Friday, March 17, 2006

Governing those who govern: Part Duo

If you've watched any amount of TV or movies, you've probably heard the phrase, "Beware the Ides of March." It's a quote from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Usually this is the only line students remember after they close the book. But what sounds like a vague warning of imminent danger popped into my head again this week.

Here's why: this month's JIS school council meeting fell on March 15th -- the Ides of March according to the Roman calendar. OK, you're saying, thanks for the history lesson. But so what?

A little background: Around 44 B.C., Caesar named himself the lifetime dictator of Rome. The only problem: before his bold move, Rome was governed by more of a partnership between himself and a senate. Although it wasn't a perfect arrangement, many senators were angry at Caesar's attempts to undermine their voices in directing the future of the Roman Empire. (Well, that, and some senators were just plain jealous of Caesar's power.)

Anyway, to make Shakespeare's 288-page story really short, Caesar, feeling pretty pleased with himself, is out parading through the streets of Rome when an old, crusty soothsayer (fortune teller) yells out to Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March!" A superstitious man, Caesar decides to listen to the warning and stay home on March 15th. But a so-called friend advises Caesar to go out that day and visit the senate. The conclusion: Caesar meets his doom.

So as I sat in the school council meeting on the Ides of March, the cautionary tale of Caesar made me think (which hurts when it happens, but I like it!). I'm asking myself, are some of the ideas being floated reminiscent of Caesar's move to control all of Rome and squelch input from the outside? Overly dramatic? Yes, totally! But being an English teacher, I couldn't resist the irony.

Some of the meeting procedings reminded me that the JIS community should maintain its vigilance and awareness when it comes to council's self-governance. For example:
  • We should request that council meeting agendas be posted on the JIS website in advance of the meeting. (That would help you decide whether you wanted to go to the meeting or not.)
  • We should be asking whether all agenda items for council meetings (open and closed) are made public, or if there are secret "off-agenda" items discussed during closed session.
  • We should know if votes are taken or decisions are made during these closed meetings. (School boards aren't allowed to do that in many, if not all school districts in the United States because of open meetings acts and so-call Sunshine Laws.)
  • If council does more than just deliberate during closed sessions, we should ask how it reports on the outcomes of those votes.
The point is, the community needs to understand both the issues being discussed in council meetings, and the positions that our elected representatives have taken on those issues. For example, if you look back at previous council meeting minutes (available via council's page on JIS' ParentNet), you won't be able to figure out who voted which way on any issue. In many cases, that won't be a big deal because the subjects under consideration are mundane, or the vote is unanimous. But when the vote concerns a serious issue that affects the education of children, wouldn't you like to know how council members voted?

(Click here for an example of minutes from a great high school's board of education meeting. Click this link if you're a real glutton for punishment and want to see meeting minutes -- for open AND closed sessions -- going back nearly two years for New Trier High School, which serves 4,000 students in Winnetka, IL.)

As I said in yesterday's blog, there are some great things happening in governance at JIS. We should applaud council's proposals to bring JIS moral owners (parents, teachers, alumni, students, and sponsoring organizations) into the discussion about amendments to Executive Limitations policies. And we should support council as it navigates throught the difficult transition between an old governance scheme and the Carver Governance model. These are bold and difficult moves!

But things could always be better. So let's encourage each other to ask the tough questions, and to share our opinions and thoughts on how council runs and reports on its meetings -- both critical elements of any governance policy. I have a feeling Julius Caesar would say, "Consider all voices, and provide as much information as possible. And don't feel you always must have the right answers -- or control every situation." That would have been good advice for him!

Hope everyone has a great weekend!


At 8:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good job Cheryl!!! I love reading your blog. You are so very positive and you make me think (which hurts a lot but it makes me smarter!) The links you provide are fantastic learning tools and very interesting. I hope you have lots of viewes.

At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Cheryl,
I'm writing as a parent who also is a Council member (I'm obviously not speaking for Council). First of all, thanks for setting up the blog. It obviously took a lot of work, and is a testament to your dedication to improving communication within the JIS community. I applaud the effort and hope it will serve to better inform community members.

I'd like to respond to some of your comments about governance based on my own understanding of Carver Governance and the JIS School Council organization. Again, I'm speaking as an informed parent and not as a council member.

Regarding the suggestion to post agenda items for all sessions (regular and closed), I was under the impression agendas for regular sessions were being posted on school bulletin boards (as the approved minutes of regular sessions are). If not, then we certainly should be posting regular session agendas to encourage understanding and involvement.

As for closed session agendas, by definition (and per the Policy Governance Manual) I believe these are sensitive issues requiring confidentiality and as such neither the agenda nor minutes would be posted. If they were, then there would be no distinction between regular and closed sessions; furthermore, I'm not sure why it would be useful to post an agenda when the minutes would not be posted. In my view, posting a closed session agenda would initiate discussions of sensitive issues which are not intended for open discussion (again, which is why they are discussed in closed session) and likely would fuel uniformed speculation about those issues. I believe such speculation would be a major distraction for the community, and I don't think it would benefit anyone.

I think the purpose of the policy on closed sessions is reasonably clear and Council needs to adhere it, since the PGM is intended to be consistent with the best interests of the school and community. Of course, a community delegation may recommend a change to the PGM section on closed sessions, and considered and clear suggestions are always welcome, but ultimately it would be up to Council to decide whether to change the policy.

Regarding closed session deliberations and votes, I believe decisions that can be appropriately communicated as a result of closed session decisions would and should be communicated at the appropriate time. Obviously, that is unlikely to happen in many cases due to the sensitive nature of the discussion. Discretion must be exercised at all times to protect the needs and interests of individual students and the needs of the school and community.

I'd curious to know why the issue of closed sessions and what is discussed is of such interest. Are there specific subjects that you believe are not being discussed in regular session (and, by default, are being discussed in closed session) that should be? During the regular session last week, there was one subject that was deliberately put in closed session because of the sensitivity and confidentiality of the subject and the need to protect the interest of students involved. This was clearly explained by the chair during the meeting. As the chair stated during the last regular session, there is a desire to have as much as possible discussed during those sessions, and much more is now being moved to regular session (as you pointed out in your article). What, in your view, is missing that is possible and appropriate under policy governance and rules of confidentiality?

The suggestion of having individual votes recorded and made public is not consistent with the Carver model of Council "speaking with one voice". Unlike school boards in the USA (which tend to be more politicized boards, frequently used by individuals as a stepping stone to higher office), JIS School Council members represent the entire community, not constituencies (although they may be members of constituencies). Owners are encouraged to talk to council members and provide input, and we hope this will increase as the owner linkage processes get underway. However, JIS is not a publicly (taxpayer) funded organization and, as such, does not operate the same way as school boards in the USA do. For example, Sunshine Laws are not relevant because JIS is not a public institution. A more apt comparison would be a non-profit organization, where the members elect the council members. While I'm sure there may be some useful processes that can be gleaned from the way school boards function in the USA, they are not the same as what we have here.

I hope my comments are useful in clarifying and increasing understanding of the issues, and look forward to further discussion on these issues.

William Reed Rising

At 2:38 PM, Blogger William Reed Rising said...

By the way, thanks for the link to New Trier website. I took a look at several samples of agendas and closed session minutes.

The agendas for closed sessions include a one-line subject description of what would be discussed in the closed session. The minutes have standard wording regarding the types of issues that would be discussed (e.g. compensation, disciplinary issues, etc.). The only variance in the minutes is a sentence stating that discussion regarding the subject took place, but there are no details of the discussion or agreed actions in the minutes.

It would appear that New Trier's board also takes the approach that issues of a confidential nature must remain so.


At 5:27 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Indeed. But there's more. Check out page 5 of the June 18th minutes (the first link). New Trier's board voted to make public all closed meeting minutes from January to June 2005. The board makes this decision every six months (unless there's some serious legal reason not to for a specific agenda item). So while the agenda items may be vague, the public knows that it will read all about it in six months.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

And p.s. (sorry...raging headache today!), the votes taken by the New Trier board are ALWAYS done in open session (even on items discussed in closed session) -- and the results are clearly described in the minutes so that the community can see who voted which way. There are no secret agenda items. Period.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger William Reed Rising said...

Thanks for the clarification. I suppose it's reasonable to expect such discussions would be made public after six months for a public school board in the USA, since it would be consistent with Sunshine Laws, etc. Compensation and other issues may in fact belong in the public domain if taxpayers are the ultimate owners.

However, I'm not sure when it comes to personnel issues, compensation issues, financial issues, and other subjects to be discussed in closed session according to the PGM that this would be appropriate in the case of JIS, a private institution operating in a foreign country (both of which add their own issues in different ways).

I guess the issue very quickly becomes what the current policy states and whether there is a need or desire to change it. If there is a need and desire, the discussion would then move to the consequences of the proposed policy change.

At 7:14 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Oh, this is good! I think this is how these blogs are supposed to work! Thanks, Bill, for commenting back and forth.... I'd agree about the financial and compensation stuff you talked about -- it would be good to explain to parents why the situation here makes these issues so sensitive for open discussion. (I learned something new! Excellent!) However, if the issue pertains to education, don't you think that council should discuss the issue openly? (While, of course, maintaining confidentiality....)

At 4:20 PM, Blogger William Reed Rising said...

In the case of the Level II program, the rationale for the discussion in closed session was clearly explained at the beginning of the regular session. Ultimately, it is the chair's prerogative to determine if a subject is sensitive enough to put into closed session. In this case, that was the decision, so it's water under the bridge now.

Moving forward, based on statements at the last Council meeting, I believe more will be discussed in the regular session in line with modifications to the governance process. However, I would always rather err on the conservative side and ensure confidential information remains such than risk having it get out into the community. Once out, it cannot be retrieved. There is always the option of releasing information following closed sessions if it's appropriate to do so.

Regarding the issue of knowing how Council members vote, my question to this suggestion would be: what would someone do with that information? In other words, what is the value of knowing that?

The regular session votes are not "anonymous", they simply aren't recorded for individual council members (we only record if a measure is passed). Anyone in the room during regular sessions can clearly see how individual members are voting.

Council members are elected every three years, and four of the 11 council members were appointed to their positions. We don't campaign for the position (at least, I didn't), and the number of members who choose to run for reelection is very small.

You are correct in stating council members may disagree with decisions, and I always appreciate rigorous discussion of issues to ensure all voices are heard and respected. However, once the decision is made (i.e. the vote is taken) it is essential all council members "speak with one voice" in supporting the decision. They may not have like the decision, and may choose to express their unhappiness, but they are obligated (in my view, and I believe in the view of Carver, as well) to comply with the policy and not to wage a campaign against it. Otherwise, the Council would never make any progress. That is, in my view, the meaning of speaking with one voice.

I'm not sure how holding individual members accountable for their positions on specific issues after a vote is taken would benefit the school or its owners. So, given that the current practice, can you explain how this would benefit the school and community?


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