The Juneau School District Board of Education is serious about the “indicators of success” it created, starting from a board retreat in the fall.
When it met in a follow-up retreat on Saturday, the board looked at not only the progress it and administrators had made in the indicators, but also other goals.
Board Chairwoman Sally Saddler held up the document on the indicators and said she didn’t want it to be something they filed away and let sit. She asked had asked board members if they’d be willing to volunteer for one of the seven categories and “be a champion” of it. Each board member, under that strategy, would have picked a topic to be kind of a watch-dog/promo hound for the topic so that the message and efforts of the district was understood and questions from the public could be answered.
Some board members were confused by the idea, or felt it was too much to tackle individually because of the size of each subject.
Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said the term that could used to describe what board members would do is “consulting partner.”
“For a while there wouldn’t be much to do for some,” Gelbrich said. “Others might have a lot to do right away and then not much. I want to make sure board members aren’t contacting staff directly and asking staff to produce stuff. When we don’t following protocol, get people contacting everybody and suggesting they can direct your work.”
Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling suggested that the administration could create a portfolio for the board members on the seven topics. She said the board member would be a steward for a specific portfolio and nudge action or progress on the topic.
Board members Phyllis Carlson and Sean O’Brien were more in favor of working with school site councils on the indicators and how those boards can apply them.
“I want site councils to look at this as the accountability point,” she said. “We are the messenger for their work.”
Carlson said she gets tired of just talking about what the goals and vision of the district are, because most people know those — instead she’d like to show what they are doing.
Two board members volunteered to specifically handle a topic, while the others chose to be involved with the site council’s. Saddler said she and O’Brien could test out their method and the others could share experiences with site council’s to see what else, if anything, they need to change in methodology.
Earlier in the meeting the board and administration reviewed what work had been done since the fall with site council’s. One of the goals had been to have better communication — and in some cases effectiveness — with site councils. Ideally site councils are made up of parents and staff and they work with issues involving their specific school, talking with the principal. Staff and parent varies depending upon the school site.
Gelbrich said they hosted a meeting where all of the site council’s came together to start a conversation. He said there was a lot of energy at the meeting and he clarified what the role of a site council should be.
“Two-thirds of the way through the meeting everything shifted from them just talking to me, to them just talking to each other,” Gelbrich said.
Council’s began asking each other where they were in different policies or situations and how they handled different topics.
Gelbrich said he encouraged principals to use their site councils to vet ideas — including with difficult decisions around budget cuts.
O’Brien said he’s definitely seen differences between site councils from his children going through different schools.
“In one school I could see that site council really trying to make things better,” he said. “On another school, the principal really felt like it was just a reporting out culture. It (site council) is powerful. It really does have value when it works.”
Saddler said when she gets a letter from a site council she gives it a lot more weight because it’s been through a vetting process.
Overall the board wanted to see more teacher involvement with the council’s, recognizing that the teachers feel the council’s need to feel like they have some authority in order to be responsive to it, and encouraged Gelbrich to continue the district-wide council sessions three times a year.
The board also reviewed the budget process or strategies, giving feedback on how they think the budget process is functioning, looking at how other districts in the nation are doing, and other factors.
Overall the board felt the current budget process is good because it’s more transparent than it’s ever been and easier to understand.
Michael Wilmot, president and CEO of Michigan Leadership Institute, facilitated Saturday’s meeting. Wilmot led the board’s two-day work session this past fall as well.
“No school district offers services or programs they think aren’t of value to the community,” Wilmot said.
He said everyone has to try and figure out how to balance the budget between the mission of the district — but they also can’t change the budget process mid-stream.
“I’ve been really pleased this year,” said board member Mark Choate. “I think we’re really honing the process down. I think it’s still substantive. In terms of having quality conversations in a reasonable manner, budget being clearly understood, priorities we’ve set for the administration. I think it’s really a very good process and I’m the first to say when something isn’t.”
Saddler said the success of that has come from years of building a good foundation and implementing a budget committee with an array of stakeholders.
Board member Barbara Thurston said the remaining problem with the process is that when it gets down to budget cuts and time to do so, they don’t have information on program evaluations so they can’t make a strong decision based upon that, the strategic plan and the superintendent’s recommendation.
“We have not spent a lot of time talking about the relative value,” she said. “I feel like the budget process has improved, but I feel like there is this big hurdle.”
She suggested having program evaluations in the fall — pre-budget season — so they can learn about what is and is not working, what different people are doing in the district and how effective it is.
Member Kim Poole said she agreed, but suggested that there be some way for the board to get the information ahead of the public so they don’t have that sticker shock at the exact same time as the public.
Andi Story, board member, felt it was important to keep that part of the process in — learning the proposed budget with the public.
More to Thurston’s point, Choate suggested creating a matrix ranking everything 1, 2, or 3 and prioritizing it for cuts. That would include every single program and position. There would be a vote on how that program or position is valued should fewer funds become available. Those with the higher rankings would be of most value and would be least likely to get cut.
“That way we get away from the popular pressure,” Choate said. “Every time someone comes and says my job is important, my half hour is important, that loses me. I really want to have someone else come and say that position is important.”
The board asked Gelbrich about his process.
“I think the process starts with us looking at how are the kids doing?” he said. “We asked a series of questions.”
Part of those questions included a look at program effectiveness.
“We either decide to change the model, because the research doesn’t support it, or we decide to change because we claim to be implementing a program, but it hasn’t been implemented with fidelity,” Gelbrich said, adding that another component is obviously financial — the budget must be balanced. “We look and see if there is another way to get this work done without compromising the outcome.”