Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How We Got Here From There... Part 1 (Length Warning)

Even before the summary paragraph, I need to offer the following disclaimer. The opinions contained in this, like all posts, are my own. They don't reflect those of the any other School Committee member, nor are they intended to reflect the opinion of the School Committee as a whole. And in many ways, that may have been the community's loss.

Summary Paragraph: In which Menin explains the difference between deliberative due diligence and the perception of indecisiveness, the difference between making lousy decisions based on the lack of information from making real decisions that are informed; and he further shares some interesting and perspectives on the role the School Committee and the previous School Administration played in overseeing the erosion of academic standards; this is done in a series of postings.

At the last School Committee Meeting, we had two items on the agenda that were of particular importance to the immediate (1-5 year) future of the Schools. These were creating a set of School Committee goals for the year, and creating the framework in which some key cost savings could be taken in next year's budget. Since my natural inclination has always been open the process and cast a wide net for ideas, and since there is a reality that should the two incumbents sitting on the School Committee (the Mayor and myself) not be re-elected, there would be a new majority on the Committee, I suggested that we find a way to specifically include all five other School Committee candidates in the dialogue; and that any decision of the magnitude of busing only to the letter of the law could be explored, vetted and left for the new School Committee to choose; that we should not tie their hands.

I also pointed out that traditionally, these items would be raised for discussion in February and March of the budget process. This Superintendent's aggressive approach to budget prep, which moved the entire process up by four months, was something I have advocated for for six years. In reality, the projected time for making these decisions is early to mid-January.

After the meeting, one of the SC candidates, in passing, expressed extreme frustration to me that "You guys should just make a decision, you never make decisions," and moved on before I could respond. I tend not to like that form of communication; I call it "hit and run." I lump it with "sandbagging," and prosecutorial questioning.

As one of my wiser peers on the Committee pointed out to me, it is easy to confuse jumping to a conclusion with making a decision.

I spent a lot of years, in my opinion, serving on School Committees that jumped to conclusions, resulting in lousy, uninformed decisions that we are paying the price for now.

School Committees that accepted Administrative opinions, virtually unobstructed by any genuine research or not rooted in even the simplest conversation with teachers or the community as due diligence.

School Committees which, in my opinion, made decisions with an almost Bush-like lack of curiosity. My biggest anxiety in those days was that I would fail to ask "the follow-up" question. In the past, I was the founding Executive Director of the National Association of Consumer Attorneys, and learned the old legal maxim that you should never ask a witness a question you don't know the answer to.

Asking questions, something I did frequently, to the literally eye-rolling annoyance (somebody check the old tapes of the School Committee meetings) of several sitting at the dais, was usually the only way to get at exactly what the hell was happening. Information was not exactly presented fully and voluntarily. Probably just one of those operating style differences between me and them.

What the School Committee, and the Superintendent and the Mayors did not ever realize, I think, was that I knew the answers to 90% of the questions I asked. I had made the phone calls, talked with people affected, looked at numbers. Questions about accountability, about alternative ways to achieve academic goals, about cost savings, about the impact of the decisions we were making a year out.

The answers I received at meetings to my questions often astounded me in their creativity and lack of substantive information. That is why my anxiety about the follow-up question became nearly overwhelming. I felt like I was able to get my foot in the door, but not open it up enough to reveal what the hell was really happening. I used to describe School Committee meetings like being a dentist with a morning full of teeth extractions to do.

I remember dozens of meetings where Dick Sullivan and I would step out into the corridor just before the gavel to compare notes on items that would suddenly appear on the agenda.

I guess the word I would use to describe that operating style as "argumentative." It was the Andy Warhol approach; usually Dick Sullivan and I, and later Steve Coles would get our 15 minutes on the soapbox, and the vote would proceed, usually resulting in a 5-2 or 4-3 carry for the Administration position.

The School Committee is now a deliberative body. We may be way behind in figuring out how to consistently communicate outside of meetings, but inside the meetings we want to hear every opinion, examine the issue thoroughly, get as much feedback from the room as possible. It isn't efficient. It isn't exactly entertaining, despite my occasional irreverent remarks. But it sure beats the hell out of the way we did business before. By a mile. That was the river, this is the sea.

So my suggestion to those bright, active and committed folks who are also running for School Committee is suck it up and get used to it. Virtually every "rushed" decision I have participated in over the last six years has, well, not redounded to our benefit or credit. You see, those were decisions that often had a somewhat obscured political vitality animating them.

You will be asked to deliberate, to provide due diligence that is real and measurable and related to the overall goal of student achievement.

I'm the only one in the race who has a record to run on, and it clearly marks out a series of positions I took, often to the open disgust of my peers, that consistently argued for transparency, all cards on the table, honest assessment of what we were doing. The School Committee rule book points out that once the School Committee makes a decision, it reflects an action taken by the Committee as a whole, and it is in poor form to go out and piss and moan about it. But go see where I stood on some of the more poorly planned cost reductions we were asked to approve over the last six years- cutting theater at the Middle School, the Brown Kelley Principal merger, the fight to get Algebra added to the 8th grade and the attempt to declare it a failure without ever evaluating it, the need to adjust our teaching and curriculum to support kids where they were challenged, and challenge those who were bored (you know, the opposite of the one size fits all approach).

I began asking about reconfiguring the schools because of the potential for better use of assets and for the enhanced impact it would have on the ability of teachers to teach and learners to learn six years ago.

That wasn't a popular idea back then; it may not even be now. But I had studied it, lived it as a teacher, and felt it had a lot to commend itself academically and fiscally.

Sheesh. After five years of happy talk, no problem here, we've got a plan but... talk, I've been happy as a pig in mud that we are finally facing our responsibilities as a School Committee and an administration, and eventually as a community, honestly, deliberately, respectfully and thoughtfully. Despite the forecast for hurricane strength winds for the next few years, I want to return to the School Committee, and am excited to see new energy part of that equation.

This School Committee made more decisions in this last year, with better planning and far more due diligence, and with a focus on the future, than I experienced in the past five, despite my almost comic efforts to punch for that. That is called leadership. It is the synergy of a visionary administrator and a School Committee that is just now beginning to grow into the deliberative and diligent body it should have been years ago.

You see, friends. Schools are not a thing, a budget item. They are really an ongoing public dialogue, about where we've been, who we are, and where we want to go. A dialogue, as I pointed out when the first School Committee I served on introduced the perfect Superintendent candidate after a world-wide search, goes both ways. You speak, they listen. They speak, you listen. Anything else is a monologue.

And I think we've all seen where monologues get us.
And the conversation, if we are lucky never ends.

Just because I never seemed to be on exactly the same page as nearly everybody else doesn't mean I stopped reading the book. Now that it's a bestseller, that's very cool, because it provides a common language for dialogue and common set of metrics for accountability. And over the past six years, I've made a lot of notes in the margins.

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