Part 3–Some Suggestions Moving Forward

The Board can better represent its constituents when you and others take the time and effort to observe the Board in action, to express opinions and to raise questions. We invite your attendance at Board meetings and in school district activities.  Taken from the TSD website

In Part I, I highlighted the core duties of the Board and Superintendent.  In Part II, I pointed out some past practices that I believed were not effective and could have been managed better.  In the Part III, which is the final installment, I am making specific suggestions that I hope the community demands, and the Board members heed, moving forward.  

Fewer presentations/more business

Board meetings generally last around 2 to 2.5 hours.  One of the things that stands out is how little we hear from the board members.  I went back and reviewed several of the video recordings and found that, on average, board members are talking less than 12% of the time, most of which is at the end of the meeting with board members comments.  I appreciate there is time for public comment(usually about 15-20 minutes), a financial report(10-15 minutes) and a superintendent report(10 minutes).

The biggest time during the meeting, especially the daytime meetings which are held at the schools, is a presentation on some topic of interest.  It usually involves some program the District, or a particular school, is running.  These presentations are interesting, and highlight great work in the District.  However, in my view, they are not appropriate for a Board Meeting, at least not at the length the presentations are offered.  It is really just a report–which often takes 30-40 minutes, with no interaction from the Board and no decisions to be made.  

These presentations could not be considered business, as no action is required or contemplated.  I would suggest a report to the Board could be achieved in a more appropriate environment—like an onsite visit by the Board members that is not an official meeting.  At the very least, the presentations could be limited to 5 minutes or so.       

Address Comments from the Public

At the majority of meetings, there are 2 or 3 members of the public who sign up to offer public comment. The comments are limited to 3-5 minutes.  Once in a while, when a “hot” topic is on the agenda, there may be a dozen or so people signed up for public comment.  I admire those individuals who are willing to take time out of their schedules and offer comment.  The individuals usually address some topic upon which they are knowledgeable, and have a passion.   Oftentimes, there is also a request for action.  

What surprises me about the public comment portion is the lack of interaction by the Board members.  It is very uncommon for the Board members to ask questions of the public speakers.  There is no dialogue, and no discussion.  Also, the individuals who have commented generally have no idea what the Board members think about the comments.  No questions and no indication as to whether or not the comments will result in further action or inquiry.  As someone who on occassion offers public comment, I have no idea whether my comments have been understood, or how they were received.  

If it is important enough for a community member to show up at a Board meeting and offer comment, then I believe the Board is obligated to offer some response so that we all know what, if any, action will be taken with respect to the comments.  I certainly would not expect this with every comment, but it seems to me most comments would warrant some response/interaction from the Board.    

More Budget stuff

As I have highlighted in prior blogs, the Board members are rarely engaged in significant discussion regarding specific financial issues.  They hear a lot of information from Brittain, or Bash, but do not ask questions.  The information is usually presented at a pretty general level, and rarely is there discussion about specific expenditures or income items.  

I would contend that financial issues are the most important issues facing TSD.  The Board is the ultimate decision maker when it comes to financial issues.  The Board members should understand the financial decisions that need to be made, including options and alternatives that can be considered.  The Board should engage in discussions about those issues at the meetings, for the benefit of each other and the public.  Bringing these discussions to the public will allow broad input, a larger range of ideas and allow the Board to better understand the priorities of the community.  

This will also require pointed questions of Brittain, which would often result in Brittain walking out of the meeting with a “to do” list.  As I highlighted in prior blogs, I see little evidence that the Board is up to speed on, or has a firm grasp of, the basic budgeting issues facing TSD. 

Seek input from community on budget items

I might back off this one if the Board members were asking questions, and engaging with Brittain and Bash.  Somebody who is interested in the process needs to really get involved.  I think Brittain would welcome the dialogue.  I believe Brittain would agree that he does not catch everything, and enjoys being able to banter back and forth about budget topics.  Doing so is healthy, and undoubtedly, beneficial to the process of serving TSD students.  

Budgeting during difficult financial times is influenced largely by priorities.  I do believe the community should have a strong voice when it comes to the priorities of TSD.  My observation is that, at least this go around, determining the priorities was left to a handful of people, each of whom are TSD administrators.  

Take a stance, and do not be afraid to disagree with each other

Consensus is great, and so are controverting opinions.  I am not sure I have ever seen differing opinions on the same topic offered by Board members.  I appreciate the Board members do not say much, and if there was more discussion, varying ideas might be more freely exchanged.  I presume there are topics where Board members disagree with each other, and the public is entitled to know when that occurs.  We want to see some independence, and understand how our elected officials feel about issues.  

The budget scrub is a perfect example.   I am confident that, if each Board member were asked to “scrub” the budget to some degree, they would each assess varying levels of priority to items across the Board.  That exercise occurring would have led to a much needed discussion about priorities.  Instead, the scrub was decided in a pretty sterile environment without board input.   

Board Member comments should be substantive, and thought provoking.

It is quite possible I am in the minority here, but the Board members comments at the end of the meeting rarely touch on any business, and do not offer much in the way of thought provoking discussion.  Given the fact that the Board members comments are one of the few times we get to hear the Board members speak, the comments should revolve around the core duties of the Board members.  

Much of the time, the comments are something along the lines of “I visited my child’s school and watched a program,” or “I enjoyed senior presentations,” or “I am really proud of the great performance by our _______ team/students performance at ________.”  These are all good things to have Board members attend, and I really appreciate the support the Board members provide to the entire TSD community.  They are at many events, and volunteer countless hours.  However, the Board meeting is the time to conduct business, and should be used that way.  What I want to hear during the reports is the change you wish to impart, the ideas you want to carry forward, reports from committees you are working on and the core duty work you intend to undertake.    

I will say that I have noticed one of the Board members consistently reporting about meeting with various Department leaders and employees to learn what they do, and what they need.  This seems more along the lines of reporting on core duty work, and it would be great to get some details in that regard.    

Parting Thoughts

The TSD leadership has changed drastically over the course of the last 12 months.  The individuals who served, but have moved on to something else, were dedicated people who devoted countless hours to TSD. TSD is better as a result of that service.  That being said, the change of guard presents an opportunity for the Board to be productive, and engaged, in determining the future action on multiple important issues facing TSD.  My objective with this three part series was to highlight some areas where I think the Board could better serve the community.   I am optimistic that the Board will take advantage of the opportunities presented, be willing to tackle difficult issues, and lead TSD down a path that continues to make Tumwater a great place to raise a family.

As always, we welcome your comments.  You can contact us at contactus@citizensfortumwaterschools.com.  I would also encourage you to contact the TSD Board members with any thoughts/comments/suggestions you may have.   The TSD Board contact information can be located on the TDS website here.  

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