Thursday, February 17, 2022

Binge Watching the RISD School Board

After the sturm und drang of school politics in 2021, I was looking for things to settle down in 2022. So I thought it was time to check in on a Richardson ISD school board meeting. Here are my random observations of the first three hours of the February 15th meeting. Yeah, it was a long meeting. Watching it felt a little like binge-watching a not-particularly-compelling season of a TV show on Netflix.

First of all, it looks like RISD is so over Covid-19. Even though Covid-19 is not over us. The country is still averaging 2,500 deaths per day, with Texas having 8.5% of the nation's total. Despite several of the trustees and superintendent explicitly pointing out that Covid-19 is not over, facemasks were rare in the auditorium (only two trustees were masked — guess which two). Among the dozen or so other people around the horseshoe (superintendent, administrators and other employees), none were masked. I checked and RISD guidance is still, "Masks are strongly encouraged for all people while inside RISD schools." Technically, the admin building where the school board meets might not be considered a school, but the school board meeting begins with student recognitions, with dozens of students coming up to the front of the room for recognition, with students and trustees crowding together for photographs. My takeaway is that we are in the "thoughts and prayers" stage of a disaster, where people can't be bothered to take action anymore, but they do politely wring their hands.

The open mic portion of the meeting could be seen as good news. Instead of taking an hour, as at some meetings last year, it took only 14 minutes. Several of the speakers from last year are still there, hanging tough.

One speaker recited a list of the Texas education code numbers that he claims RISD is not in compliance with. Just code numbers, "1.002, 11.151(b), 11.1511(d), 11.152(a), ..." Curious, I listened closely, wondering if "Proverbs 13:24" would be listed, but thankfully it wasn't. Then we came to what was really on his mind. "It is strongly advised that the board immediately suspend the operations of the department of equity, diversity, and inclusion..."

A speaker recognized a "positive signal" in the RISD. He was at a basketball game and was pleased that none of the cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem. He chose to see this as "a positive, unifying signal." Yay, us? Racism is solved? I think attributing motives to something the students did *not* do is a logical stretch. And bringing it up at a school board meeting is probably more divisive than unifying. But what do I know?

A speaker complained that her face isn't on camera in the published RISD videos. Sometime last year, a decision was made to keep the camera pointed at the school board members during public comments. She considers that "extremely disrespectful." Maybe someone would make a meme of her speaking with her voice replaced by the sound of a duck quacking, but there's no video of her face to create the meme with. She can thank the RISD for saving her from that disrespect.

A speaker complimented the RISD for "holding strong on SEL and DEI curriculum." I have nothing to add to that.

A speaker criticized the Families First PAC for "whipping up anger" over a class lesson taught during Black History Month. He said maybe he should call them the "White" Families First PAC. The group of ten or so in the auditorium who sat together and reacted audibly to this characterization was, indeed, all white. Regardless, his own attempt to "whip up anger" against them is misguided.

The School Board spent two minutes officially calling the May, 2002, trustee election. I guess that means the 2022 sturm und drang season is officially open.

The RISD has been polling the public on preferences for a school calendar for 2022-2023. The RISD has received over 4,000 responses, which is five or six times the response rate of prior years. By about a 3-1 ratio, the public favored the calendar that schedules school to begin August 16 (over the August 10 start on the other calendar). But objections were made to beginning the second semester on January 2 with a staff professional development day (January 1 is a Sunday, so January 2 is the Texas "New Year's Day" public holiday). Expect the calendar to be tweaked before a vote is taken by the school board.

The annual report on RISD performance was presented. Under the 2021 state accountability rating system, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) did not issue A-F accountability ratings or distinction designations. Instead, all campuses and districts received the rating "Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster." I'm not sure whether that's good news or bad news.

By far the most time of the night was taken for "K-12 Reading / Language Arts Update." It took 1 hour 38 minutes. It was filled with professional jargon and acronyms (RLA, TEKS, TRS, ACT, STAAR, EOC, MAP, TTESS, TPESS, foundational skills, comprehension skills, response skills, composition, inquiry, research, metacognitive skills, etc.) The presentation showed how the curriculum is driven by TEKS and supported by instruction and how progress is determined by assessments. The instructional resources were daunting in detail. Teachers are presented with day by day pacing calendars, standards, vocabulary, and assessments. I tried to imagine the purpose of this presentation. Was it to impress upon the parents in the audience that teachers don't just babysit their kids? Job done. Was it to drum into the trustees that the administrators are professionals and know their jobs? Job done. Was it to deliver a crash course in educational methods and practices to the trustees? That's not their jobs. It would be like a board of directors' meeting of a company like Texas Instruments using its time to give the directors a tutorial on circuit design. The board needs to figure out what it's job is and focus, focus, focus its time on that.

The last item in the video for the school board meeting (but not the agenda) was a budget update. Now this is where I expect trustee expertise to reside. Tutorials on accounting shouldn't be needed, but if tutorials are going to be given, this would be the place. Focus was on graphs showing General Fund expenditures. Payroll costs as a percent of total fund expenditures for RISD were 90.48%, the highest percent for North Texas peer districts. Lavish salaries, right? Well, not if you notice that RISD's contracted services costs were the lowest among peer districts. Apparently, RISD has custodians and bus drivers on RISD payrolls. Other districts contract those services to outside companies. So RISD's payrolls are higher. Peer districts contracted services are higher. Getting apples-to-apples numbers can be challenging. Assuming you even want an apples-to-apples comparison, which believers that schools pay lavish salaries possibly don't.

The agenda contained one more item: "Enter Closed Meeting: Interim Superintendent's Evaluation, and Consultation with Attorney." Given the nature of public schooling today, "Consultation with Attorney" is probably a regular occurrence. And "Interim Superintendent's Evaluation" became a regular occurrence in 2021, so I'm not surprised to see it continue in 2022. Of course we can't know exactly what goes down in the private meetings, but the 2021 meetings ended up eventually with the superintendent's resignation. I wouldn't be surprised if the goal of these 2022 meetings is another superintendent's resignation. The trustees have given precious little, if any, public support for Tabitha Branum in the impossible position she is in. Another possibility is that the board is using "Superintendent's Evaluation" to skirt the Texas Open Meeting Act. The Superintendent is involved in all aspects of the district, so if the board wanted to deliberate in secret anything and everything to do with RISD, doing it under the catch-all claim "Superintendent's Evaluation" would be the place to do it. I wasn't around to know how long this secret session lasted. I had already had enough.

The board of trustees wasn't through even then. They scheduled another meeting for the next day, Wednesday, an all-day training session no less. Although it is open to the public, I chose not to attend. My takeaway from the training session in November did not give me much optimism for another. What I said then was, "if the RISD school board is dysfunctional (and I think it is), this team-building training is not likely to change much. What the trainer had to say was excellent, but what this board needs is not training, it's counseling."


Bryan holland said...

Im totally fine with your analysis of the board meeting. Ive been ro my share of them.

However your proverbs comment both confused me as well as struck me highly hypocritical.

If you are not a believer. Its rotally fine, most are not. But had you made fun of the koran, well. You know.

An apology is always acceptable when we make a mistake.

Mark Steger said...

Bryan Holland, thanks for the feedback. If you thought my comment was making fun of religion, then consider its serious side. Inflicting corporal punishment in public schools is legal in Texas, whether or not it's widely practiced. There are some who would like to bring back the practice. I am indeed thankful that the speaker at RISD's board meeting did not make that argument.