Saturday, April 02, 2016

School boards, city councils should not be run like businesses

A school district should not be run like a business.

Neither should a city.

Obviously, those who oversee the operation of our governmental entities have a responsibility to spend money wisely and to select the best possible people to serve as administrators, but that is as far as it goes.

The idea that a board of education or a city council should be a docile group that rubber stamps whatever its top administrator wants proved to be a nightmare for Joplin in the days, weeks, months, and years after the tornado.

What was even more harmful to this city was the group of unelected elites who are determined to bring back that method of operation to the Joplin R-8 Board of Education. For years, prior to the election of Debbie Fort, Jeff Koch, and Jennifer Martucci, the district fell victim to a board that approved everything former Superintendent C. J. Huff wanted by 7-0 votes.

And there was no one to ask the questions that needed to be asked. No one asked why teachers were leaving the district in droves. No one asked whether so much money needed to be spent to build the new schools. In fact, many of the items that deserved questioning were simply shunted aside to the consent agenda and no one paid any attention.

While the 7-0 votes were commonplace on the Board of Education, that was not the case with the Joplin City Council. While most of the time the council's votes were unanimous, when there was a difference, it became the subject of much controversy. After City Manager Mark Rohr was fired by a 5-4 vote, there was much talk stirred by those who supported Rohr of a "voting bloc" that was damaging the city.

The Joplin Progress Committee, those who thought their opinions were more important than the rest of the public and wanted to offer us guidance so we were not led astray by people who believe that there are times when authority needs to be questioned, poured money into candidates who could eliminate the two city council members who were up for election and had cast votes against Rohr.

No one ever explained why the side that had the majority on the city council was the voting bloc, rather than the four council members who sided with the former city manager. The difference, it would appear, is that the four council members were willing to back Rohr, and that is the type of operation these people who want everything to be run like a business prefer.

In a letter to the editor in today's Joplin Globe, Empire District Electric Company attorney Sharrock Dermott, a candidate for a three-year seat on the R-8 Board of Education, made it clear he wants the school district to be run like a business.

Our city manager and superintendent of schools are paid well to lead and advance what is best for Joplin. We must elect people that intend to support our investment in the leadership of these individuals.

Through their successes, we expect to benefit the employees they supervise and the constituents they serve. This is the formula that will attract the best qualified people to these positions, and continually build upon itself to ensure the future success of our city and schools.

In the next paragraph, Dermott writes that council and board members should not "blindly follow" these leaders and that they should be held accountable. Then Dermott makes a statement that should send a shiver down the backs of those who lived through the C. J. Huff era:

So while independent thinkers provide strength through their diversity, the boards must not develop factions. Candidates seeking to advance personal agendas within boards set a course for dysfunction.

Later, Dermott adds, "Diversity of talent and background may strengthen a group, but individual agendas distract focus from common goals."

Again, this nonsense that we should not elect anyone with an agenda.

On the contrary, we should be scared to death to elect anyone who does not have an agenda. Agendas are proof that the people who are seeking to represent us have actually given some thought to what they would like to accomplish if they are elected.

While Dermott is correct that these agendas should not stand in the way of operating a school system or a city, he is dead wrong about the agendas being the problem.

It is not the voters' job to select people who do not have an agenda. Instead, voters should select the candidates whose agendas most closely coincide with their own beliefs.

There is a major difference between the operation of the board of directors of a business and a board of education or a city council. We want our elected officials to do what is best for the school or city and sometimes they are going to have disagreements. That is not a problem; that is a signal that our system is working.

Representative government may not always look pretty, but it is far better than "business" as usual.


Anonymous said...

A school district is not a business, and running a district according to a labor/management business model is--how can I say this--stupid. And unproductive. And counterproductive. Dr. Ridder understands this, which explains why he has continued to emphasize the importance of listening to teachers and paying attention to what they have to say. They are the educated professionals who work most closely with kids every day, and they should not be viewed as workers on an assembly line who turn out products at the end of grade 12. Stellar schools and school districts are those in which teachers work with, not for, administrators and are valued and respected as peers.

I was appalled some months ago listening to Tina Smith at a board meeting as she discussed increasing teachers' salaries, referring continually to the statistics she and a board committee had gathered, having researched "the market." A top administrator in the R-VIII, she seemed to view teachers strictly as a labor pool. She hasn't been alone in that, and it's a serious mistake--because a school district is not a business.

As for school board members and agendas, Randy is right. Having one is not the problem. The problem is having the wrong one. An agenda that is self-serving or ego-satisfying or ignorant of what does and does not actually work in educating kids undermines a school district; it destroys morale, drives away dedicated teachers, wastes money, and impedes progress in increasing student achievement. I'm not writing a letter to the Globe to counter the one Randy references, but here's my advice to board members: Have an agenda, a good one, and keep it on track by repeating this frequently: A school district is not a business.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Randy. Having an agenda means having ideas. I wouldn't want to elect a candidate without an agenda because that means he lacks ideas, and when a candidate lacks ideas and cannot be a free thinker, then our school district will return to the rubber stamp mindset that plagued the Huff years. Dermott champions himself as a candidate without an agenda. That is not a good thing. We have had enough "yes men" on that board in the past.

Anonymous said...

This is correct-a school is not a business. One of the main points of difference is that a business has quality control over its raw materials. A school cannot and never will control the raw quality of the input of students. A school is more than data and dollars, it is the heart and hope of the community. Unfortunately, a society cannot measure the "end product of education" the way a business measures product out the door. To rely only on data driven choices based on dollars and cents, to reduce the humanness of the educational process(both teacher and student)and to make decisions without critical thought for long term and short term impact does not benefit anyone. I understand that districts should be fiscally responsible but the criteria should be to do what is in the best interest of the student and the learning environment.

And learning environment encompasses student discipline, teacher pay, building safety, work schedules, administrative support for classrooms, not only with teachers and students in mind, but also the critical support staff-bus drivers, cafeteria, maintenance, secretarial, and the other needed workers.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else see the connection between Ron Gatz , interim board member- from Empire , and Sharock Dermott from Empire?
Dermott also applied for the empty seat (s) last year and he wasn't selected. He was the treasurer for Nancy Goode last election cycle.
My guess is he has an AGENDA closely related to the Joplin Progress Committee.

Anonymous said...

To expand on what 6:06 remarked, Ron Gatz sits on the Joplin Schools Foundation board as treasurer. The same entity in which CJ Huff claimed to have dumped donations, and claimed the audit would not harm him because they would never find the money there. It would take an audit by the IRS to see where that money went. Could this be the reason they are clinging so tightly to the Board? It's difficult to say. If I were them, I would ask for an audit of the Foundation and remove all doubt. Since Empire sold out to a foreign entity they get no respect from me and should not have so much representation on our school board. I sincerely doubt they are in it "for the kids," but are in it to promote the financial interests of the JPC and Connect2Culture, like Lynda Banwart, for example. She and her husband are founding members of the supposedly defunct JPC, and yet they took their business away from Joplin to keep more money in their pockets and put less into the city she claims to want to represent. I trust none of them. Not this man, and not that dimwit Mary Gaarder who seems to have overlooked that the board forestalled paying one of its bills Tuesday night in hopes that FEMA would come through before they would have to deal with the spending. The district most definitely has some issues with funding. We need people with an agenda to keep moving in the right direction, not to parrot what they are fed by CJ Huff and his minions.

Dermott has an agenda, alright, but it isn't about what is best for learning. It's about how to benefit a select few.

Anonymous said...

The free advertising provided to Dermott via the Globe doesn't get by us, either. He gets to wax profoundly while spewing garbage without having to pay a dime for the exposure. How convenient. To say that candidates shouldn't have an agenda is the same as saying that politicians shouldn't have a platform. It's the agenda that we vote for, Dermott. What does the candidate propose to do? Does their agenda include building the district's finances, restoring sanity to the classroom, protecting the children's interests, and serving the taxpayer? If so, that is who will get my vote. Like Martucci and Musser. Sloan perhaps. But not Dermott and Gaarder. They seem to be intent on carrying on the disastrous policies and agendas of those that held board seats during the Huff administration. We can't go back to those days. I'll happily vote for an agenda that seems progressive and realistic any day before I will let CJ Huff rule again, albeit from Panera.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Sharrock Dermott has ever heard of Enron or WorldCom?

Enron and WorldCom were run like businesses because they were businesses.

They had boards and were run by people who were paid well to lead and advance the employees and build the business.

The boards that ran Enron and WorldCom hired the C Suite managers and set the goals for management. (Some have made the argument that the Enron and WordCom boards were rubber stamp boards which were led by the nose by the C Suite management who supposedly answered to the boards.) The Enron and WorldCom boards supported their investments in the leadership of the C Suite managers. These same boards helped hold the C Suite managers accountable for their goals and rewarded them for meeting the goals. In short, the boards selected and supported the leadership of these enterprises.

Anyone who questioned the governance of these amazing American success stories had an agenda. They were criticized and dismissed by both the boards and management.[1]

Until the day the bottom fell out.

That is when these enterprises turned out to be what some had suspected for a long time. They were criminal enterprises built upon foundations of fraud and deception.

Some dissenting opinions on the boards of Enron and WorldCom might have distracted from the common goals of these criminal enterprises.

Would that have been a bad thing?

[1] Why Enron Went Bust Start with arrogance. Add greed, deceit, and financial chicanery. What do you get? A company that wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

By Bethany McLean Additional Reporting by Nicholas Varchaver, John Helyar, Janice Revell, and Jessica Sung
December 24, 2001

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "Our business is not a black box. It's very simple to model. People who raise questions are people who have not gone through it in detail. We have explicit answers, but people want to throw rocks at us."

So said Enron's then-CEO, Jeff Skilling, in an interview I had with him last February.

Anonymous said...

"Council members and board members are volunteers who need not run the city or school district, but should be objective thinkers who will hold those in charge of daily administration accountable to established goals."

Who establishes these goals in the first place?

Who decides to change the goals when circumstances change, or to add new goals when necessary?

Who decides when the hired administrators must be replaced rather than supported?

Does someone (or more than one someone) want a black box model of operation for the R-8 board? Or for the City of Joplin for that matter? A model of governance where the elected council or school board rubber stamps what has already been decided by the real behind the scenes deciders? One where the voters elect puppets whose strings are pulled by people behind the scenes that the voters never elected?

The answer may depend on what the words "run the city or school district" really mean.

Voters of Joplin: Do you think you are electing council members to run the City of Joplin and school board members to run the R-8 district?

Candidates for elected office: Do you think the voters of Joplin are electing council members to run the City of Joplin and school board members to run the R-8 District?

Anonymous said...

There is a huge difference between government and business. Education is a part of the government. The job of the school board is represent the public in decisions concerning the children in the district. You represent the old men and women, whose grandchildren may or may not go to school there; you represent the parents, whose children's education rely on your decisions; and the children who get up and go to school to learn so later on, they can join their parents and grandparents. We live in a republic or representative government. We are a citizen government.

If he wishes to leave education to the educators, he probably is not the best candidate. He might attend one of Joplin's Government classes.

I am an educator in another district, but lives in Joplin R-8 District.

Anonymous said...

Just wait until you get a bunch of former teachers on the board. I'm guessing they will be more likely to to want to "run" the district. Be careful what you wish for.

Anonymous said...

If "running" the district means improving the quality of education by respecting and supporting teachers and opposing ineffective programs and administrative mandates that waste money and unnecessarily add to a teacher's workload to justify someone's position in the district, then I'm all for it. The sooner the better.