A THOUSAND TINY STEPS

Heading into Month Two of Year Twelve

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Barb holding application for first school board term
Me in September 2011, registering to run for my first school board term

Tuesday is podcast release day. I often record them weeks in advance, as a matter of fact I have episodes recorded for the next four Tuesdays! But todays is quite relevant to “real time”. It describes a tough Friday I had. 

I may be a bit too honest.

A good amount of content refers to my current school board situation. Meetings are incredibly difficult. As a board member I have a certain level of commitment and obligation to work in a way that is in the best interest of the board. Other than my first year, I have never felt as disconnected as I do now. I also do not feel good about our board.

Let me be clear, I believe the people on the board are all kind and good, (for the most part).

I also believe kind and good people can act in ways that belie their better qualities. Another belief I have about the nature of people is that you can’t truly separate what you do at work, or on a board from the kind of person you are. This was driven home to me during my lawsuit experience after Molly died. 

There was not one attorney that could have participated in “take your child to work day”, not honestly anyway. The things said to me during my deposition represent true evil. I do not believe you can treat people the way they treated me if a part of you wasn’t pretty mean. 

I now sit in meetings with people who believe their words and actions toward me were justified and expect me to chat them up with smiles and pleasantries. It is hard for me to figure out how to be a good board member without feeling like I am selling out. 

For example, I must work hard on the plan for the new middle school even though I know that it is not at all what the community wants. I have to vote to approve things that I don’t believe we should be doing, and even if I did believe the board vote was “right”, the tax payers don’t, and they are the ones I was elected to represent. 

Such a conundrum. 

I have come to see that the school board autonomy, which many people support, may not be in the best interests of most of Concord’s tax payers. When I first joined the board there was little credibility coming from it. It’s relationship to teachers was negative on a good day, utterly adversarial on a bad day. I remember sitting in a negotiations committee meeting listening to the venom coming out of a couple of board members mouths regarding some of the teacher’s demands. 

I finally spoke up and reminded them I was a teacher. 

I also reminded them that our product was well educated children and that teachers were our most important commodity. They looked at me like I had five heads. I could fill pages with these kinds of stories but I won’t. What I saw was an incredible disconnect between the members of the board and the people whose lives they were charged with overseeing. 

Although the details are different, the current disconnect is identical.

After public testimony at the meeting Monday night, much of which was centered around the boards lack of transparency and respect for the needs of the citizens, a board member remarked, in a rather surprised tone, that they couldn’t believe how distrustful the public was of us. 

I kept quiet.

The board is a well-oiled machine.  Monthly full board meetings go over all the decisions and work of the previous month along with a look at what is coming up. Most of the actual work happens on committees. Each one of the six is set up for a specific set of tasks. The committees are as follows:

Instructional Committee

Negotiations Committee

Capital Facilities Committee

Finance Committee

City/Community Relations Committee 

Communications and Policy Committee

Executive Committee

Their titles are a pretty good hint into what each committee focuses on. Some committees are more “important” than others as far as people go. 

Negotiating contracts is a specific skill and task. That committee focuses on one thing, creating quality work experiences that pay a competitive range while maintaining as low a tax rate as possible.

Communication and Policy is another one. Writing policies is another specific skill set. Many of our policies are mandated by state law. Many follow social conventions. These policies set the tone for the work environment in all of our schools and offices. 

That covers the policy part of the title. 

Communication is the part of the committee that hears teacher and staff grievances. Marrying these two skill sets makes good sense. Policy breaches are often a part of employee grievances. This committee is incredibly vital to a healthy school district. 

I am on it for the first time in my twelve board years. 

While the two above committees work with teachers and staff, they could not be more different. There are board members who disagree with me being on this committee. Because I was a teacher. In my years on the board, there were always board members with educational background on this committee. 

They were always administrators.

The remaining committees focus on the nuts and bolts of running a district, Money, buildings, curriculum, and relationships. In my time on the board, I have chaired the City and Community Relations Committee, The Instructional Committee, and the Capital Facilities Committee. I have been on all of them.

Our current board has several very new members in leadership positions. So long as they are put there because they are good leaders, and not because they are easily led by board leadership we should be in good hands. Almost all of the board work is done in these committees. Decisions that require only a recommendation to the full board for a majority vote.  Decisions that are often made by the four committee members. 

That’s right, each committee is comprised of four people.

When I say that being a board member is both a responsibility and a privilege, I mean it. A small number of people impacting an entire city. One might think that because of this, all nine members must be good at working together. While we sometimes are, we are also sometimes not. My feeling on this is that some board members have a lot more “intel” than others. 

Committee chairs are often “in the know” with regular calls and meetings with district administrative staff.  Board members not in leadership positions receive few if any phone calls. Information shared in these calls is not always shared with other board members.

This is my reality now. 

The most important board process that I feel flies under the radar is the weekly call between the board president and the superintendent. The purpose of this call is for the superintendent to share what is going on in the district, the good/bad/ugly with the board president. Then the two of them then decide what to bring to the board, when or even if.

Two people. A superintendent. A board president.

For the most part this is likely a regular practice in districts across the state. What makes Concord unique is that our board president only has to report to eight other board members. Of those eight, only four have to agree or see things the way the president wants them to for an agenda to come to fruition.

In watching different board members hold this position, the change in them was evident. Subtle but evident. Typically, an appearance of super close alliance to the superintendent, followed by selective alliance with board members. Four member committees and single member weekly phone calls choreograph that dance that is The Concord School District Board of Education.

In re-reading this I will acknowledge that the chip on my shoulder is boulder sized. I acknowledge that it comes from current leadership using their newly given authority to make sure I could not exercise my own leadership as it is clearly felt to be contrary. The chiming in of the other board members in that first Executive Committee meeting was a clear portrait of the “alliance” of certain board members to one another.

But speaking of small numbers, digest this.

The middle school vote on December 6th was 6-3 in favor of the Broken Gound site. Two of the six are no longer on the board. One of those two was not even elected, but rather a fill-in for a vacated seat appointed by the board president. The other, with all of his youthful exuberance was an elementary school student when I began my career on the board. As dedicated as this member was, perspective in one’s early twenties can only go so far. Neither of them is here to participate in the ramifications of that vote. So currently four board members remain who supported the current middle school plan, and three who did not. I can not speak for our two new members. They are clearly working hard to learn the ropes and be positive additions to the board. But only four current board members voted for the current plan. 

That’s a small amount of people making a decision for a community the size of Concord. 

So, what do I do? Well, I work hard to make sure we build a beautiful school. I work hard to keep costs down. I can not let my own feelings work against the project. I also feel that is it my duty to keep the public apprised on some of the inner workings of the board.

This will make people uncomfortable. 

This is a good thing.

Discomfort brings growth.

And, what does the public do?

Keep coming to meetings, keep sending emails, research your options, join the several committees being set up for this city-wide project, but mostly, speak your mind, share your thoughts and your reality.

This will make people uncomfortable.

This is a good thing. 

Discomfort brings growth.

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