Under the influence of the current accountability trend, The New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) aligned its methodology of evaluating superintendents and school boards to the HEDI matrix. (A sample of the matrix as used by NYSED is pictured). The 18-page evaluation guidelines are available on the association’s website. The NYSSBA guidelines evaluate more aspects than the matrix. The association added fields dedicated to the quality of the community-school board relationship and the ethics—culture—of the school board and the superintendent. But right at the opening, the guidelines mention they are not binding. Why?
The quality of the community-school board relationship and ethics are difficult to quantify. People form their own opinions based on their personal beliefs and experiences. Collectively, the individuals set the ethical norms for their community, including the local schools. Community members learn the ethical norms that permeate schools in various ways. E.g. they attend school board meetings, work with board members on projects, and read opinions of school leaders. Also, the communications released by the school board (BOE), the governing body of the public schools, reveal the established ethical norms. The school board meetings exemplify the board’s connection and communication with, and respect for the public.
Every public school district maintains a website. One can easily locate a school board meeting agenda and the corresponding meeting minutes. Ideally, both, the agenda and the minutes, are in sync. Meaning, the items reported in the minutes match the items actually discussed at the meeting. Of course, it seems logical but it’s not always the case. For example, a review of the recent communication of Malverne public school representatives reveals that some items were not discussed with the public, although they were reported in the minutes.
Pictured below are parts of a school board meeting agenda and the minutes set next to each other. In the agenda, the communication with the public stopped after item V (like Victor). But in the minutes, the “reporting on paper” took place—adding items W, X, Y, and Z. The public was unable to review the items.
Adding items to the agenda at the meetings—circumventing the public—has been a norm in the Malverne school district community for a long time. This disrespect was documented, for example here and here. The fact that it became a norm can be attributed to the process of how the school community has been selecting and preparing prospective candidates for the school board.
Several times per year, the school board members and administration invite privately few individuals to meetings and debrief them on policies and initiatives. All school board members who were elected in the past decade were recruited from this “by-invitation” group. Yet the process of getting the prospective school board members accustomed to circumventing the public is not the only negative impact. The private meetings also affect community involvement. The regular, “public” school board meetings are attended by 2 or 3 persons, except occasions when awards serve as an opportunity for photo-ops. In general, 11 out of 12 school board meetings report that public participation is “none,” according to the minutes.
At their BOE meeting in public on June 13th, the community representatives added another twist to the established norm. They announced they would enter into an executive session. A fact the minutes completely omitted to report. What it did, the executive session created an intermission, giving the public time to clear the air. Once safe without the public present, the board reconvened their “meeting in public” and added the items.
Is it against the regulations on open meetings? Maybe. Malverne school district corporation always finds an explanation. Is it unethical? Absolutely. In school districts where BOE meetings are attended by 50-100 residents or districts with functioning board committees and site-based committees, the representatives would not even attempt such adverse action. The established ethical norms in those communities would not allow for such disrespect.
It would be unfair to blame the current school board members. It takes the village to set ethical norms and school policies. In Malverne public school community, circumventing the public has been going on for so long that it is perceived as something that is inherent to the system.
It’s important for the school community to work on dissociating itself from this notion and relearn the meaning of public governance. I touched the notion of “public” involvement in public schools in a previous post and will present more examples in the future.
On August 30th, I updated the post with this meme that is quite fitting here.