PART 2-A critical look at some TSD Board action/inaction?

I covered the “core duties” of the TSD Board and Superintendent in PART I.  In PART II, I am giving some specific examples where, over the past year or so, action(or inaction) by the TSD Board was inconsistent with its core duties.  I will preface this by saying I make no contention that I am fully aware of each and every communication by the Board members.  My conclusions are based upon information received via a half dozen or so public records requests, TSD Board meetings, communication with several Board members, TSD employees and other community members and my general observations.    

I would also preface this blog by saying I believe the TSD Board members devote countless hours to the TSD community and care deeply about the students and employees in TSD.  The conclusions I make below are harsh, and, I believe, accurate.  If taken in a vacuum, one could be left with the conclusion that the community is not well served by the Board members.  Such a conclusion would be inaccurate.  The Board members are dedicated to improving the TSD community, and TSD is significantly better as a result of their collective service.

I think the primary deficiency on the part of the Board has been a lack of focus on the its core duties, some of which are the most pressing issues facing TSD.  From my perspective, financial and budget matters are the most important, and divisive, issues that must be dealt with by TSD in the present environment.   The Board has pretty much opted out of any conversation, leadership and/or decision making when it comes to financial matters.  Therefore, I think the Board could, and should, devote a much larger portion of the limited time and resources it has to fulfilling the core duties(especially budgetary items and financial decisions).  

Here are a couple items that highlight the deficiency in my view.

Bargaining with TSD.   

The bargaining process last summer was a colossal failure by every account, and unmistakably, it was a joint effort by TSD and TEA.  They each spent months refusing to engage in any real substantive talks, and, until the final days of negotiating, could not even agree on some basic facts(like enrollment).  I deal with a lot of negotiations and the manner and tactics I observed were the most distasteful I have ever witnessed.   

The TSD Board, at least publicly, stayed silent throughout most of the process.  The Board relied on its bargaining team(which was led by TSD administrators and WASA representatives) to do all of the bargaining.  This was a mistake.   WASA hijacked the negotiations(as did WEA on the TEA end) and left little room for consideration of what was best for TSD.  The Board opted not to step into the negotiations, and, at least as far as I can tell, did not participate in any of the bargaining. 

More concerning, there was almost no public discussion by Board members about the bargaining.  While I do not expect TSD, or the Board, to fully bargain in public, I do believe the topic was of the utmost importance last summer and the Board members should have used the public meetings to outline their respective thoughts, and taken some ownership of the process.  This also would have given the public some indication as to where the Board members stood on the issues.  The failure to take a stance led me to believe the Board members really were not involved in the process, which, in my view, was a failure to fulfill their core duties.  

I wondered throughout the process when the Board members would attend the bargaining, and engage with the TEA/WEA bargaining teams, during active negotiations, to work towards a resolution.  Frankly, I was surprised that the Board members were not at the bargaining sessions, negotiating the contract.   The lack of progress, and the inability of TEA and TSD to even “speak the same language” was frustrating.  I believe the TSD Board members could, and should, have stepped in and tried to bridge that gap.    

Failure to Accept Responsibility For the Process.

Simply put, from TEA’s perspective(and therefore the community), John Bash and Jim Brittain became the face of TSD during the negotiations.  That face should have been the TSD Board members. In accord with its core duties, the TSD Board should have determined the budget, and therefore made the decision on when, or if, a “fair contract”(what TEA was seeking) would be offered.  Despite that fact, it was clear that Bash and Brittain were the ones being held responsible for any bargaining decisions made by TSD. 

In fact, on occasion TSD Board members joined the picket lines and/or showed up at TEA rallies.  I certainly take no issue with anyone supporting TEA.  However, the TSD Board was/is “the management” that was not meeting TEA’s demands.  Ironically, the Board members on the TEA picket lines showing support for the teachers were the ones deciding not to meet TEA’s demands.  The TSD Board essentially disowned its role in the process, and acted as if it was powerless in resolving the issues when the board was one of the primary decision makers.

To be fair, TSD is authorized by law, and did, opt to conduct specific discussions regarding negotiations in executive session pursuant to RCW 42.30.140(4)(b).  I take no issue with that.  However, the Board members offered no public indication where they each stood, which made it impossible for the public to know what, if anything, they were each doing, or doing as a Board, to resolve the dispute.  The Board meetings turned into sessions where John Bash and Jim Brittain gave continuous gloom and doom presentations, with TEA and dozens of teachers showing up to talk about all the money that was supposedly available.  In hindsight, and in real time, it was clear they were both incorrect. 

Once again, I would think that instead of appearing at a TEA rally, or remaining silent, the Board members would have educated themselves on the budgetary disputes, taken an active role in the negotiations, and as elected officials, publicly stated their respective positions and/or engaged TEA so that the community understood the thought process.  Ultimately, I would argue that the Board was in the best position to lead this discussion, and should have done so.   Its failure to do so fell short of fulfilling its core duties.  

Budget Dilemma This Spring.

During the fall of 2018, TSD concluded it would have to reduce expenditures significantly in 2018/19(the budget had already been approved) and cut millions of dollars from the proposed budget for 2019/20.   The process for doing so became Brittain and Bash, and a few TSD staff members, diligently searching for areas where expenditures could be reduced.  Once again, other than being provided general information at Board meetings, I do not see evidence of the TSD Board members being substantively involved in that process.    

Early in 2019, Bash directed Brittain to “scrub”(that is the term continuously used at TSD Board meetings) what he could.  I sat down with Jim Brittain on several occasions to talk about this scrubbing process.  In simple terms, Jim went through the budget on a line by line basis looking for non-essential expenditures.  There were a few things that were off limits(certificated staff, some safety funds, a few expenses associated with particular grants, etc).  From my perspective, Jim fulfilled his duties pretty well in that regard.    There were certainly things he cut that I would have kept, and things he kept that I would have cut.  However,  the thing that boggled my mind is that the TSD Board played no role in this process. 

Notably, I and several other members of the community, spoke at Board meetings, and contacted Board members, about creating some community process wherein the budget priorities could be set.  The Board decided the scrub did not warrant any input from the community, nor did it warrant any public discussion(or private work session) from the Board. 

After the scrub was pretty much completed(in April), Kim Reykdal finally posed the question several community members had been asking for weeks—can we see the list of what was scrubbed?  I was shocked to realize that the Board members had no idea what had been scrubbed, and played virtually no role in the scrubbing process. I would have expected that Brittain would have come to the Board with some options.  Something like, here are 20 items that total $7.5 million.  We need to cut $5 million.  What do you want to do?  Instead, the Board opted out of participating in the discussion, and just asked “what was cut” once the process was over, leaving Brittain and Bash with the responsibility to make the cuts.  

Once again, to be fair, TSD did send out a survey with a series of “which do you prefer” questions.   However, making determinations off such a survey was, and is, ill conceived.   When the survey asked if I like classroom teachers or extracurricular activities better, I chose classroom teachers.  However, that does not mean I want to devote all the funds to classroom teachers, and none to extracurricular activities.  Some context is required, some discussion needs to occurs about how much is devoted to each program, and what is reduced or increased and by how much.  From what I can tell, all of these decisions were made by Bash and Brittain, in consultation with a few TSD administrators.  The TSD Board was not substantively involved in the process, and it did not facilitate any discussion within the community about a pretty important topic(cutting around $5 million).  

Lack of Discussion/Interest in Budget Presentations. 

Jim Brittain routinely updates the Board on the financial projections.  Over the past year, the projections are mostly “gloom and doom”(which I believe is exaggerated at times, but pretty accurate for the most part).  Jim talks about big picture concepts, and rarely gets into specific programs.  Other than Kim Reykdal asking for the scrub list, I have yet to see the Board members press Jim to talk about any specifics.  Its mostly just a “so that is a pretty bleak picture” and “I guess we will wait to see what the legislature does” comments.  There is very little(usually no) inquiry on the part of the Board.  The Board meeting should be the time to ask specific questions, and go through specific items so everyone can gain a better understanding of what is going on when making these critical financial decisions.  

A good highlight of this deficiency is a basic misunderstanding held by the Board members regarding the cost of educating students.  I went in depth on this topic in a prior blog which can be found here. TSD spends about $11,000 per student.  Under the current funding model, TSD receives about $9000 per student from the state.  So, it costs TSD roughly $2,000 more per out of district student than it receives in state funding(TSD makes up the deficiency by using levy money and dipping into its savings account).  Despite this fact, John Bash argued during a Board meeting in March, 2018 that increasing out of district student enrollment is helpful to the budget.  I pointed out that the opposite was true, and in fact, each new student increases the deficit around $2,000.  The Board asked no questions of me, and no questions of Bash, with one of the Board members then stating “we should not limit enrollment in these difficult financial times.”  That is exactly the opposite of the action that should be taken from a budgeting perspective.  Fewer students reduces the deficit while more students increases the deficit.  Its a pretty simple concept that I do not believe the Board members understand.  

CONCLUSION

I get the sense the Board members have little interest when it comes to the budget process and financial decisions, and rely way too much on what they are told by Brittain and Bash.  Once again, to be fair, my unscientific survey of other Schools Boards leads me to believe it is not uncommon for Board members to avoid difficult financial decisions, and focus on other areas. I also appreciate it takes significant time to get up to speed on financial issues,

and that school funding is complicated.  That being said, it is not rocket science.  It is understandable if sufficient time is devoted.  More importantly, financial decisions undoubtedly fall within the core duties of the TSD Board and the members have an obligation to place the appropriate amount of importance on those decisions.    

At the June 13 board meeting, the Board discussed a workshop where they will be discussing the expectations of the board and the superintendent.  If you have comments, suggestions or questions about this process we encourage you to contact the board members.  Their contact information can be found here.

In PART 3—New leadership provides an opportunity for much needed change. . . .

As always we welcome comments, suggestions and questions.  You can contact us here.

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