On the Decision-Making Process

“…several reliable sources tell me that before each meeting, the superintendent meets with each and every board member. I have no idea what they talk about. I’m also told that in most cases, when the school board votes on an issue, there is very little discussion before the vote, and that most of the votes are unanimous.” (anonymous commenter, Northfield News, February 3, 2013)

“But this school board… continues to struggle with transparency. Rarely are topics discussed in any depth, even at work sessions, and board members have openly acknowledged their preference to have most questions answered and issues decided before they publicly convene for votes.” (Editorial, Northfield News, December 30, 2012)

Board members are, in fact, invited to meet individually with the superintendent before each Board meeting. On January 10, I sat down with Dr. Richardson for one of these meetings, my first (and, to this date, only) such meeting since joining the Board. Most of the hour was spent going over the agenda for the upcoming meeting. All of this is public information, available as part of the Board packet before the meeting and repeated during the Board meeting itself.

Each Board packet contains a “memorandum” from the superintendent, which is essentially an annotated agenda, explaining each item on the agenda and giving the superintendent’s recommendation for Board action. This memorandum is sent to the press as part of the Board packet, and is public information available to anyone who requests it. It’s usually available on the Friday morning before a Monday School Board meeting, and can be requested from Donita Delzer, the superintendent’s assistant, at donita.delzer@nfld.k12.mn.us.

At my meeting with the superintendent on January 10, we also discussed the calendar issue in more depth. I had previously expressed reservations about the calendar proposal on my blog; I had received dozens of emails expressing opposition to the calendar proposal (as did other Board members); I had met in person with opponents of the calendar; I had followed the Change.org petition; and I had done my own research on the issue. Based on all of this, I used my meeting with the superintendent to express my continued reservations about the calendar proposal and to bring to him some of the concerns I had heard from members of the community.

On January 14, on the recommendation of Kari Nelson, the Board inserted an action item into the agenda and voted unanimously to proceed with a traditional calendar for 2013-2014, and directed the administration to begin a more inclusive process of discussing potential changes to the school calendar.

Two days after the January 14 meeting, I attended a Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) training session for new Board members. The first hour was spent on Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. In the Q&A, I asked if meetings with the Superintendent before a Board meeting could be construed as “serial meetings.” I was told it was possible to construe them as such. I conveyed this opinion to Dr. Richardson, who told me that he would get an opinion to the contrary from the school district’s attorney. I am still awaiting that opinion.

I think the meetings with the Superintendent are useful as preparation for Board meetings insofar as they provide necessary background for understanding issues that come before the Board. The danger is that such meetings might contribute to groupthink.

Groupthink is “a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion.” One of the causes of groupthink “a strong, persuasive group leader,” like the Superintendent. Among the strategies for avoiding groupthink are to “explore alternatives” and to “gather information from outside sources.”

To avoid falling into groupthink, this is what I’ve been trying to do, and to share with members of the community through this blog. I’ve tried to explore alternatives and consider sources of information other than the school administration. For example, I’ve recently explored alternatives (a pilot program, a BYOD program) to the administration’s iPad proposal.

But to be fair, Matt Hillmann has spent hundreds of hours, at dozens of meetings and focus groups, listening carefully to input from various stakeholders. I do believe that he has taken all of this input into consideration in developing his proposal. He has certainly been more than willing to address my concerns and to consider the alternatives I’ve suggested. For example, I’ve blogged his responses to my concerns about the budget implications of a one-to-one iPad program, and he has tweeted a link to my blog post exploring an alternative to the administration’s proposal. Clearly, Matt is an enthusiastic and articulate advocate for his one-to-one iPad proposal, but he is also responsive and responsible in considering alternative points of view and using them to improve his own proposal. I think he, too, is doing his best to avoid groupthink.

I’ve learned that the best way to influence an outcome is to be involved in the process. This lesson was reinforced for me after I spent almost a year working with the Skateboard Coalition to secure a site for a permanent skateboard park. I think the parents who turned out to oppose the calendar change learned this, too. I believe that everyone who has attended a public meeting on the technology proposal, and everyone who has expressed an opinion or offered a suggestion, has been heard and has contributed to whatever the final outcome happens to be.

The Board’s responsibility now is to consider to explore alternatives, to examine contingencies, to collect information, and make a final decision. I believe that every member of the Board takes that responsibility seriously. The Board has to determine whether the administration has developed a reasonable and responsible proposal based on a thorough and thoughtful process, and has made a convincing argument that its proposal is both fiscally and educationally sound.

According to the Center for Public Education, “effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.” This is something I believe in, and something I think the Board as a whole works hard to achieve. I hope that this collaborative relationship will grow and be strengthened throughout my term on the School Board.

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