As we listened to the 12/8/14 BOE live stream last night, we heard a D181 Board meeting that in our opinion was a perfect example of the good and bad that exists in the administration and on the board. It also provided a possible peek into how the board might function after next Spring's BOE election when, as we anticipate, there will hopefully be a shift on the board majority -- away from a rubber stamping board to one that will push for data and accountability, in particular in the area of curriculum and all things that will affect our children.
To begin with, this is the first meeting in a long time at which all seven board members were present, something that should be the norm, but as we all know, has not been. So we begin by saying THANK YOU to our elected officials for all showing up to do their job. There was only one opening public comment, but we want to commend the student who spoke on the importance of human rights and asked the administration to set up a celebration of human rights during the next school year. We wholeheartedly support this suggestion and are proud of this student for speaking out.
Now a quick rehash of the worst and best moments of the meeting. We won't give a blow by blow because we believe community members need to start listening to the meeting podcasts, if they are unable to attend in person, and keep current with the district issues. Click here to open the podcast.
1. The annual audit report.
The key point made by the presenter was that there were "no material weaknesses" in the district's finances discovered during the audit and that the district's financial records are well maintained. That is good. What is bad is that there was not a single board member question asked about the audit following the presentation. While we are confident that board members such as Heneghan, Garg and Clarin read the audit, we don't know if the same can be said of the rest of the board members. This board meeting was their only opportunity to discuss the review conducted by the auditors, and it was quite disappointing to us that they chose to breeze right over this important presentation and conduct no meaningful discussion.
2. Discussion on the Excess Money in the Debt Service Fund.
Mr. Frisch reported to the board that there are between $1.4 and $2.1 million in excess reserves that have accumulated in the bond and interest debt service fund. (Click to open report.)
The board discussed the need to further research the cause and exact amount of the excess reserves and a possible abatement back to the taxpayers in the future, or using the excess to fund the purchase of working cash bonds that can be spent on the operational side of the budget. The good: As Mr. Turek pointed out, this issue was put on the agenda after it was flagged by Mr. Heneghan as a topic the full board should be discussing, not just the superintendent's finance committee. The bad: For the first time that we can recall, Mr. Turek attempted to, in our opinion, throw the past administration "under the bus" by suggesting that it was the past administration's fault that committees haven't provided information to the board and that the new administration would try and get a handle on it in the next few months. (Begin listening to Podcast at 0:30:15.) While pointing the finger is a good thing, especially if it leads to positive change, we find it hypocritical of Mr. Turek to blame Dr. Schuster's administration. After all, Mr. Turek has served as the board president for two years and been closely involved in setting board meeting agendas. There has been nothing stopping him at any time from asking Dr. Schuster or Dr. White to have members from the various superintendent committees present reports to the BOE. COME ON MARTY! Time to assume some of the responsibility yourself.
3. Learning For All Plan Review Cycle discussion:
This was the part of the meeting that most impressed us. During Dr. White's report, the board finally conducted a meaningful discussion regarding the three month "cycle" Dr. White proposed reviewing the Learning for All Plan, starting with a Macro level history and review of the plan in January, an overview of key terms and components in February and a discussion on current and future work in March. Mr. Turek said this proposal would allow for "socializing the plan" over three months. Say what?
Thankfully, the majority of the board did not agree and in a nutshell, shut down this ridiculous drawn out "cycle" that would have wasted everyone's time. Instead, most of the board members agreed to follow Mr. Heneghan's lead in suggesting that what the administration should actually create is a written document that describes exactly what the plan is. Mr. Henghan emphasized that three years into the plan, such a document still doesn't exist. He suggested that the report describe all of the elements of the plan before the board discuss the future. Mr. Clarin furthered this request by pushing not only for a qualitative report but one that will also include quantitative data that addressing whether the students actually learn more under the LFA plan than they did before it was rolled out. Ms. Garg agreed and suggested the report provide the analysis of data that should have been collected over the last three years. Ms. Vorobiev wanted the report to include what is happening in the schools right now, suggesting that perhaps a request for quantitative data was too big of an ask to do now. Mr. Nelson agreed that a report was warranted stating that it is time the administration gets past the "concept level" of the LFA plan and begins to delve deep into the execution level of the plan in order to decide what is and isn't working and determine for those aspects that aren't working if we really want to keep "slamming our head into the wall," versus trying something different. (Nelson: Podcast 45:40.)
We think Mr. Clarin hit the nail on the head when he he said it is "kind of a shame on our part that that we are sitting here 3 years into the learning for all plan are still trying to develop conceptual ideas. I mean, we should have that information by now and nothing against [White] or [White's] administration but it just seems that we keep coming back to the same thing. We want to understand what this is all about but we are into it for three years already. We should understand what it's about by now.
" (Clarin: Podcast 46:32.)
In the end, Dr. White agreed to create the "seminal" document and bring it back to the board for discussion. Kudos to the Board for doing the right thing and not just agreeing to a cycle that to use Turek's phrase would just "socialize"the plan. Thankfully, the rest of the board was more thoughtful and finally realized that a narrative report that does more than paint a bunch of bubbles is needed. Now the only question is who in the administration will write the report? Obviously it should not be Dr. White, who only joined the district six months ago. In our opinion, this task should fall on Dr. Schneider's shoulders since he is in charge of the Department of Learning and was intimately involved in the development and roll out of the plan. We wish we could have seen his expression -- if he was even at the meeting -- when Dr. White agreed to create the report. Frankly, if Dr. Schneider was present at the meeting, we are shocked that he remained silent and had absolutely nothing to contribute to this critical curriculum discussion.
We hope the BOE is ultimately presented with a report that addresses all of the questions they asked last night, and that they and Dr. White use the report to not only improve the curriculum, but to also identify any administrators in the district who perhaps should be held accountable for the problems everyone has identified over the last three years, or who perhaps are so weak in their current performance that they should not have their contracts renewed next Spring.
Last night's discussion on the Learning for All Plan was a refreshing change from the past rubber stamping attitude by the board majority. We don't know exactly what swung some of the board members to push for substance rather than continue to accept fluff and bubbles, but whatever the cause, we are grateful. Perhaps they realized that with a board election next spring, a "new majority" may take over the board that will push for data analysis and meaningful reports. Time will tell.