Archive for Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Petition concerns addressed by board president

December 17, 2003

I am writing in response to a patron letter dated 11/23/03 identifying issues concerning the USD 348 Board of Education's recent handling of the classroom materials controversy. The board, USD 348 Staff, and the community have certainly spent a great deal of time and attention on this issue, and it is hoped that a written response can help to resolve these concerns and reassure patrons and staff so that we can move on to other school issues. I believe that the concerns listed and the conclusions drawn in the letter are wrong in three important ways: 1)The letter presents a confused interpretation of issues related to board policies and the public; 2) The writer(s) rely on extensive personal "interpretation" regarding how the board acted and what the BOE intended by it's action; and 3) There appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the primary work/responsibilities of school boards. A review of the issues is as follows:

A majority of the concerns in the patron letter appear related to policy issues. A point is argued that the board's direction for the review committee to be formed and to follow revised policy 6-18 was invalid as the policy would not be officially in effect until after meeting minutes were approved at the subsequent board meeting. The intent of our policy is not to put on hold all processes related to enacting policy for an additional month (until the next board meeting), when those minutes could be ratified. This makes no sense, and could only serve to slow down all school functions. The board has the express authority to direct the process of running the District, including directing action on a policy to be taken immediately upon passage. That policy then becomes part of permanent board policy at the next meeting as outlined.

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Similarly, the issue is not to have every policy delayed so that no board action can be taken until after a period of public comment. board meetings were not meant to be an "issue of the moment" or a public "tug of war" over who can have the most individuals on either side of an argument show up and debate from the audience at the next board meeting. A concern was also expressed with not releasing the report of the review committee for public comment prior to the board meeting, as evidence that there was a restriction on information to the public. In practice, the board receives numerous reports from all types of sources at every board meeting. More than 50 percent of the agenda is made up of reports from various sources, including materials related to personnel, protected student information, negotiations, etc. The board members typically receive their board packets and all reports/information and all reports on the Friday prior to the Monday night board meeting. As the agenda is not approved until the board meeting, it is unreasonable to assume that the district is to provide copies of all these materials to anyone other than board members prior to the meeting. To the extent the information provided to board members is required to be an open record, it is available to the public if requested. Much of the information we receive, however, is not required to be open, until it is discussed at a public meeting. Anyone is welcome to access, and may scrutinize the public information we discuss at the meeting. We do as a matter of courtesy, try to have copies of materials of interest available at the meeting as we are discussing them. It is also important to distinguish that board meetings are meetings held in public, not public meetings. This means that decisions are made by an elected committee of seven community members, not one person, not an appointed committee, and not a majority of whoever shows up that night for that topic. As for the inference that the report of the review committee was withheld to avoid public comment, please note that the review committee meetings were held in public, and that anyone could attend any meeting and hear as much of the discussion and process as they wanted. The board received the findings the Friday before the meeting as is customary. The report was read aloud at the next board meeting, and comments allowed from any committee members and even a patron who had attended the review committee meetings. The issue itself had been on the table for quite some time and a great deal of public comment was received from many sources. This hardly seems part of conspiracy to keep the process, the findings, or the actions of the board from anyone.

A final point concerning policy deals with how the board follows policies and how we acted in this instance. No policy can cover all contingencies: if it could we would copy-write the policy and the board could stay home on Monday nights. In this instance, we did find problems with our policy. I believe our board worked extremely hard to interpret the policy in place and act appropriately. It was time consuming, difficult, and we learned from the experience. In any case, we cannot never ignore the fact that the BOE is elected by the public, as representatives of the public, in order to act, make, monitor, and interpret policies on behalf of the public interest. Achieving an outcome that best represents this public interest is the goal, while policy is the framework to try to achieve this goal, not the goal itself. The board has every right and the responsibility to follow, modify, or change district policy when necessary. We did our darndest to achieve the best outcome we could get, and we continue to study how we can clarify, objectify, and improve this particular policy for the future.

My second major area of concern with the letter is with the author(s) making personal interpretations, drawing conclusions, and presenting their opinions as fact. I understand if someone doesn't like the board's action on this issue. However, the letter author's stated conclusion that "prior to the Nov. 10, 2003 meeting, a majority of the USD 348 Board of Education had discussed and come to a majority consensus on the action to be taken with regard to the issue.", is simply and completely wrong. I personally developed and wrote that motion in its entirety, without input or specific discussion with any other board member. The first time any other board member saw or was aware of this motion was when I brought it forward for consideration at the board meeting. There was absolutely no violation of the Open Meeting Law, and any statement to the contrary is a fabrication at best. Equally invalid is the letter writers' statement that the board had "either intentionally or inadvertently expressed the opinion of 'no confidence' in the USD 348 administrative and professional staff." That was certainly not my intent, I do not believe that to have been the intent of my peers, nor do I consider that any such statement of conclusion by a non-board member has validity. In summary, I believe it to be very wrong to present personal opinion as fact, or to interpret for the board what their intent was. Any patron is welcome to his or her own opinions, but presenting these conclusions as fact is misleading and unwarranted.

My third area of concern with this letter is that there appears to be a significant lack of understanding as to what the board is responsible for doing. For example, the board is faulted for making a determination on "use" of the materials in question, and suggests that "It is poor management to have a lay elected body make decisions about professional operational issues, or overrule those already made, that are clearly best left up to the professionals employed by USD 348." Unfortunately, it is unclear who the letter author(s) want to make decisions once there is disagreement by professionals about an issue. One section of the letter indicates the writer wants to "entrust those decisions to the professional staff.", while another section cites the desire to insure that neither "the Superintendent or individual staff members use their positions to impose their personal agendas or beliefs..." Typically, decisions which are entirely technical would be made by the appropriate school staff, are rarely controversial, and may come to the board only for approval as a single recommendation. However, decisions requiring value judgments on which professional staff disagrees, issues where there are multiple expert opinions, or situations in which a recommendation appears to be in conflict with the interest of the community, are another matter. As noted by public policy expert Phillip Boyle (KASB presentation, 12/6/2003) "There are no experts in making these decisions, we have elected citizens." In point of fact, having a lay elected body make decisions when a conflict arises is one of the major purpose of a public school board. Boards not only set policy, but must work to solve public problems using both facts and values to achieve the best outcome for all the people we represent. A board may consider the input of the professionals employed by the district (who may or may not be on the same side of an issue, e.g. teaching staff, curriculum director, administration), sift through this information, and balance this input with the values of the community that elected us, in order to come to a decision. In our case, for educational decisions involving values in our community, we have an elected school board.

In applying this standard to the recent policy issue, I believe the board action struck an appropriate balance in reaching a decision. The book was not removed from the school. The review committee followed the policy they were given, and provided a majority and minority recommendation to the board regarding the material. They also noted that there was no provision in the policy for making a recommendation about use of the materials. The board did follow the recommendation in retaining the material, but did also go forward with providing some direction on how it could be used. Our determination did place some limited restrictions on use, by indicating that the book was not to be a single, read-aloud primary source, required of all freshman class members in a required course. However, the instructor, curriculum director and principal were charged with determining how/when/if to use the book as a supplemental resource available to the class, and the book remains available in the library.

As for the requests in the letter to impose limits on the board's role in this area, this will not happen. The board is ultimately responsible for not only the curriculum, but also all facets of the operation of the public school. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to be the final decision maker in these matters for the exact reason you cited, these types of decisions need to be made by an elected body rather than by individuals. That is why we exist as an elected board of education.

Finally in closing, please remember that our board did not go looking for this problem, it came to us. There is no history of this board overstepping our boundaries by trying to needlessly interfere in our schools' function. It is however, our elected duty to resolve issues as they come to us. I appreciate your concerns, and hope this response provides some satisfactory measure of explanation regarding our recent events. I remain proud of our USD 348 staff, our students and our community. I look forward to moving on to focus on all those other challenges we face in our public schools.

Sincerely yours, Ed Schulte, Ph.D., President, USD 348 Board of Education

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