I attended my first Oregon School Board Association conference this past weekend. Quite an experience-- I would highly recommend it for other school board members.
- There is a lot to learn about being on a school board! Got many useful little tidbits & advice from more experienced school board members from across Oregon.
- "District Culture" was a major theme this year, showing up in the keynote and in various forms in many sessions. We need to try to foster an environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking, open communication, and trust.
- Being a school board member is a legal minefield-- if on a board, be careful that you know about the basic laws regarding your service. Some examples are the Public Meetings laws (can't discuss school business if a quorum forms by chance at a non-meeting event), and the rules regarding Executive Sessions (possible individual $1000 ethics fine if you divulge content!)
- One area where I think the OSBA needs to improve is in the boundaries between recommended practices and legal requirements. In their talks they often blurred the distinction between the two. In some cases, it looked to me like they were trying to push opinions as facts: in particular, the "one voice" policy that a board member should never express disagreement in public once a majority vote on an issue has occurred. I see it as my duty to tell you the truth here-- and if I think the board has made a fundamentally poor decision, I won't be shy about telling you.
- Great opening quote: "To you newly elected board members: remember, the public voted for you, they believe in you, they like you, and they will back you up. Until you do one tiny thing they disagree with."
- To illustrate the need to not get focused on minutiae while running a district, one presenter used the famous "gorilla video". He asked us to count basketball passes in a game going on on a video, and afterwards asked if anything unusual had happened. Most of us who were concentrating on counting the passes missed the gorilla that walked across the video and waved at the camera!
- You've probably heard about the politically correct movement to outlaw Indian-based team names for school sports teams. Did you know that there's actually a Native American-themed charter school run by the Siletz tribe, that would have had to eliminate Indian references from its own team name under the originally proposed policy?!?
- It was interesting to see how unique Hillsboro really is among OR school districts. Most board members I spoke to had less than 3000 students in their district, with some as low as the 200s. (We have over 20000). Not too surprising, given that we are the 4th largest in OR, but something to keep in mind when comparing experiences with other boards.
- Had a nice chat with Todd Miller, who used to run the OR Connections Academy but moved to become superintendent of a brick-&-mortar district. He has nothing bad to say about ORCA, just wanted to help out his home district & try some new experiences. He hopes to introduce more online options locally once he gets his footing.
- It was a great opportunity to meet some facebook/email contacts who I had been in touch with but didn't yet know in person.
A fun workshop where we watched videos of an obnoxious board member named Andy, and had to discuss what he was doing wrong in each one.
- In one, he accused fellow board members of accepting bribes due to receiving cookie baskets from a vendor. He may have been technically correct, depending on basket value (annual limit: $50 due to ethics laws).
- Be careful of requesting reports from the superintendent or staff! Remember that any request might take $$$ to research/report on-- discuss with whole board first.
- Revealing executive session info? May subject you to $1000 individual fine, & district to lawsuit.
- Be careful about "shall" vs "may" in policies-- may subject yourself to all kinds of minutia if public "shall" be allowed to appeal to board in various circumstances. In one case board subjected to deliberating voleyball game lengths!
- In one case, I was on Andy's side-- he talked to a constituent in the supermarket about a recent board vote, and why he disagreed with it. My interpretation of a board member's duties differs from the OSBA on this one. If I think the board made a bad decision on a major issue, I will consider it my duty to inform the public. I won't be trying to stir up trouble over every lost vote, and will make it clear when I am stating my own opinion's rather than the board's, but I won't pretend to agree with poor or misguided decisions.
School Safety- Legal issues
- The lawyer pointed out that this is one issue that has been very over-legislated: once a law to "improve safety" is proposed, everyone wants to get on board supporting it, even if it creates major unfunded mandates that take away from education.
- One particularly egregious example: schools required by law to inform victims of a bully's discipline-- but are also prohibited by law from discussing one student's discipline with another!
- Remember, nobody will sue a teacher, they will sue the district-- they go where the $$$ is.
- In athletics, every student needs a physical-- but flexible laws allow alt-health practitioners such as licensed herbalists to do it. Hmmm....
- Making a student sit in the principal's office for a long time is not an illegal seizure, since law lets the student be "seized" to go to school anyway.
- "Discretionary Immunity"-- school immune from lawsuit if they had reasonable policy in place for an issue, even if policy fails in some cases.
School Safety- Policy
This is a session we need to take with a slight grain of salt, since given by rep from "New Dawn Security", which sells security certifications to schools. But still had lots of good info.
- Good policy/procedures are much more valuable than cameras. Cameras don't prevent incidents, but make followup easier afterwards.
- I was surprised to see lower safety scores on some metrics for private schools vs public. While it's true that private schools keep out some level of violent students, an in-house predator is actually the greatest risk.
- Simple policies are important.
- One bad example: 30-page emergency guide in one school, kept under teachers' desks, that 2/3 of teachers could not quickly locate.
- Good example: if bus driver receives code signal, drives to known location & waits for police. Successfully used to apprehend student involved in armed robbery.
- Another example: If responding to an urgent issue, always trigger nearest fire alarm. Claim: could have sped up response at Sandy Hook.
- DC spent $32M to outfit emergency responders with (slow) system to bring up video maps of each school. But could have had supply of printed maps ready for about 78 cents per school.
- Look for opportunities thru creative environmental design. Example: Large field didn't have fence, so installed blackberry bushes around perimeter. (Though based on my experience with a backyard blackberry infestation, I'm kind of scared of the long-term effects of this one!)
Keynote- Jim Bearden, "Leadership & Culture"
Great speaker, Vietnam vet who lectures on culture & management for a living. Highly recommended if you have an opportunity to catch him somewhere.
- What subordinates see from you is what you should expect to get from them.
- "Happily Ever Afters" don't just happen. Often people are hopeful that a new change will be the ultimate answer, then go through a denial/anger/blame cycle until the next panacea shows up.
- Dangers of emphasis on blame: lose ability to draw lessons, lose your own accountability, black hole for energy
- Need will to learn from failure & create a "heroic culture"
- What is a culture?
- Composite of behavior
- What gets noticed, honored, or confronted by leaders
- Most orgs create culture unconsciously-- try to do it consciously
- Support those who step up & do the right thing
- Support those who challenge the status quo
- Active Accessibility-- not just "open door policy", go out & seek input
- Ask, listen and understand.
- Reward risk-taking- even if it results in failure sometimes.
- Steps to create the culture
- Ensure others understand their expectations
- ID & eliminate barriers
- Model the behavior
- Measure performance vs expectations
- Honor efforts & progress towards expectations- including mistakes
- Confront unwillingness & bad faith
District Climate & Culture
Workshop taught by Steve Lamb, OSBA. Probably a good workshop on its own, but largely felt redundant after keynote! A few points to emphasize.
- Dissatisfaction can be good-- need to reach a certain level to overcome inherent resistance to new ideas
- High trust is important to create positive culture. But be careful of silly gimmicks like "trust fall" exercise (where one worker falls & others catch)-- trust in one domain may not lead to trust in another.
- Be careful about treating board's "accountability" duty as seeking out things to punish: can create climate where everybody ruled by fear & won't do anything without permission from top.
- Recognize what you want to see. Why is academic recognition so rare compared to sports recognition? (I liked this one-- back in HS, I successfully fought a battle to get varsity jackets for the math team!)
School Law Basics for Board Members
Kind of a dry recitation by an OSBA lawyer. Good stuff to know, but I think they could have made a more lively seminar by using more Andy videos, role-playing, or something similar. A few of the more interesting legal points:
- The board's duty is to "make policy", but there is no specific legal definition of a "policy". Kind of surprising. So in reality the board can do just about anything, though focusing on big-picture stuff is highly advised.
- Be careful to follow all your policies-- if you don't, can significantly hurt district's case in court if sued.
- If a board majority is gone, ESD gets to appoint a new board.
- Board members may be fined by state ethics board for ethics violations, or for violating rules of Executive Sessions.
Table Session-- Communiation
Saturday afternoon we had several mini-sessions where we sit at a table with an expert on a topic.
- The communication one had a lot of good suggestions for improving district communication, such as sharing positive stories, developing elevator speeches about the school system, building relationships with local media, and taking notes on questions you can't answer.
- However, this is another one where I had some reservations about the OSBA's position, which seems to be that we should be propagandists for the public school system, relentlessly pushing positive aspects of the district. As an elected board member, I believe my primary duty is honesty with the public, and will continue to share both the bad and the good as applicable.
- One other item that annoyed me here "...make sure public schools are represented fairly and on par with private or charter options..." Charter schools are just as public as traditional public schools! And I don't think we have any problem with charter schools being over-emphasized in district communications-- it's quite the opposite in HSD.
Table Session-- Outsourcing
Another session to take with a grain of salt, since the speaker was Greg Johnson from Sodexo, an outsourcing service provider.
- They mainly supply cafeteria mgmt, but also can build an entire school for a district & rent out the building, saving them the trouble of passing a bond when a new school is needed. Sounds too good to be true, though I suppose we might look at such opportunities if the need comes up.
- Interesting wrinkle of Oregon law-- district has to jump thru hoops to outsource, showing "cause" & demonstrating that employees will not be hurt. Greg says that they often keep all the cafeteria employees and just insert new managers when taking over a school food service.
- One guy at the table knows Sodexo from his non-board life, and pointed out that they do a good job running his company's cafeterias.
Table Session- Strategic Planning
- Goal-setting is short-term, strategic planning is longer term
- Often the process has as much value as the end result
Professional Learning Communities (PLC)
- A PLC is a group of teachers who continually learn together on the job, helping to plan lessons, eval/critique each other & grow together.
- Also do "action research" together to tackle real problems encountered in classrooms.
- Be careful of PLC-like forms that have little substance: just because you have teaching team meetings doesn't mean you have a PLC. Need to allocate nontrivial time &; foster real collaboration.
- International benchmarks show teachers spend 2x as much time on professional learning in other countries as compared to US.
Roles And Responsibilities
This is the one where they showed the gorilla video, hammering home the point that we should look at the big picture & not focus on minutiae.
- How many school board members does it take to change a light bulb? -- NONE. They should pass a policy that there is light, and let the superintendent report back on how it was implemented.
- 5 key roles:
- Learn together as a board-superintendent team.
- Set Expectations.
- Aim for Elevating Beliefs ("This is a place for all kids to excel") rather than Accepting Beliefs ("With the students we have, we just have to expect low test scores.")
- Recent surveys show 37% of org employees don't clearly know their goals. "This is like a football team with 4 members not knowing where the end zones are."
A Systems Approach to Student Achievement
This was largely a cheerleading session for the Common Core. I've documented my reservations about that in enough other places that I won't rehash them here. To learn more, listen to this podcast episode or read this blog entry.
Whew. That covers all the notes I took at the conference. Apologies if the notes on later sessions tend to be less detailed; note-taking fatigue began to set in. Anyway, like I said at the beginning, there was a lot of useful info. And even though I disagreed with the OSBA on a few points, overall I was very impressed with the conference they put together, and would highly recommend it for other board members.