Sunday, February 28, 2010

February meeting--a typical day in the life

I've been pretty busy the last days and so I've provided those of you who want a vacation from my posts a blessed release. I wanted to post a few thoughts on last Thursday's meeting. This post is a bit more mundane perhaps that previous posts, but I thought it would be worth providing a sample of a typical board meeting and the issues that we face.

Last Thursday's meeting addressed a number of important issues and concepts that the board has been facing. But first, we paused to listen to the Apollo Concert Choir, which had been selected to give concert to the Minnesota Music Teachers Association (MMTA) annual convention. We listened to selections from their program, and it reminded us of the importance of a strong music and arts program in our schools. Several students spoke to the importance of the music program, and specifically the revival of a strong choral music program at Apollo. Music is a deep part of our culture. One of its functions is to lift our spirits; another to remind us of our spiritual core, and this function is critical to the development of young people. It lifts them up; it keeps them going when times are rough; it reminds them during drudgery that there is something more important than their daily obstacles; it teaches them to follow leadership and to take personal responsibility; it teaches them that when people work together the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. It shows them that people working creatively together can make something wonderful. For all the emphasis on basic skills, which of course is important, this idea that people working together can create something wonderful is an important idea best learned through the actual act of creation.

At Thursday's meeting we saw a brief presentation on the implementation of a new method of monitoring how we are doing as a district called vision cards.

While they are called vision cards, I like to think of them as objective progress criteria. Using this new device, the district has set strategic measurable objectives for progress in a variety of aspects of education. We'll be able to better measure "how we are doing," where we are improving and where we are not improving. This is a continuation of the District's efforts to implement the idea that you cannot progress unless you expose through objective measurable standards the things that you are doing well and the places where you fall short. To some extent, education has at times feared to be transparent about the areas where improvement is needed. This stems from a fear that the public will not understand anything but success. Especially now, when critics seize on every issue to attack public education, there has been a fear to present meaningful objective information. But we cannot make progress, nor can we marshal our internal resources to make needed changes, unless we maintain consistent meaningful objective data on how we are doing.

The purpose of these objective criteria is not to make us look good. In fact, one of our purposes is to identify areas where we must improve in a way that connects problems to solutions. The monitoring process that is being installed will be systemic, providing better data at the student, classroom, school and district level. If criteria make you look uniformly successful, then your criteria are not ambitious enough.

At Thursday's meeting we approved a budget adjustment strategy to address the continuing financial crisis facing our district and of course many other districts in Minnesota. The decision that we made basically says that our budgetary limits will not increase class size in order to settle labor contracts. It means that as we move forward, the district will not engage in layoffs to create additional funds to settle contracts. The budget strategy involves use of some one-time temporary measures, and we've given considerable thought to whether that is appropriate. You could make an argument that we should never do that. But there is another side to that argument and it is this: the State of Minnesota regulates almost all of our funding. The State has engaged in a variety of temporary funding shifts and other devices--so we school districts live in an environment where the people in St. Paul are creating conditions in which we are virtually forced to do things that we would prefer not to do. The State should have been maintaining reserves for circumstances like this. As I've said in the past, Republicans and Democrats have conspired to destroy our State reserves--by spending down the reserves or sending the reserves back to taxpayers to "give the people their money back." The result has been that the State has left itself in a position where it cannot meet its responsibility to maintain programs, as it should, continuously.

And so, we have to face these issues with a heavy dose of humility. Every choice that we make has negative aspects. You can make a good argument against any choice that we might make under these circumstances, and so we try to make the best decisions we can, under difficult circumstances.

At Thursday's meeting we tabled an expulsion action and that created a headline in the Times. These decisions are subject to privacy rules, and so we cannot discuss the reasons for individual actions. In a general way, one can say that Minnesota law requires Board of Education to engage in a certain level of scrutiny for expulsion decisions. I believe that these decisions are elevated to the Board level precisely to afford the Board of Education an opportunity to assure the public that each step is being followed so that we can assure that we are maintaining student safety and appropriate due process. It is our job to supervise this process and use it as a supervisory technique to make sure that we are fulfilling our primary responsibility to assure the safety of all students.

In the last months, we've been examining the mechanisms for receiving public comment at board meetings. Since well before I joined the board of education, the Board has followed a practice of taking comment during a short period before the meeting begins. We have felt, however, that this method has been fairly sterile. It is seldom used and when it is used, it is typically used in a way that doesn't generally advance our need to get useful information from the public. For this reason, we've been maintaining a discussion on what changes that we should make. Two weeks ago, we tried an alternative method of engaging the public on the topic of educational excellence for disadvantaged students. We spent 90 minutes in conversation with citizens which gave them opportunity to dialog with board members and other citizens.

We've also been exploring a process by which we bring panels of persons with expertise in a particular area that we would like to examine. Last year, we invited a panel of representatives of organizations dealing with early childhood issues, to discuss how we can do a better job in our community to encourage improved learning for children before they come to school. We found that presentation tremendously stimulating, because the people who appeared before us had varying experiences and perspectives, and because, well, they knew a lot about the subject. We're going to continue in the next few months to explore better ways to get meaningful dialog with citizens.

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