School boards should take a look at ending private retreats

Even the perception that decisions are made behind closed doors is bad

By Mike McGann, Editor, the Times

UTMikeColLogo copyLike most boards of education in Chester County, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District board has held regular “retreats” — informal sessions where information is discussed and at times, the future direction of the district is discussed.

A district resident, Mark Stookey, has questioned the legality and propriety of such meetings, suggesting that any board meetings, especially those where the direction of the district is discussed, should be done in public.

And while the pertinent case law makes a reasonable argument of legality of such sessions, it doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do in this era.

Understand that I make no claim of nefarious behavior here — after all these are good people who I generally see as having the best interests of the district at heart — but rather folks suffering from a blind spot (or two) in defending such sessions.

In short, the optics are not good.

In a national environment where most folks think too many decisions are made by government behind closed doors — fair or not — and a local environment where there is still deep mistrust of the motives of the district and board (yes, it’s been nearly a decade since the bond issue to renovate Unionville High School was shunted through the back door, but folks have $100 million reasons to continue to be skeptical), even appearing to make decisions in private is a bad idea.

Aside from the politics of the matter — and they are considerable — I think it also represents a failure of process.

Let us consider the three topics that appear to have reportedly been focuses at the last three retreats: strategic planning, budgeting philosophy and district goals.

On strategic planning: while most would agree that having a global plan for the district is probably a good idea, this effort has been a bit like programming the GPS without having the slightest idea where the road trip is headed. Worse, board sources suggest that at the retreat where it was discussed, there was a clear majority against the process as laid out and yet it still went forward.

What we ended up with was a corporate middle manager nightmare of process with no vision, no destination and a plethora of buzzwords with no real ideas behind them. Where the district should go and what it should strive to become should be a matter of a lot of public discussion, not some feel-good Power Point presentation that would likely become an expensive, taxpayer funded fiasco.

We do need to have a real public discussion about what the district is and should be — and I think were there a real dialogue between the public and the board and administration, there would be more than a few challenges to some long-held assumptions. I’m hoping that maybe those discussions actually take place before the board actually adopts goals, although obviously, that seems unlikely.

The same holds true for the budgeting philosophy. For a generation, Unionville has conservatively budgeted — allowing enough margin to absorb the current chaos and maintain exceptional educational standards. But again, in a retreat, there was general agreement to abandon a generation of careful, conservative fiscal management in order to pander to political whims.

With the constraints of Act I, one could make a very compelling argument that switching to such a budgeting philosophy could severely damage the district within a decade — that future boards and administrations may well curse this decision when today’s kindergarteners are in high school. But, except for a few moments of discussion during the budgeting process at work sessions and meetings, the relative merits of the change were never fully fleshed out in public.

Already concerns about the amount of reserve, the impact on future debt service and the ability to continue with 10-year capital program are on the horizon. Maybe a more thorough public discussion would have had a different outcome. Either way, it should have happened.

Finally, without having a firm grasp of where the district is ultimately going, it seems difficult, if not improbable, to attempt to set waypoints to get there for administrators. “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” is certainly a poetic management style, but a lousy way to run a school district.

I’d be the first to agree that the district has made strides in communication — although arguably the live streaming of board meetings has actually had the opposite impact, leaving an empty room, with a handful of residents and media watching the proceedings on screen (I’m the only media member who continues to physically attend the meetings as I think the stream doesn’t capture the proceedings fully). The video stream has led to more pontificating — an inevitable side effect of televising meetings — but, oddly, less substance and interaction from my perspective.

Board members frequently complain that when they hold public sessions, they hear from the same group of people — a frustrating limit on getting real and useful feedback. That does speak to a failure to connect, with 4,000 students and about 2,000 families in the district only a few dozen seem engaged in these district efforts.

The feedback that I do get from friends and neighbors is often “they won’t listen to me, so why bother?” While I do argue that if they show up and engage the board and administration does listen, a level of mistrust remains.

Retreats — despite their legality — help reenforce that perception. A new format, with public involvement, might be the best way forward instead of falling back into old ways.

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One Comment

  1. Mark Stookey says:

    Residents should not assume that these “retreats” are legal. There is strong evidence that the Board deliberates during these secret meetings, and the Sunshine Act prohibits deliberation in non-public meetings. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said that deliberation occurs “where agency members weigh the ‘pros and cons’ of the various options involved, or otherwise engage in comparisons of the different choices available to them…even if the decision is ultimately reached at a later point.” District documents state that in Board retreats, district goals were to be “brainstormed” and the merits of strategic planning were discussed. It seems likely that these discussions meet the definition of the Supreme Court’s definition of “deliberation.”

    But legality is not the only issue. As you point out, there are many excellent policy reasons to be open and engage the public and to forego secret meetings (other than properly held executive sessions). Secrecy breeds suspicion. Why does the Board insist on continuing with this insidious practice? That question has yet to be answered.

    The District may be better at “communicating” what they want to share, but the “communication” is largely one-way. The default reaction to questions and suggestions for improvement continues to be defensiveness if not hostility. John Sanville’s claim notwithstanding, UCFSD is far from a model of transparency. The Board’s penchant for private discussions and the District’s incompetence, stonewalling, and delay in responding to Right-to-Know requests paint an entirely different picture. It is high time for the Board and Administration to truly embrace transparency and seek to expand public input. Eliminating secret retreats would be an excellent way to start.

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