Lessons in Community Trust

Lessons in Community Trust

I've been completely distracted from my political campaign this week. If you follow along with local school news, you are likely already aware of the announcement a week ago of a change to the high school bell schedule (which was preceded by a month of poorly framed communications about the bell schedule and a tremendous amount of misinformation and speculation around this issue). You may also be aware of the 4+ hour school board meeting which ended with the school board voting to move decisions regarding the bell schedule to the purview of the board instead of the superintendent. A flurry of discussion, speculation, and scrutiny has followed. It's been an exciting but stressful week in that realm. My role as a former educator, parent of middle and high school students, and general education systems geek has meant that I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the events from those perspectives. As a hopeful future City Councilor I have also been thinking about the events from a perspective of community needs and expectations that go beyond any specific policy change to a lesson in governance. Being the only contested candidate on a ballot rounded out by a public school referendum adds another layer to my considerations this week.

I'm the type of person who could talk for hours about education, systems in general, MCCSC specifically, anecdotal information, corporation data, best practices, and more. I've gone around and around about what kind of response I want to have to these recent events and how I feel about them and this morning, I'm making myself organize my many thoughts into something that is, hopefully, not too long but still coherent.

First, from an education and parent perspective, the bell schedule is only a small part of what might make an educational experience successful (or not). I'm not really worried that the bell schedule will change in such a way as to destroy any possibility of my kids succeeding and learning what they need to during their high school experiences. Would some schedules work better than others for my specific kids? Well, of course. But anything that works better for mine might work worse for others and vice versa. At some point, you have to manage to navigate successfully within a given structure. Given that, my educational policy nerd self finds it interesting to think about the benefits and drawbacks of any given schedule, but my parent self doesn't overly fret.

Second, from the larger educational systems perspective, bell schedules are absolutely something that should be analyzed periodically and assessed to determine if the current status quo is still the best practice. All industries need to remain open to the concept of progress and change as new information surfaces. Education is no different. Classroom teachers do this constantly-assess how a lesson goes, reflect on what was successful and what needs improvement, determine what changes you might make next time. This happens year to year, but also can happen day to day, or even period to period. The larger educational system outside of the classroom needs to make these assessments too. In fact, I would argue that you could define the job of school superintendent as one that looks at the entire system as a big whole and assesses exactly these kinds of systematic changes. They should be encouraged to spend time making these assessments, looking around at what is happening in the field and in their specific community, and considering change to reflect updated expectations and standards. I want the superintendent and upper level administrative staff to be looking at these big issues. This needs to be done with transparency and community understandings. That was lacking in this example. People don't always react well to change, even in situations where it is evidently needed. A truly phenomenal change maker can manage to facilitate that process through positive engagement and transparent planning without enraging the stakeholders.

Which brings me to the place of looking at these events through a broader community lens and learning some lessons that I can apply to other places, ie City Council. There was an abysmal failure to control this message. Lesson 1: Control the message. Lesson 2: If you fail to control the message initially, get control as soon as possible. I don't think control has been regained yet. This is disastrous from a trust and systems standpoint. It doesn't matter if the schedule should or should not be changed anymore. It only matters that the message, the reasoning, the problem, failed to be adequately communicated to the stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, and the community as a whole) and because of that failure to communicate effectively trust has been not just been shaken, but lost. Due to that loss in trust there is now even greater scrutiny being given to all decisions made by the superintendent during his time at MCCSC. This timing is terrible.

Timing brings me to the referendum. This public question where we, as taxpayers, are being asked to voluntarily give more money to the school. Voluntarily say "yes, please, Superintendent, take more of my money. I trust you to spend it appropriately". This is about the worse possible timing for a breach of trust. Of course, that's accidental. Remember, this message was not controlled. It was never intended that this turmoil be happening during election season. It was admitted at the board meeting that the concept of bell schedule changes has been being looked at since March (March!), and it had been being deliberately kept from not only the public, but teachers as well. Would this possible change have been revealed earlier if there wasn't a referendum vote? I don't know, but this leads the people of Bloomington to wonder what else has been hidden. Lesson 3: Transparency wins in Bloomington. Change is hard, conversations about change take time, those conversations can be divisive, but in a community like this one, where academic debate is front and center, not only tolerated, but sought out, it is worth it to let the community know what is going on and do everything possible to engage residents, ensure accurate information, and keep in front of any community messaging. This was not done.

But, getting back to the referendum. The question on the minds of many is how to vote-yes or no. I'm not here to give you an answer. I will always say that people need to think for themselves and evaluate what they think the best choice is, for themselves, for their community. I have never cast a ballot where I thought "my choices have only benefit and no drawback" (not even when I voted for myself!). When you build a pro/con list, there is always at least one pro and one con in each column.  That one thing may be of little consequence, but it still exists. Sometimes that one thing outweighs a dozen in the other column because that one thing is so important. I'm not here to dictate what your pro/con list needs to be or what weight you should assign to each item, but I'll share some of mine with you.  

On the con side (may as well start negative), top level administrative trust is lost. The board did something in their vote to indicate that they were paying attention, both to the actions of the administration and also the sentiment of the community, but it is obvious MCCSC has been doing long term planning behind closed doors. I value transparency, so this is a big violation for me. Similarly, further public scrutiny of expenses in the last 2-3 years make me question whether I want to trust this administration with more of my money. Once again, I think there are some undisclosed long term plans in progress, but it is not obvious what those are (I could speculate, but I won't). Also a con, no one likes a tax increase. Con-I have several outstanding logistical concerns about making this plan work, especially related to preschool teacher recruitment. Con-this should not be a local issue at all. Universal pre-k should be a state funded initiative so that all children in all communities can be assured of high quality care and education. Local level funding furthers educational gaps between communities. Any referendum has this issue for me. The state needs to do better and I'm resentful that they refuse to.

On the pro side, expanding early childhood education is so needed. I don't even have the words (or the time, honestly-this is already too long) to properly enunciate how vital this is for Bloomington. This is such a positive step in supporting the needs of families with young children. It's huge! Pro-the experience my family has had with MCCSC has been largely positive. Of course, nothing is perfect (especially children), but our classroom and building level experiences have really been great. I have felt supported by building level administrators, my kids have had understanding teachers, MCCSC has done a phenomenal job integrating refugee families I work with into neighborhood schools and met the needs of those children and families (including preschool aged children). I have seen extremely good equity work done with regard to improving disciplinary interventions across income and race categories. There has been some fantastic professional development, system wide, with regard to equity and understanding bias. The speeches given by a wide array of MCCSC students at the meeting on Tuesday highlights that MCCSC has done a phenomenal job engaging, empowering, and educating students. No matter the trust issues above, I do trust that on a building level, an expansion of their early childhood programs will be of high quality and a service to our community. Pro-my kids are entering a stage of study where they may need to take an AP test, a nursing exam, or other assessment. These things are also covered by this referendum and any one of those tests would exceed the yearly cost of the tax increase for our family.

If you are keeping track that is 4 cons to 3 pros. This is a great example that quantity is not always the same as quality because I already voted for the referendum and I would repeat that action, despite the cons. That is because my biggest pro, which honestly outweighs a lot right now, is that MCCSC has not disappointed me yet in terms of quality programming and their continued effort to keep doing better. I can overlook a lot at the top as long as the overall public facing experience for children and families is maintained. The risk is that it won't be, if dysfunction and secrecy at the top drives out the amazing educators that make the day to day experience good for children and families. Right now I have to hope that the community eyes on the top will ensure greater transparency moving forward and that transparency will mean that teacher job satisfaction will remain high and so the community will continue to have high quality educators creating wonderful classroom experiences for the children of our community.  

I hope this gives you something to think about. I know this is a hard referendum for a lot of people who usually vote yes on education. At the end of the day, you need to feel good about the choices you make and to that end, consider your pro/con list and the weight you attach to each column. Vote.