Comparing ethical norms of public school communities

Under the influence of the current accountability trend, The New York State School Boards Association aligned its methodology of evaluating superintendents and school boards to the HEDI matrix (right, used by NYSED to evaluate the school staff). The 18-page evaluation guidelines are available on the association’s website. The guidelines evaluate more aspects than the HEDI matrix. There are fields dedicated to 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?

evaluation-agreement-measure-teacher-practice-chart-hedi-matrixThe quality of the community-school board relationship and the 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 the schools in various ways. They can 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 local public schools, reveal the established ethical norms. The school board meeting agendas and minutes exemplify the board’s communication with the public.

Every public school district maintains a website. One can easily locate a BOE 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 logic, but it’s not always the case. For example, a review of the recent communication of Malverne public schools representatives reveals that some items were not discussed with the public, although they were 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 the item V (like Victor). But in the minutes, the “reporting” took place—adding items W, X, Y, and Z. The public was unable to review the items.

June-13-2017-agenda-minutes-comparisonAdding items to the agenda at the meetings—circumventing the public—has been a norm in Malverne UFSD community for a long time. It was documented, for example here and here. The fact that it became a norm can be attributed to the process 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 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 the community involvement. The regular, “public” BOE meetings are, usually, attended by 2 or 3 persons and in 11 out of 12 meetings the reported public participation is “none.” As can be noticed in 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 go into an executive session. A fact the minutes completely omitted to report. The executive session creates an intermission, giving the public time to clear the air. Once safe, the board reconvened their meeting “in public” and added the items.

Is it against the regulations on open meetings? Maybe. 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 an adverse act. The established ethical norms in those communities would not allow it.

It would be unfair to blame the current school board members. It takes the village to set the 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 of public schools. So, it’s important for the school community to work on dissociating 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 future posts.

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