Faced with a seemingly never-ending stream of communication or administrative missteps and the resulting public criticisms, school trustees have shown a remarkable ability to power through as best they can as the school year draws to a close.
Juggling issues as diverse as labor contracts with its employees, adoption of a new strategic plan, planning for the opening of a new elementary school, school calendars, sorting out new policies and controversies on bullying and counseling, hiring a "communications officer," and the evaluation of Superintendent Kevin Skelly, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind at 25 Churchill.
The bright spots are the work around the strategic plan and the district's improved financial condition, making possible well-deserved pay increases for our teachers and other district employees.
The strategic plan, an impressive outline of the district's aspirations over the next five years, is the best work we've seen produced in many years. Overseen by consultants at McKinsey & Company who are parents in the district, the study included well-designed surveys of parents, students, teachers, staff and administrators, outreach meetings and the preparation of an outstanding document that will hopefully help the district to improve in a number of key areas, including many that have been the subject of controversies.
The board has worked hard on digesting the information and crafting the final language and deserves praise for it. It's exactly the way a good policy body should be working.
Ironically, however, it took less time to produce a comprehensive, data-driven five-year strategic plan for the school district than it has taken to produce a still-incomplete district high school counseling policy or a yet-to-be produced simple list of bullying prevention programs being used at each school.
So what is wrong with this picture?
Contrast how well the strategic planning process worked with these recent actions:
* A letter was sent to all Duveneck parents by the principal informing them that a fellow parent had filed a complaint about ongoing disability-based bullying at the school. The unusual letter, approved by Superintendent Kevin Skelly, prompted the Office for Civil Rights to send a letter to the district expressing concerns about the privacy rights of complainants and warn it about intimidation and retaliation.
* The district agreed to co-sponsor a public education session to be presented May 16 by attorneys for the Office for Civil Rights, along with other school groups, but then withdrew its support without explanation. Superintendent Skelly, who personally approved the sponsorship, initially told the Weekly the district had never agreed to sponsor it, but then said he withdrew support after hearing that some people might use the meeting to encourage more complaints against the district.
* A special board study session designed to lay out a major new district initiative on bullying and report on "lessons learned" from the recent federal investigations was scheduled for 10 a.m. this last Tuesday, when working parents could not attend. The "lessons learned" presentation was three minutes long and, as trustee Melissa Baten Caswell noted, offered no new insights or analysis on how the district failed to respond properly to bullying complaints. The new "Stepping Up to Safe and Welcoming Schools" initiative proposed a summer task force to plan for a permanent committee, with one or two board members, that would meet monthly and be "a place for people with concerns to go," according to Skelly. Trustee Camille Townsend was right on the mark with her response that the concept was not well-defined, lacked a clear purpose and seemed like a staff, not board, responsibility.
* In presenting a new board counseling policy Tuesday night, the staff recommended that reference in the current policy to the teacher-advisory system at Paly be removed because the TA system wasn't district-wide. But that recommendation was contradicted by assistant superintendent Scott Bowers, who said the law required that it be in the policy if it is offered at any school. The board sent it back to be sorted out.
None of these items are horrible, but taken together, along with many others, they suggest a staff that is overwhelmed, cutting corners, making mistakes and rushing its work.
There seems to be great hope that the hiring of a $150,000 district communications officer will turn things around, but we would have preferred that money go toward a consultant to conduct an organizational assessment of the district office.
There are simply too many times when the school board is left needing to fix or re-do the work of the staff, and the reasons for that need to be understood and fixed. A great strategic plan will not succeed if the staff is not capable of doing the work, and by now it is obvious that is in question.
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