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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- "Discretionary Immunity"-- school immune from lawsuit if they had
reasonable policy in place for an issue, even if policy fails in some
School Safety- Policy
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
- 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
- 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"
speaker, Vietnam vet who lectures on culture & management for a
living. Highly recommended if you have an opportunity to catch him
- 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
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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
is the one where they showed the gorilla video, hammering home the
point that we should look at the big picture & not focus on
- 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.
Build Collective Will. Culture matters.
Create Conditions For Success.
Hold System Accountable.
Though elected, a school board member is a bit different than a
legislator-- in fact, a board member has legislative, executive, *and*
Be careful about seeming to 'represent' a constituent on a
low-level issue-- may later need to recuse yourself from board when
appealed to for a final decision.
- 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
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.