discussions, and interact with the Superintendent. The board passed a new set of rules that sharply restricted any public conflict between members, or conflict with the school administration. This text from the board policy manual sets the root qualities for governance:

“ … focus on strategic leadership rather than administrative detail; observe clear distinction between Board and CEO roles; make collective rather than individual decisions; …”

The practical result of this policy was to take any operational decisions at the school away from the board and allow the Superintendent to run the schools with near total freedom. The written policy still was supposed to be followed, but the gap between what the rules say and the practical decisions made on a daily basis allowed the Superintendent a wide latitude.

The board policy on “making collective decisions” could only succeed by limiting the input of parents to the process. If one board member listened to requests for change, but was unable to use back channel discussion with other board members to sway opinions, there was no way to publicly announce support for policy change. The best way to be a board member under Policy Governance is to shut down communications, not respond to emails and letters, and sit in silence.

Things went wrong

The system under Policy Governance at the Columbus schools seemed to be working. The superintendent was required to produce annual reports on the ways the school administration was following the policies the school board created, and – surprise! – the reports gave high marks every year to the administration. The school board thought that was sufficient.

Unfortunately, with the board taking a hands off approach, the school administrators found it easy to fudge some numbers. When that didn’t set off alarms, the incentive system that rewarded results but didn’t check those results went wrong on a massive scale. A district wide data-rigging scandal was allowed to fester for years. The report by state auditor Yost found a “culture of deceit” in the school administration. After the state stepped in to the investigation, they considered action against the educator licenses of 61 current and former employees, including superintendent Harris. The school data czar was sentenced to jail time for tampering with government records. State Auditor Yost specifically blamed policy governance for creating the data-rigging scandal.

The Columbus school board is now in the process of ditching the Policy Governance mode, going back to a traditional board system that listens to whistle blowers and parents with concerns, and investigates the operation of the school on a lower level. Hands off will become hands on. Board members will be able to voice concerns in public meetings.

A history of policy governance at Grandview

The Grandview Heights school board has a long history of unanimous votes. A normal board meetings has no conflict or even questioning of policy at the school. The board members sit and listen, then vote five yes votes. Years go by between votes that are divided.

The school board, if it responds to questions about the way they produce all of these unanimous votes, claims that there is discussion between board members, but they always resolve their questions and opinions into an unanimous vote. However, the school board meeting notes show no record of these “vigorous discussions”.

In the past community members could ask questions about school policy and get some responses from the board at the “Recognition of Guests and Hearing of the Public” part of the board meeting. Under Grant Douglass this part of the meeting is now just a hearing, not a responding session. Say what you want – the board has no response. Because the board doesn’t want to have any conflict between themselves, they actively try to keep parents out of the decision making process.

A history of bad policy is not a good reason to continue

I’m going to use an analogy that is a good match to the policy position at Grandview.

Drivers who don’t use seat belts can list a dozen reasons why it is a better way to drive. It makes entering and leaving faster, solves the problems with pulling your wallet out at fast food, is more comfortable, etc. Unbelted drivers can’t list the advantages to wearing a seat belt – until they drive past a wreck on the road, and see the result of seatbeltless drivers who are ejected from the car.

Policy Governance seems to work well for school boards that follow that policy. It streamlines the work of the board, taking away time intensive oversight processes, listening to complaints from parents and staff, checking on data. The high level planning process that is engaged by the Policy Governance board is just a lot more fun that the dirty work of supervising the schools at the level where carefully crafted policy meets everyday reality of working with humans who inevitably fail those good policies.

Right now the Grandview Heights schools are driving past the wreck of the Columbus schools. It should be a wakeup call, a reason for deep examination of the assumption that drive the school board.

Could there be the same sort of data-rigging that occurred in the Columbus school going on in the Grandview schools? Without a board that has a hands on review of the numbers, who knows? The Grandview schools have avoided the newspaper headlines level of scandal in the past, mostly because of superintendents who followed the laws. The incentives under a Policy Governance system are to fudge the numbers. How long will we stay lucky?

Is the always unanimous school board the best way to create policy on the school board? The emphasis on collective decisions and suppressing all conflict in meetings has a result in incentives to stop listening to parents, failing to encourage more voices in the decision making process, shutting down those who speak up.

When the board started holding meetings to listen to parents who had children who had been bullied at the schools, they were shocked at the stories they heard. The message they got from those parents was “we couldn’t make a public fuss about the bullying, because that isn’t the way things are done here in Grandview Heights”. How many other simmering problems are suppressed, because painting over problems is easier than addressing them?

The Superintendent is not the problem

Gene Harris, former Columbus school Superintendent, plead guilty to charges in the scandal,

Gene Harris, former Columbus school Superintendent, plead guilty to charges in the scandal.

Because Policy Governance is focused so much on the Superintendent, critics are accused of having issues with the person who holds that job. It is important to state this – while a superintendent who does a good job is vital, it is the system of incentives that are created by Policy Governance that can mislead a school system, even with a competent leader.

I don’t think Gene Harris sat down one day and said “lets make a culture of deceit here in the Columbus schools”. The system went wrong because instead of being focused on education, it was all about making Gene Harris look good. All of her subordinates knew that they worked for her, not the school board or the people of Columbus. Fudging numbers so that the boss looks better is justifiable under that system.

Policy Governance, and the mindset that supports it, inevitably leads to corruption in the system. When questions are repressed, and checks and balances removed, the incentives lead to cheating. Parents are turned away from board meetings if they are trying to make any change in the school policy, because “we don’t do that here”. It’s a discriminatory system that favors small groups who have political power to do the behind the scenes lobbying of board members.

My experience with Policy Governance criticism

The usual reaction I get from the school board boosters here in Grandview to posts like this one is “that guy hates everything in Grandview, don’t listen to him”. Lately the responses have been more “if you don’t like it here in Grandview, get out. We can turn up the heat to help you move”. The people who send these messages have no internal insight into why it is wrong for complaints to be responded to with threats. Maybe because “that’s the way we do things here in Grandview Heights?”.