In the era of COVID, a passive School Board is dangerous

I want you to watch this video — and note Board Member Kay Fields’ reaction to my point about the elected Polk School Board’s role and its relationship to unelected staff and the public. This viscerally demonstrates a longstanding dynamic of disagreement among some elected board members about the nature of our roles.

It’s extremely important for the public to understand it now, in a time of crisis and difficult decision-making.

This moment happened Tuesday, during our first virtual School Board meeting. It was also our first board meeting of any kind in six weeks. Other local governments have met virtually with much faster cadence.

During this meeting, our School Board discussed my longstanding request for weekly COVID-related update and collaboration meetings. We also debated a resolution formally granting conditional emergency powers to the superintendent that she has already been using for COVID-related activities. We ended up approving it with some strengthened oversight, including additional meetings and a requirement to vote regularly on its extension.

A unnecessarily difficult consensus to do our jobs

Board Member Fields and Board Member Sara Beth Reynolds rejected my idea of holding weekly COVID-related board meetings. But the board came to a unanimous compromise of twice monthly COVID-focused meetings/agenda items.

I would encourage you to watch the entire ZOOM meeting discussion, linked here. It starts at 33:00.

Frankly, I think I demonstrated effective boardsmanship in leading the way to this agreement and consensus. People have sometimes doubted my ability to build consensus. This demonstrated it nicely; and I was pleased with the unanimous outcome.

But getting to that common sense consensus was like pulling teeth because of the dynamic shown above. That dynamic has always mattered greatly and hindered the function of the board and district in my view. It’s even more important now, when decisions are increasingly complex and laden with public consequences.

Announcing a graduation ceremony expectation without consulting the elected board is a mistake

The perfect example of this is the in-person, traditional graduation ceremonies in June that the superintendent announced Tuesday without consulting the elected board; asking its point-of-view; or presenting a clear plan of execution.

The unelected district staff have now created an expectation for graduating seniors that I’m not in position to endorse or oppose as an elected board member. But I certainly will not endorse a plan that seems unsafe for the public. It’s not enough to say “follow CDC guidelines;” that’s an abstraction. On-the-ground execution of those guidelines is what matters. And I have no idea how staff plans to execute.

If the elected School Board had been meeting regularly during this crisis, as I had asked, we could have come to a better understanding. As of today, I have none. So I can’t answer questions about the ceremonies intelligently or responsibly. I can’t endorse the superintendent’s plan, as much as I’d like to.

Neither the elected School Board nor an engaged public is a nuisance or burden to staff

During Tuesday’s dicussions, Mrs. Fields and Ms. Reynolds generally opposed greater board attention and discussion of COVID-related matters. Why? Because they perceive that additional meetings and discussion will inconvenience unelected staff or prove an unnecessary burden on them.

Ms. Reynolds and Mrs. Fields seem to believe that board’s governing role consists only of praising the superintendent publicly and gracefully accepting whatever communication flows down to us individually. They don’t seem to see the board as a collaborative governing force that legitimizes and strengthens staff action with the public.

Here is another video from Board Member Fields that I think nicely illustrates the difference between “notification” or “communication” and “collaborative governing.”

Key quote from Board Member Fields:

“What the public needs to understand, if it isn’t aware, is that Superintendent Byrd does an amazing job communicating with us on a weekly basis. Sometimes she gives us more than one weekly update. She calls us if it’s necessary. So it’s not like we’re not being communicated to and we’re not being informed.”

Notice how this is all one way communication or notification — a downward one-way flow from the unelected staff to the elected board, which exists simply to receive notification and nod, apparently.

Again, this has already become a governing problem with the graduation plans. It will be multiples worse as we consider the millions of variables for opening schools. Indeed, if I were the superintendent, which I certainly am not, I would insist that my board engage on my important decisions. I would want no daylight between elected board and unelected staff when we present huge, consequential decisions to the public. That’s not happening now.

“Communication” is not collaboration; and it varies

Indeed, I have sent Superintendent Byrd two texts and an email in roughy the last 36 hours. Two have related to graduation ceremonies; one to the catastrophic funding cuts all public schools face. I consider each of them important. She’s acknowledged none of them, including a specific request for a phone call earlier today.

The superintendent had been more responsive to me before the Tuesday meeting; and I’ve been pretty pleased with her leadership as a whole during COVID. So I’m not sure what’s happened since. Perhaps there is lingering bad blood of some sort from the meeting. But the vacuum is problematic; and it illustrates that the Fields/Reynolds view of “communication” doesn’t stand up, even on its own terms.

Board Members Reynolds and Fields both seem to see the board on which they are paid $40K to serve as a nuisance to the only people who matter, the unelected staff, and particularly the superintendent.

I’m not sure why anyone would run for office to represent the public and collect a $40,000 paycheck for a role they consider to be a nuisance. It’s an odd position. And I can tell you; I shared the campaign trail with Ms. Reynolds in 2016. She did not campaign on such board passiveness. She did not campaign on the idea that the public is a nuisance.

I have always strongly disagreed with the Fields/Reynolds perception of the board role; and I reject it completely in a time of crisis. The elected board should never, as a body, defer so abjectly to unelected staff that we become little more than the district’s highest paid volunteers. That’s not what the public elected me to do. And I won’t vacate my responsibility to serve you, the public.