San Diego County Office of Education Board Meeting, June 10, 2015
San Diego Unified School District Board Meeting, June 2 , 2015
Fifteen years ago, I served as the student board representative for my school district. All I can really remember is being entertained by emotional parent complaints and listening to jargon-filled presentations. Upon receiving my first pink slip from that same district seven years later, I spoke at a school board meeting for the first time. Three years later, I was motivated by another pink slip to speak in front of a school board--this time as a teacher in my current school district, San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS).
Since that first pink slip scare with JCCS, I have been a regular attendee at SDCOE board meetings. I try my best to pay attention and even take notes when JCCS is on the agenda. I have spoken on behalf of my students and coworkers and even helped to introduce my site’s student board representative. However, I honestly spend most of the meetings bored by detailed presentations about programs far removed from my classroom or confused by topics that I do not completely understand. However, I keep attending.
During the past few weeks, I attended the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) June 2 meeting and the SDCOE June 10 meeting. After observing a board meeting in a traditional school district for the first time in ten years, I was reminded of the strong parent and community voice that is often shared during board meetings in local districts. On the other hand county board meetings are often filled with presentations about broad programs that serve students across multiple school districts. And, many of the students in the district SDCOE directly oversees, JCCS, are incarcerated, on probation, homeless, and/or foster youth. The parents of these students are generally less involved in their students’ education than parents in traditional districts. Since the roles of local districts and county offices are already different in nature, I am focusing my attention on the behavior of the school board members instead of the content of the meeting.
When I first began attending SDCOE board meetings, the board members said very little. One memorable member was notorious for actually falling asleep during meetings. I remember giggling on more than one occasion when he fell asleep while watching a PowerPoint and then failed to turn his chair back to face the audience instead of the screen on a back wall.
Even though the SDUSD school board members were all able to stay awake for the duration of their meeting, some might as well have been sleeping. They diligently took notes, shuffled papers, and appeared to be actively listening, but they were very quiet. Of course, they could respond to the public comments which consumed approximately half of the meeting time, but they also said very little in response to the other agenda items. When they did speak, most of their responses simply congratulated the presenter. For example, when Lee Dulgeroff, Chief, Facilities Planning and Construction concluded his presentation, about Propositions S and Z Project Plan, he was simply thanked for his hard work. He was not challenged or asked to elaborate.
Unfortunately, I have repeatedly observed similar behavior during SDCOE board meetings. Presenters share slides and data about complex topics, from funding to test scores. It is unreasonable for all of the board members to be experts in every area. However, instead of asking questions to challenge, clarify, or make connections to the information, the board members often just nod and thank the speaker. I have sat back and watched as presenters simply slide things through, such as when JCCS Executive Director posted a slide that read, “Continuity of San Pasqual Academy principal,” without elaborating on it. My school had just hired its third principal in six months--she was sitting in the front row. But, the vague slide made it appear as if continuity had been established. Moments like this make me wonder if the board is paying attention, if they comprehend what is being said, or if they even care. As elected officials, I expect board members to take time to analyze agenda items and hold the presenters accountable by asking challenging questions instead of just smiling and nodding--especially when they represent students whose parents are unwilling or unable to attend meetings to speak on behalf of their children.
Within the last year, newly elected members of the SDCOE board have begun asking complex questions at the end of presentations. Gregg Robinson leads this questioning and usually notes that he has previously reviewed the material being presented. In response to his questions, the presenter often directly responds or pulls a colleague from the audience to provide specific details. At this month’s meeting, Robinson demonstrated this by questioning Senior Director of Learning and Leadership Karla Groth at the conclusion of her presentation about Countywide Common Core and Performance Tasks in English Language Arts and Mathematics. Her presentation discussed the process of implementing and scoring performance tasks. However, when Robinson directly asked her for the assessment data, she said the English Language Arts results were posted on the website and began speaking about the process. He eventually directly asked, “Can you quantify that?” She replied with a “no” and began speaking about the process again. It is alarming that an entire presentation was made about assessments which omitted a direct statement of the results, and only one board member seemed to have noticed. Robinson’s preparedness, attentiveness, and outspoken inquiry demonstrate that he takes his responsibility as an elected official seriously and genuinely cares about public education.
In contrast to being passive listeners during meetings, I have noticed that board members often only become candid and engaged when conversations deviate from official business. At the end of Dulgeroff’s presentation about the Propositions S and Z Project Plan during the SDUSD meeting, Board President Marne Foster asked a clarifying question about the date of a ribbon-cutting. After Dulgeroff responded, Foster candidly announced that the date was the same as another board member’s birthday. Her question was meant to entertain and bring attention back to the board members instead of deepening her understanding of the presented materials.
This was not the first time a birthday came up during the meeting. During public comments at the beginning of the meeting, Foster’s family joined the queue of speakers to present Foster with roses and sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Even though this created a lighthearted moment the setting was completely inappropriate. Many concerned citizens, parents, and even students had just finished sharing concerns about transportation being cut to charter and magnet schools and field use policies for non-school use. Many speakers were cut off for exceeding their time limit--including elementary students. However, the meeting came to a halt when the roses were presented to Foster’s seat. Board members smiled in support, but this was incredibly disrespectful toward those who had just spoken. The public had used their limited time to voice genuine concerns, but more attention was given to flowers.
Unfortunately, this reminded me of SDCOE board meeting. At the end of SDCOE meetings, each board member is given a few minutes to share a report about his/her individual experiences of the past month. Lately, members have been speaking about visits to school sites, attending conferences, and communications with JCCS teachers. But, personal comments often seep in. On late nights after sitting through more than two or three hours of presentations and comments, I have wriggled in my chair while listening to board members speak about their hobbies--including stargazing and car clubs--instead of the students and staff they serve. Though this has begun to decrease with the current elected board, at this month’s meeting one board member tearfully announced that he had just become a grandfather.
I appreciate how sharing personal moments help the SDUSD and SDCOE board members to appear more personal. However, this practice in unprofessional and inconsiderate of the speakers and audience members’ time. Often, the only time board members abandon their stoic expressions, smile, and make eye contact with the audience as they speak about their personal lives. Although I doubt it is intentional, this sends a message that they are not passionate about the work they are elected to do and seem to take relish the spotlight. I wish the passion board members share when speaking about their personal lives was instead channeled into a passion for the students, educators, and communities they serve.