I do not think it is any secret that I have been critical of the TSD Superintendent and Board performance over the last year or so. The Board and Superintendent clearly care about the families in TSD, and devote countless hours to improving the education process. That being said, I am growing more and more concerned about the items to which the Board devotes, and opts not devote, time and resources. I am continually surprised by the lack of involvement when it comes to decisions that have significant impact in TSD. In talking with others, I realized I am not alone. There is a growing sense that while the work the Board does is good, TSD would benefit much more from the Board devoting more time and effort to the core duties it is charged to fulfill. So, I decided to do a 3 part blog series on the topic. Here is what I plan to cover:
Part 1—What are the core duties of the TSD Board and Superintendent and what role does the current Board and Superintendent play.
Part 2—I will cover a handful of specific examples(some of which are ongoing) where I think the past practice created less than desired results.
Part 3—I will propose specific changes that I think should be implemented, especially with an underlying belief that the turnover of leadership presents a unique opportunity to continue to improve TSD.
TSD Leadership is changing.
TSD has welcomed two new Board members(Andrea McGhee and Khalia Davis) over the past 5 months. In addition, Kim Reykdal has announced she will not seek re-election this fall. Further, Superintendent Bash, and Assistant Superintendent Chris Woods, have each resigned their positions with TSD.
I figured the change in leadership presents a good opportunity to start a discussion about things moving forward. Unlike some of the prior blogs, this series will be heavily weighted with opinions and commentary. The first part(this one) will deal with the core duties the TSD Board and Superintendent are assigned to carry out, with some commentary setting forth my perception of their performance.
What happens at Board meetings.
The TSD Board meetings are generally held twice per month. The evening meetings(2nd Thursday) are at the District Office and the morning meetings(4th Thursday) are usually at one of the TSD schools.
The agenda is provided at the meeting, and the President of the TSD Board conducts. The Superintendent(John Bash) and Finance Director(Jim Brittain) usually make a report. There is time reserved for public comment(30 minutes or so) where anyone can take 3-5 minutes to talk about a topic of their choosing. There is also usually a presentation(20-40 minutes) by someone from the hosting school highlighting some program. At many meetings, someone from TSD will make a presentation about a program.
Oftentimes, there is a “consent” agenda that is voted upon. The items on the consent agenda are rarely discussed.
The last 20 minutes of the meeting are reserved for Board comment(each member takes a few minutes to talk about whatever they like). This usually results in the Board members talking about what they have been up to(i.e. “I had a great time at the BHHS play” or “I visited PGS and met with the teachers”, etc). They are usually positive comments about good things that are happening in the District.
The TSD Board’s role.
Frankly, having attended and viewed several TSD Board meetings, and having served on a number of non-profit Boards, I was relatively surprised at the lack of what I would call “business”(discussion, debate and decision making) that occurs at the Board meetings. That prompted me to look up what the TSD Board is charged with doing. The TSD website provides as follows:
School Board Directors make all final decisions regarding school district priorities, policies, personnel, textbooks, expenditures, and growth management. Directors adopt a budget which is necessary to maintain and operate the schools, levy taxes to help support the budget, and submit bond issues to finance construction projects to the citizens of the district.
I must say that I was surprised by three things: (1) the primary purpose of the meeting appears to be reporting to the Board, and the Board takes little, if any, action during the meeting; (2) there is virtually no discussion between the Board members, and they speak infrequently; (3) Very little, if any, organizational business is actually conducted by the Board Members.
The Board members rarely ask each other questions, discuss topics or engage in any public debate. As an example, the public comment portion is often used by citizens to voice concerns or desires regarding specific issues(budget, out of district students, boundary changes, etc). It is very rare for any of the Board members to offer clarification, ask questions, or even address comments made by the public.
The Board members vote upon, and therefore do make the “final” decisions. However, as will be discussed in future blogs, almost without exception in the meetings I have attended, these votes occur after a presentation(usually by the Superintendent) after which there has been no real discussion. In many instances, the Board relies much too heavily on the recommendation of the Superintendent and does not appear to be making an informed decision.
The Superintendent’s role.
According to the TSD website, the Superintendent is charged with the following:
The Superintendent is appointed by the School Board as the chief administrator and executive officer. With the assistance of staff, the Superintendent directs, guides and coordinates the total educational and administrative program in accordance with Board policies and the rules and regulations of the State of Washington. The Superintendent attends all Board meetings and brings recommendations to the Board for action in carrying out the business of the school district.
My first contact with John Bash was during the contract negotiations last summer. I have since met with John Bash on a number of occasions. He has been open and candid with me, and provided information as requested. We often disagree, but I have found him to be cordial and do believe he is doing what he believes is best for TSD.
From my perspective, John spends a lot of time meeting with TSD employees. John also attends virtually all school board meetings and provides reports on multiple topics.
As will be discussed in the next segment, I believe John’s authority and decision making has been much broader than it should be. For all intents and purposes, he essentially makes pretty much every impactful decision when it comes to TSD. I am surprised that these decisions are not being made by the Board and the Board members do not devote meeting time to debating issues. John’s role, at least according to the job description, is to bring recommendations to the Board. He does that, but very rarely do the Board members ask probing questions that indicate an understanding of the decisions that need to be made. In fact, when a question is posed by the Board, the question itself evidences a lack of knowledge of the underlying facts and John often spins the answer with some generalization that takes the discussion off topic.
An example that I will discuss in the next blog is the budget “scrub” that has been referenced in most TSD meetings during 2019. None of the Board members were provided a list of the cuts(roughly $5 million) prior to the “scrub” being completed. When a question was asked about the cuts, John or Jim provided a few examples, but offered no real clarity as to the big picture. Once the scrub was done, at a subsequent meeting in March, Kim Reykdal asked about the list. I am convince the Board members have no real understanding of what has been cut. The list was eventually provided to the Board at the May 23rd meeting. The list has yet to be made public.
As I will discuss in an upcoming blog, removing $5 million in expenses seems like a pretty big decision, that should be debated and decided by the Board. However, that process did not occur.
I appreciate my views may differ from that of the families in TSD, and maybe the community wants the Board members to keep doing what they are doing. However, I sense, especially with the events over the past several months, I am not alone in an island in my views. I believe the topic is worthy of a discussion.
In the next blog . . .Specific examples of decisions that have been made . . .