Saturday, April 5, 2014

Board of Education Quarterly Chair's Report

District 742 Community Schools
Jerry Von Korff, Board Chair
Please Reply to
1015 W. St. Germain St., Ste. 300, P.O. Box 1497
St. Cloud, Minnesota 56302-1497
Telephone 320-251-6700, Fax 320-656-3500
Direct Dial: 320-656-3508

To:  Board of Education
From:  Gerald Von Korff
Re:  Quarterly Chair Report
Date:  March 27, 2014

I promised to provide a quarterly chair report.   The goal of the report is to provide the Board with information on my activities and the areas where I have been providing focus.   The Chair is a servant of the board, and I see this report as an opportunity to stimulate feedback on where you would like the chair to focus in future quarters.

Continuous Progress Atmosphere.  You may have heard me at Board meetings repeating the concept of continuous progress in various contexts.    The continuous progress philosophy – for organizations, is worth repeating because it is fundamental to the direction that the School Board and District administration has been taking. In every organization, we can find inefficiencies or areas for improvement—in our curriculum, in our teaching practices, in our governance. If we find problems this year, and get rid of them, we will find some next year, and the next year after that. An organization that is not finding inefficiencies or areas to improve and solving them is not being honest with itself.

When staff comes before us with test scores that need improvement, for example, the public expects us to respond appropriately.   Doing that requires a delicate balance.   If we merely celebrate the excellent work that they are doing, the public and staff may get the impression that we are willing to celebrate unacceptable results.  On the other hand, if we blame or humiliate professionals who are doing their very best with the resources and support that we authorize and provide, then we are destroying morale.    So, I think, we need constantly to strike a balance in our public deliberations.   The public and staff ought to see us focusing on how we can improve, but they ought to see us celebrating success and appreciating the efforts of our dedicated educators.  I’ve heard people say we cannot do both during a televised meeting, because we would be exposing vulnerabilities in public.   But I think that it is important to our credibility that we strike the correct balance throughout our deliberations. 

Workshop Meetings.     For several months now, we’ve been trying to focus on a single major topic at our workshop meetings.  It is appropriate to take stock whether that is working for us and whether any refinements ought to be considered.   In today’s meeting, we’re trying one such refinement.   But if members have any other suggestions, please advance them to a member of the Board Development Committee.  Dennis and I have been talking about trying to invite more persons from the community who have an interest in the topic before us.   The persons who have come with expertise to those meetings made significant contributions to the quality of the dialog, I believe.
Agenda Planning.  The purpose of the agenda planning process is to determine what is going to come to the board at the next meeting, of course.  But it has several other important purposes.  One is for the board representatives to anticipate questions that other board members might have, so that the rest of you get the information that you need.   Another is to review the back up materials that will be presented to the board.    As you know, for many years I’ve argued that our district needs to do a better job of preparing those materials in advance of the agenda planning meeting, so that we can make sure that what the board has will provide adequate background.   In many larger organizations, the goal is to have all background materials available when the agenda is approved by the committee.   At times, I feel that we could do a better job of getting those materials to the agenda planning committee for that purpose.   It would help Dennis and I do our job better, if we had board member feedback on that. 

Referendum Reform:  After several years of effort, the public education community succeeded in obtaining for all school districts in the State of Minnesota discretionary levy authority equivalent to about $724 per pupil.    We’ll hear more about that from Peter Hammerlink, legislative chair, who played a leading role this year and last in marshaling our efforts.  Our superintendent testified twice effectively.   This achieves one of our major board objectives for this year.  

One consequence of this achievement is that we will not be required to organize and prepare for a referendum renewal in November.   Instead, both Dennis and I believe that we need to develop an accountability protocol that will establish what commitments the board of education wishes to connect to the levy that it passes.    When we sought referendum authority from the voters, we made certain pledges regarding instructional ratio, activities, and other important objectives.   I think in order to maintain fidelity with the concept that the board of education can more effectively represent the public in connecting operating levies to key objectives, we should be developing an accountability approach.  I would like to refer the work on this to the Finance Committee. 

During our discussions about the levy, should it have been necessary, there has been a dialog about the possibility of assuring that the instructional ratio commitment should also have a class size impact in those schools that are experiencing class size challenges because of a lack of special funding.  I suggest that this discussion should continue in the context of the board levy adoption process.      

Tech Replacement:   A second consequence of passage of referendum reform is that, if we choose to do so, we can plan a new high school referendum for the Spring of 2014.    We need a calendar of events to get us to that point so that the board, staff and the public understands the decision points, when and where stakeholders will have an opportunity to address the key decisions.   

Clark Field:   I’ve heard several times from Clark Field proponents.   Until now, I’ve been telling them our timing is up in the air, because we don’t know if we’re running a referendum in November.  The folks working on Clark Field funding have decided that they cannot raise the funding match if we can’t promise them our half of the field renovation funding, and we’ve said that we cannot produce funding for the field without voter approval.  

It is clear that if there is a new Tech, there is going to be a football facility for that new school.   As we move forward, the district needs to develop a plan for deciding where that field is going to be, and whether private fund raising would have any part in that decision.   We need to develop a decision schedule for this issue and integrate it in some way with the work we are doing on a new Tech.

Strategic Planning:   Tentatively, we have set the following schedule for concluding the board’s involvement in strategic planning:

(a)    April Workshop meeting.   Presentation of draft strategic plan.   Representatives of the planning teams will join us and be present to participate in discussion.  
(b)   During April and May, staff and community opportunities to discuss and provide input on the plan.   
(c)    Also during this period, we will be looking at the budget, and the budget will likely be impacted by the strategic plan and the superintendent’s recommendations for the first steps for implementation.     
(d)   Final adoption would take place at the second meeting in May.  

In order to gain true public and staff support, I believe that it is essential that when we invite staff, parents, and others in the community to look at the proposed strategic plan, that we give them a meaningful opportunity to comment.   We only create ownership if these presentations involve listening.   A dedicated team of staff and citizens have really worked hard, and we have every reason to expect that their work product will be wonderful.  But, if we want genuine buy in, there needs to be some productive listening as well.   We can’t say that every last word is sacred.     If we hear that stakeholders need a clarification, or emphasis on something they believe is missing, we have to provide a mechanism to hear that, I believe.  

This morning, I visited a meeting of the core planning team.  I heard them discuss whether it will be possible to engage the community and convince the community that this process is leading to significant positive change.   I believe that the engagement process that takes place before adoption is a critical step in providing those assurances.   If we simply put the final product in front of the board and rubber stamp the work that has been done, people will not see the process as having been transparent and engaging.  I am hearing from everyone involved that the work product is excellent.  I have no reason to believe that the Board will want to pick the document apart.   But it is absolutely critical, I believe, that we afford staff and community to engage with the plan and provide input at a stage where that input can be taken into account in a meaningful way. 

Partners for Student Success:   Dennis and I have been meeting monthly with Pat Welter and Bruce Watkins to maintain a dialog with their leadership. 

Finance Committee Recommendation on Construction Projects.   The item on tonight’s agenda regarding construction projects is designed to authorize preliminary planning work.   The Superintendent is saying, we need to do some work on planning these projects, before they are ready for presentation to the Board for final approval.   We aren’t being asked to approve them for construction.   But, the administration is saying, look, if you aren’t willing to consider approving them, then we don’t want to expend time, effort and money on discussing and doing preliminary planning.

The Clearview K-8 proposal has the greatest impact on the way we deliver programming and the configuration of the district.   Consequently, I would suggest that it is going to require the most careful diligence.   I attended the Clearview PTA this month and delivered the message, along with Principal Rutar, that the community should be afforded an opportunity to participate  in the consideration of this proposal.   It seemed to me that the parents at this meeting wanted that opportunity and would welcome the ability to provide input and participate in planning.   The proposal has an impact on South as well, and so of course, other parts of the district deserve an opportunity to be heard.   In addressing this proposal, it would seem that before it is advanced for final approval, the board will want to know that the administration has looked at issues such as:

(a)    The likely number of students who would attend the added grade levels at Clearview;
(b)   Whether there are a significant number of prospective students at those grade levels would prefer to attend South;
(c)    How immersion programming would be delivered at Clearview, and what complications, if any, are involved in keeping immersion there for two additional grades;
(d)   What we have learned from the Kennedy K-8 experiment, and whether those lessons are transferable to Clearview, or whether there are any differences;
(e)    The budgetary impacts on providing K-8 at Clearview;
(f)    Whether the program at Clearview would provide a robust, high quality, attractive program for the students likely to attend.
In the near future, we should have a calendar of decision points, so that folks interested in this process will know when and how they can provide input.  

Budget:    During the next few months, the budgetary process will be running in parallel with the strategic planning approval process.    One expects that, since the strategic plan envisions change next year, the budgetary planning will reflect those changes.   Although the strategic plan will not be finally adopted until the end of May, we should recognize that the superintendent will be embedding within the budget the priorities that flow from the draft strategic plan.   

Communications:   I asked members Whipple and Dahlgren to meet on an ad hoc basis to help focus on the communications issues that they have both advocated we work on.   In the chair’s view, communications involves better efforts to provide a clear message, a message that is more responsive to the concerns that people have, and to do a better job of listening.   Members Whipple and Dahlgren have proposed a communication review that would be conducted by an outside consultant in an approach that would be conducted by an outside independent review.   The process will involve board finance, development and linkages committee and of course the Superintendent.

Linkage Committee:   Member Mohs advised that he would like to resign from the linkage committee.  He’s carried a huge workload on this committee for many years, and he deserves our thanks for many years of service above and beyond the call.

I met with the committee to discuss directions a week ago.  After consulting with board committee members and Bruce Mohs and the Superintendent, I’ve decided to appoint Dennis Whipple to Chair the committee and to put myself on the committee to fill the vacant slot.   During the committee board report, and in the liaison policy discussion, we can discuss where the committee is going further.   We’re hoping that in April and May that board members will visit PTA, site councils, or other appropriate functions at their respective schools.   We’d like to supply each member with communication points that describe the major issues that we are facing on the board.  Our goal is to prepare a basic set of these documents by the end of April.  These issue summaries would be coordinated with the administration.   Hopefully, at each school during the next months, each member would give a five minute board report with the consent of the principal to make sure that we’re linking to the people we serve in each building. 

An example of what an issue document might look like is attached.   We’ve discussed creation of summary documents for the board on topics such as the following:     

·         Major items currently before the Board of Education or coming to the board of education in the near future with a few sentences about those items and approximate dates that we will be confronting those issues.  Where citizens and staff can participate in consideration.  Link for further information online. 
·         Building plans.  Status of these building plans.    Schedule for consideration and approval.   Where citizens can participate in consideration process.  Link for further information online.  
·         New High school and Clark Field information.   Schedule for consideration and approval.   Where can citizens and staff participate in consideration process?  Link for further information online.
·         Budget process.   Major budget issues.  Schedule for consideration and approval.  Where can citizens participate in consideration process?   Link for further information online.
·         Strategic plan process.  What can board members say about the process.  Schedule for consideration and approval.  Link for further information online.   
·         PTA and other meeting schedule.  (Site councils, other board possible appearances).  Upcoming board linkage events. 

We’re also discussing whether there are some formats we can devise to engage in more effective listening.  

College and Post Secondary Prep   Every chair has an area of special interest.  My highest interest this year happens to coincide with an area that I believe is going to receive special emphasis in our strategic plan—increasing our graduation rate and providing better, more consistent, support for every secondary student, to see that he or she gets the counseling, the mentoring, the teacher support, to make the transition into post secondary education.  I hope that we will discuss this at the graduation workshop and through our strategic planning develop an operational strategy that assures that young people are not only learning what they need to do to prepare for post secondary education and developing necessary study habits and skills, but are regularly monitored and supported to assure that they do the test prep that they need to do, complete necessary forms for admission and financial aid, take the right tests at the right time.  

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