Government School Culture 101 – The Board Meeting…Welcome to “The Show”

This is the first in a series of posts about the GSC (Government School Culture) in Beaumont Unified School District. To begin to understand what I mean when I talk about the GSC and the role it plays in local schools, all you have to do is take a look at “The Show”, the School Board Meeting. 

I have been attending Beaumont Unified School District board meetings and listening to their podcasts, so you don’t have to, for quite some time now. I have learned something that most teachers and administrators in government schools learn in their first year of employment, the school board meeting is an orchestrated show for the board members and administrators, and it is their time to perform. They perform in front of a captive audience of their employees who are required to attend and, due to their employment relationship, must be willing participants in the production.

A typical board meeting consists of two parts, a closed session and an open session. The closed session is scheduled to begin at 5 pm and the opens session usually starts around 7 pm. If all the business that must be conducted in the closed session is not completed by 7 pm, the board will reconvene to a closed session after the open session. BUSD board meetings usually last 2 to 3 hours and often don’t end until after 10 pm.

Principals, district office staff, department managers, and others are required to stay through the end of the meeting. It probably isn’t a requirement written in their contracts but when you look at the audience halfway through the meeting it is obvious they all wish they were somewhere else. I know most of the principals are in their schools before 7 am and by the time 10 pm comes around, they are dead tired, I know I am. Parents also get an early start and we look forward to reading to our kids at bed time and wished the meetings would start, and end, earlier.

Board members don't seem to like these meetings running late into the night either but they could do something about it. They think limiting the amount of time parents have to give their opinions and provide input will solve the problem. This hasn’t work. As I told them when they reduced the public speaking time limits last year, very few parents and community members come to speak. Most of the time there are no public speakers. The regularly scheduled comments made at the end of the meeting by the board members, superintendent, union presidents, and the principals’ representative often run longer than 30 minutes. If you really want to shorten the meetings, this is where you need to have time limits. Just listen to my last podcast and you will see what I mean.

Many parents believe when they have a problem, they can come to the meeting and address the school board and they will be listened to. Most parents find out soon enough that the public comment is just part of “The Show”, very few parents make return visits. The administration and board really don’t want parents too involved in their show. David Sanchez, a former BUSD Board President, once told the audience the board meetings are not for the public, they are “our(the board’s) meetings”.  I had many disagreements with Mr. Sanchez over the years but one thing I admire about him is his honesty and he’s not afraid to call it like it is. Educators and administrators tell us they welcome parent involvement but parent involvement to those in the GSC is as welcomed as Kryptonite is to Superman.

I believe the school board has an obligation to provide the administration the leadership and direction to adopt a new culture. I know this is a difficult task, especially when many board members are current or former educators that already embrace the GSC. I have offered solutions to our school board many times as to how they can go about making a change in the culture. I’m going to do it here once again. The following ideas aren’t new to anyone who has followed my blog over the last four years but I think it helps to keep hammering away at the GSC. Maybe it will sink in one day.

The best place to start would be to change “The Show”.

Start by scheduling the open session to begin at 5pm, before the closed session. I am sure board members would be more interested in moving along the open session meeting when they know they still needed to take care of the closed session items. The audience (staff and the public) would be able to go home to their families at a more reasonable hour and more parents, and probably even some kids, would be able to attend. I have often considered bring my daughter with me but the late night meetings have made that prohibitive.

Schedule one meeting a month focusing on parents, family and the community. Hold those meetings at the High School Theater, offer child care and schedule committee meetings and parent workshops before or after the open session. The board could schedule special recognitions, science fair displays, and report presentations to take place at these meetings. The regular business could still be done and more of us would stay to contribute. If this was always the first meeting of the month, parents would start putting it on their calendar and make a habit of attending. Many parents, especially those who stay home all day with their kids, would welcome the opportunity to get out and be with other adults once a month.

In the last board meeting, we heard the teacher's union president, and some board members, tell us they understand that parents want to have more of a say about what happens in our schools. They talked about providing for parents what parents think a charter school will provide. They talked about a district dependent charter school, using district schools and district paid teachers. The reason charter schools are so appealing to parents is the control they believe they will have over the system and the input they will have in developing the culture. If the board and teachers really want to eliminate the parents' demand for a charter school, they have to start by changing the Government School Culture in Beaumont.