Monday, March 20, 2006

Governing those who govern: Part Duo / A response

Thanks to William Reed Rising, the first person to comment non-anonymously this blog! Woo-hoo! If you haven't read Bill's comment, please click on the "comment" button at the bottom of the March 17th blog.

Bill raises many of the issues that came up at last week's JIS school council meeting -- and issues that I've heard informally around the campuses as well. They definitely merit further discussion, so here goes nothing! (Since Bill's response was thoughtful and long, I'll take it point by point, with Bill's comments in green, just to make it clearer. Get out your eye-toothpicks!)

"Regarding the suggestion to post agenda items for all sessions..., I was under the impression agendas for regular sessions were being posted on school bulletin boards...."

Yes, it's possible that council posts agendas on school bulletin boards, but I imagine they're not the handiest source of information for working parents (my husband, for example, rarely hangs around at school, and when he does, it's in the gyms -- not near bulletin boards). If it's too inconvenient for council to post its meeting agendas on the internet, then I can run over to the school and find out -- and then post the agenda on this website. But that doesn't seem like the best way to do it....

"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."

Well, there we disagree. The definition of "closed session agendas" in many school districts isn't at all as restrictive as the one you describe, so therefore, there isn't a universally accepted definition. And the Policy Governance Manual, itself, is silent on the issue open vs. closed meeting agendas. (Again, for those who haven't downloaded the Policy Governance Manual, you'll find it on the JIS ParentNet in the Council section.) The PGM does say, however, that "closed meetings will be held to discuss sensitive matters not in the interest of the individuals concerned or of the School as a whole" (PGM, policy 4.3.h.3).

I'd argue that a pilot project of special services for a specific segment of the school population is in the interest of the individuals concerned and the school as a whole. If you don't think so, ask the parent of a child who has a "shadow teacher" in his or her class! Any change in the school program affects students -- and therefore should be discussed in open session. There are ways to protect the confidentiality of specific students and have a debate. (And for the record, I'm 100-percent supportive of the Level II support services program. It's good not just for the kids receiving the special services, but for all the students in the classroom. I've taught with shadow teachers in the class -- it's win-win for everyone.)

And lastly, the distinction between open and closed board meetings doesn't exist because of the agenda. These two meetings styles are different because of how they're held: in public or not.

"In my view, posting a closed session agenda would initiate discussions of sensitive issues which are not intended for open discussion...and likely would fuel uninformed 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."

This is actually a scary proposition, especially if the issues under discussion in a closed session are about educational policy. Educational policy affects ALL students at JIS. We need to find ways to have sensitive discussions without compromising confidentiality. If we assume good intentions on the part of the community (and since the goal of everyone is to make sure children are getting the best possible education, that's probably a good assumption), then we should assume a constructive, rather than destructive discussion.

Of course, that assumes that community has the information necessary to be informed participants in the discussion. Under the current scenario, that's not the case. People know something's being talked about (after all, the Pilot Program already had been the subject of two public sessions -- one at PEL and another at PIE). But the community doesn't understand why it's so sensitive or why council can't discuss it while respecting confidentially. It just looks suspicious.
Debate makes people smarter, and while you'll never get the community to agree 100 percent, you can at least explain your positions and why they make sense.

"I'd be 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...that should be?"

It's a big issue because we send our children to JIS for seven hours each day. We'd like to know the educational issues being discussed and decided on in council. You're talking about our children. That's it, pure and simple. In terms of whether there are specific subjects hidden away in closed session that should see the light of open session, I have no idea. To quote that famous anonymous philosopher: You don't know what you don't know.

Your very question points to the answer. Public agendas create trust. Trust is necessary for a collaborative relationship. Secret agenda items turn a climate sour and distrusting.

"The suggestion of having individual votes recorded and made public is not consistent with the Carver model of Council "speaking with one voice."

I think the Carver model's call for "one voice" has been massively misinterpreted by council. Carver says, "If a board seriously intends to speak with only one voice, it must declare that the staff can safely ignore advice and instructions from individual trustees, that only the explicit instructions of the board must be heeded." (Click here for the full article by John Carver.) In other words, once council makes a decision, an individual council member can't try to undermine that decision. The headmaster and his/her staff must be able to trust that decisions will stand as council has voted.

But Carver goes on to clarify the "one voice" stipulation: "Commitment to the authoritative unity of the board in no way compromises board members' right to speak their minds. Vigorous disagreement among trustees does not damage governance....In short, trustees who disagree with the vote may continue to say so, but may not influence organizational direction."

Regardless of the governance model, common sense should rule. Revealing the opinions and votes of individual council members helps educate the people who elected them -- and who will be asked, perhaps, to elect them again next year or the year after.

"...Sunshine Laws are not relevant because JIS is not a public institution....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've heard this a few times: the "this is not America" argument for why JIS shouldn't be as transparent as possible.
I fully understand that JIS isn't an American school. It doesn't have to follow the laws of the United States. But I think parents have a reasonable expectation that an international school, founded by the embassies of three democratic countries, would at least govern itself in a manner that reflects the values of those three countries. Secret agenda items, anonymous votes, and closed meetings for issues that should be addressed in public ... these types of things don't fit in with democratic values. I'm just saying, " let's look at the current governance process and see if it's the best it could be, given all the goals it's trying to achieve."

Oh my gosh...that hurt. If you're still reading, kudos! You officially qualify as an education wonk! If you think this discussion is something that could take place in a bigger way, please suggest it in the comment section (or to a member of council, whose names and email addresses are available on the JIS ParentNet website).


At 6:06 PM, Blogger Janet Johnston said...

With respect to the matter of posting agendas of upcoming SC meetings, the bylaws stipulate that "An announcement of each Council meeting as well as an agenda shall be posted prominently in the school, preferably a week in advance" (see section C under Meetings of the School Council). So,there shouldn't be any issue about posting agendas. However, they haven't been posted very often in the past and I'm pleased that we can look forward to this happening more consistently in future.

As to their being posted on a school notice board, aside from being consistent with the by-law, it works for me! Anyone who frequents the Cilandak campus can easily look at what's new on the notice board - lots of different moral owners pass by it every day! Obviously, it makes sense to also post the agenda on the net, for the benefit of those who aren't on campus regularly.

It would be a nice touch if copies of the agenda and any relevant papers being discussed in open session were made available to people who are interested enough to attend the open sessions of SC.

The approved minutes of SC meetings are also to be compiled and available in the school libraries. However, on visiting the HS and MS libraries last week, many sets of minutes approved in the past year were missing from the binders. Can someone please look into this on-going lapse?

With respect to closed sessions, it was reassuring to hear that SC is considering a revision of the relevant wording in the PGM, as the current wording doesn't make sense. It appears that a key phrase was omitted when the section was otherwise lifted from the old policy manual. Section 2.602 read in part "The School Council...shall hold a closed session to discuss sensitive matters the disclosure of which would not be in the interest of individuals concerned or of the school as a whole".

In both the former and current sections, the key word is, of course, "sensitive". While all confidential matters are sensitive, not all sensitive matters are confidential. Some matters, such as as the Level II program, surely warrant discussion in open session, with any truly confidential aspects of the discussion saved for the closed session. Indeed, SC has conducted its business in this manner in the past, discussing part of an issue in open session and part in closed.

Finally, I'd like to thank Cheryl for her initiative in starting this blog and all the participants and readers who will help make it a valuable contribution to the JIS community.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger William Reed Rising said...

Hi Janet,
Thanks for the input. Since I'm officially responsible for SC documents, I'll discuss with the Administration to ensure regular session agendas and minutes are properly posted both on the bulletin boards and the JIS website, and minutes in the libraries are complete and current.

As for the wording of the purpose of closed sessions, I believe this and a number of governance issues will be reviewed by the Governance Process committee, which is doing a wholesale review of the governing documents to ensure alignment between the articles of association, by-laws, and policy. As was stated by the vice-chair during the March 15 regular session, the hierarchy of governance documents is articles of association, by-laws, minutes (since these are actually legal documents), and policy (changes to which are determined by the minutes).

The governance document review and alignment won't be a quick or easy task, but I'm personally optimistic (as is my nature) the SC will have everything cleaned up before the end of the school year.

The results of the Administration's decision on the Level II program was announced in last week's bulletin. I believe SC will be pushing as much into regular session as possible, so as long as people assume there is a sincere intention to make public what is appropriate to make public, I'm confident such issues won't be misunderstood or misinterpreted in the future.

However, there will need to be a recognition on the part of the community that closed session agendas and minutes are not appropriate for public disclosure (what, after all, would be the point of releasing agenda and not the minutes?). As long as people can accept this and don't harbor suspicions of "secret agendas", I think we can then all focus on the more important issues and challenges facing JIS in a collaborative and positive manner.


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