"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What I'm Supposed to Say and What I'm Not Supposed to Say

What I'm Supposed to Say

On Oct. 8, the Will of the Board supported approving approximately 80 clubs in our Senior High Schools.  Each of the clubs had followed the rules outlined in our board policy.  The board policy on clubs was reviewed just this year (not by the full board, but by a committee).  Our job, as board members, is to make sure our policy is complied with.  The Board approved all the clubs.  It is not rubber-stamping to approve the paperwork of all clubs that complied with our policy. 

I can appreciate that you might have some concerns about some of the clubs or else the process, but the board has a policy, and it was followed.  The Will of the Board is that we go forward and we support these clubs and the decision of the Will of the Board.

How did I vote?  What's important is the Will of the Board has been made known.  We had vigorous discussions and then a vote was taken.  Now is the time to be supportive of the direction the Board has taken.  If we were to have well-known differences of opinion on issues, then we would not be a support to our district, and our employees would not be directed properly knowing there might be some differences of opinion.  As such, highly-effective boards debate and discuss, and then go forward in full support of the Will of the Board.

That is what I'm supposed to tell you.  That is what I have been trained and lectured to tell you. That is the acceptable thing to say.  And I should not elaborate further.  I certainly shouldn't put what I'm about to write on a blog or a facebook post.  If you felt the need to know more, you could check out the audio and the minutes of the past board meetings, if you knew they existed and where to find them.

What I'm NOT Supposed to Say

I voted against the clubs.  You may agree; you may disagree.  But, now you know.  I have lots of reasons why.  So, rather than tell you how we all need to support the Will of the Board, I will let you know what my main concern is: lack of representation. 

Most people believe their elected officials are elected to represent them.  Most people think that 'board approval' implies the board members looked at individual clubs and applications and thought, "Gee, that's a good idea.  Let's do that!"  That's what approval means.  Most people think there will be disagreements on a board, and that a majority will win.  As a result, the minority will lose.  But, to be transparent, even the Supreme Court issues majority and minority opinions.  Our Board is not supposed to do that. 

The reality is "board approval" means we rubber-stamped the paperwork required by our policy.  The students and faculty sponsor(s) jumped through the appropriate hoops, and we "approved" their hoop-jumping.  Our approval was not based on merit, debate, or community values.  Our approval was a foregone conclusion, a mere formality. 

I believe the Board is elected to represent you, the taxpayers of this community.  I also don't see a single, homogenous group of people with unified beliefs on every issue.  As such, you are better represented by a diversity of opinions, ideas, and issues.  It is assumed that anything voted on by the board requires community/public approval.  We are approving on your behalf.  If we just rubber-stamp, we only pretend there is "taxpayer" approval. 

As parents, you need to be aware that just because a club is "approved" for the school, you should not lower your guard on any level.  Please understand, the board has no role in vetting or whittling down applicants.  It doesn't matter if the reason is the threat of a lawsuit, questionable charter activities, or anything else.  If the board doesn't have the option to vett anything, we should not be voting on it, period. 

I was told we couldn't look at each club individually, on the merits.  If we were to pick and choose, we could be sued for discrimination. I have been involved in situations where I was told one thing relative to legal counsel, and then found out, with greater research and citizen involvement, the reality was quite different.  Because of this experience, I requested legal counsel meet with the Board.  That request was denied, but the administration spoke with legal counsel instead. 

Who Is In Charge? 

This denial goes to the heart of the matter.  What is the role of the school board?  Is the Board there to represent the public's will to the district or does the board represent the district's policy to the public?  Of course, politicians would skirt the issue saying it's not a mutually-exclusive question.  A balance of the two approaches is helpful with an emphasis on one or the other, depending on circumstances.  But which method is most important and why?

I believe the board should represent the will of the people, even if that goes against the will of the government administrators. We create the system and direct government to work on our behalf.  I believe we should have a trust-but-verify relationship.  This is not to say that we don't hire good people.  We do.  But the role of the board is oversight, and verification of that trust.  To trust, without formal verification, is not the role of the Board.

In the example of approving clubs, I recognize our administrators have addressed similar issues in the past, and, with renewed conversations with attorneys, felt they had a good handle on things on their end.  My fellow Board members, apparently, felt their issues were resolved, based on district administration directives.  But for me, the verification issue comes with my ability to field the questions you, the public, might have.  The questions I would ask are not the same as those our administrators or even my fellow board members would ask.  You should be represented by the various questions and perspectives of the entire board, not just the majority. 

So, you must decide what the school board's role should be.  This is your school district.   How much representation do you want?  How much oversight should the Board exercise?  Yes, the district will function smoothly if the Board is supportive of everything the administrators do. But sometimes the best system comes with debate and resolution, give and take, and it isn't always smooth. I believe the best possible public education system is achieved when the foundation is built on involved, informed citizens, not smooth-operating government administration.

Without the benefit of legal counsel, I came to our meeting feeling we were being held hostage with the threat of a lawsuit.  In short, we must accept ANYTHING that is placed in front of us.  I still don't know if the board could have rejected some of the applications, based on state law, or requested amendments to them.  But, in the spirit of transparency, here were some of my additional concerns.

1) Should a board approve a club charter that states it will report school or district policy concerns to a third party, such as the ACLU?  Are we really comfortable approving a club that, by my read, may essentially be looking for ways to sue the school or the district?  I certainly want all legitimate issues brought to the appropriate parties on a school or district-level.  But are we legally obligated to empower a club to set us up for lawsuits?

2) I am concerned about approving a club that might pose harm or a health risk for some students.  In speaking with a First Responder in suicide cases as well as a medical doctor, I have been warned that some discussions of suicide lead to more harm than good.  It is a very difficult subject to tackle without the appropriate training.  Mentioning suicide in the club application requires a much more thorough vetting, in my opinion.  What will be discussed?  Who will be overseeing and directing the discussion?  What is their certification?  How much, if any, time will be devoted to this topic?  Even though, it's an important topic, I am not comfortable without greater assurances that we are following the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm."  If I can't assume no harm will come to our students, I can't approve it. 

3) Breaking state law, by allowing students without a signed parental-consent form to attend club meetings, was another issue.  It was expressed that hopefully this discrepancy would be resolved by the club members. 

A system produces exactly what it's designed to produce.  If you don't like the idea of your elected "representatives" rubber stamping administrative decisions, you have the power to change it.  You need to ask the people who represent you to not be afraid to do so, no matter the consequences.  This is either representative government or it is a rubber stamp. Don't fall for political double talk about it being both. Ultimately every school board election is about who is in charge. If the people do not assert their rightful dominance with proactive, transparent representatives, the void is filled by well-meaning, smooth-operating government administrators.  You get to decide which it will be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How Do I Find the Truth? Follow the Money and Read the Grant Documents

I have had many people say, "I've heard so many conflicting stories about ________________.  How do I find out what is really the truth?"

When it comes to government, one of the best ways is to read the grant applications.  Common Core and the idea of 'Common Standards' has been involved in a handful of formal, legal documents, all tied to money from the Federal Government.  It stands to reason that IF you are receiving money for something, the best way to determine what will ACTUALLY happen, is to read what the money is supposed to be used for.

This is horribly boring reading, but many people involved in researching Common Core have spent the time looking at 1) The State Fiscal Stablization Fund (SFSF), 2) The Race to the Top Grant (RTTT), 3) The ESEA (No Child Left Behind or NCLB) Waiver, and 4) The Statewide Longitudinal Database System (SLDS).  All four contain four things:

1. Common Standards and Assessments
2. Improving Teacher Effectiveness (not really professional development, but tying teacher pay to the tests.  Teachers now have high-stakes testing, as well.)
3. Improving Low-performing schools (really shutting down neighborhood schools and turning them over to a 'higher-level' for management--without elected representation--a semblance of 'privatization')
4. Pre-K to College and Career Data Systems

Here is a MUST READ analysis of the Race to the Top Grant Application.  I don't care what side of this argument you are on, it is important to know WHAT we were, and are, committing our state to.  You may feel the merits outweigh the strings, but shouldn't we proceed with full knowledge of both?


This is where 'rigorous' and 'internationally benchmarked' come from.  They are the promises ("benefits") the Federal government is making to the states about what the Common Standards WILL BE.  Note what "state-led" really means in this application.  This is how we know WHAT we were being expected to do.  Even though Utah didn't win any money with Race to the Top, it outlines the details of what Utah was signing on to when it adopted Common Core and all the rest.  Because we have received money for the remaining 3 grants, listed above, we are still tied in to all those same requirements.  (See a nice graphical presentation here:

Since the RTTT Grant application was over 400 pages long, I doubt any of the State Board members read it, at the time.  They were placing trust in their staff and their administrations.  However, they were committing you and me to what they signed.  It, nicely, outlines who has really been in charge in this 'more rigorous standards' process.