COMMUNITY VOICES | Comments to St. Paul Public School’s Board of Education regarding BOE meeting on May 20, 2014

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Summary: We need significant reforms to address the important issues surrounding transparency, managerial accountability and a valid process for meaningful stakeholder involvement.

At Tuesday’s School Board meeting the district and the School Board did a masterful job of re-framing all of the concerns being brought forward as anti-racial equity. This was done for political purposes, to serve the interests of the adults to maintain the status quo and retain the power balance in favor of those with authority. I don’t know who the architect was of this PR maneuver, but at the very least the School Board was complicit with district administration in opposing and silencing any who question the district. The Board seems to have forgotten that they represent the citizens. Their job is to manage the administration, not the public. I don’t know a single person who spoke or wanted to speak who is not for creating a racially equitable district. All agree that this problem needs to be a priority that we all must face together. This was an attempt to redirect attention from the many issues facing our district in addition to that of racial equity, and to silence those who have differing ideas about how racial equity can best be achieved.

As we have seen, trying to implement wholesale changes in our schools without a significant planning and comprehensive stakeholder buy-in process has created unnecessary chaos, conflict and inefficiencies. This has negatively impacted the effectiveness of needed reforms and caused stakeholders to lose confidence that the district and its leaders are on the right path. It is time to right things through honest, wide-open communications and transparency where all stakeholders have an opportunity to participate in a process that truly values their input rather than gives lip service to it.

At the end of the meeting some Board members spoke glowingly of a spirit of collaboration and claimed that they have been listening, yet there was no call to repeal the undemocratic new policy on the 45 minute time limit for public comment at the Board meetings. Instead, at this time of great interest and public participation, district leadership chose to repress and silence many of the voices in our community by setting up barriers and limits on participation. They hand-picked who got to talk and in what order. They bused in their supporters only and quietly circulated a “wear purple to support racial equity” memo among known supporters in an attempt to delineate the issues along racial lines. Limiting who gets to talk during public comment is wrong and shameful. It only exacerbates distrust. The harder leadership tries to do damage control by controlling speech and participation, the more legitimacy and power they will ultimately lose.

I had a chance to review the “engagements” link noted in Superintendent Silva’s letter. Here is the link:  https://www.spps.org/engagement. As you can see, it is a single web page with a listing of contact numbers for the various, mostly-segregated, easily-contained, parent advisory councils. There are no meeting times, links to advisory council websites, statements of group purpose, goals or mission, or any other information. The link also lists PTO/PTAs as a way to engage in your school. PTOs are important and great ways for people to support their children’s school, but they are not involved in meaningful discussions about things like curriculum, instruction, student and staff behavior, meeting the unique academic and/or socio-emotional needs of students, etc..

The district needs to start engaging parents, teachers and community members as true and equal partners. The Strategic Plan mentions these goals yet there is no evidence that this has happened. For example, if we are equal partners then why can’t we see the Strategic Plan? I am not talking about the PowerPoint presentation. Beyond bullet points, does the district have any detailed planning documents? Everything I have seen thus far is very generic and general. I participated on one of the SSSC Action Teams. We only provided general frameworks and goals, not an actual plan. It was my hope that an actionable plan would result and would be provided to the general public for review and input prior to its implementation. That never happened. Remember, action team members had to apply to participate. Many who wanted to participate were denied. Most action teams ended up being district employees in the end as most parents and community participants ended up dropping out.

We need plans that includes details such as: rationale, expected outcomes, evaluation of success, the theory, philosophy and validated research references upon which plans rests, budgets, implementation timelines, resource allocations, development and training requirements, process for stakeholder participation and input, communications, etc. If the plan is a new, localized experiment, (such as the individualized instruction initiative) what are the provisions for the experimental design including piloting and evaluation to ensure successful district-wide roll out need to be specified. In short, we need plans that are professional and up to the standards of any multi-million dollar organization. We also need a consistent process allowing for unfettered public participation and comment prior to Board approval and district implementation of new initiatives and significant changes. That is the kind of substantive input and engagement I long for and wish the Board would require of staff.

The action required to correct these deficiencies lies in district policy and therefore with the School Board as the policy making body. The Board is ultimately accountable to the management of our schools and our district as per Minnesota State law: 123B.09 BOARDS OF INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICTS. https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=123B.09  

Subd. 7. Policy making. The board shall make, and when deemed advisable, change or repeal rules relating to the organization and management of the board and the duties of its officers.

Subd. 8. Duties. The board must superintend and manage the schools of the district; adopt rules for their organization, government, and instruction; keep registers; and prescribe textbooks and courses of study. …

Board members: I have met most of you in the past. I have enjoyed our discussions and I have appreciated your time. I know you are capable of turning things around. You are all intelligent and caring people. Parents and teachers voicing concerns are not your enemies and we are counting on you. Please knock off the funny business. You are better than that. I encourage you to review district policies and procedures and strengthen them to improve program and initiative planning and accountability as well as communications and public partnership in the interest of improving your work towards racial equality, student achievement, and all the issues facing our district. Many excellent examples already exist upon which you could model improvements to our policy and operations.

Katie Sterns

SPPS Parent, Long-time supporter of SPPS schools, and educational advocate