I attended Monday's PTACHC meeting. Stephen Bounds, former hcpss BOE member, and now on the staff of Maryland Association of Boards of Education, was on hand to give a presentation on the role of a Board member. He handed out paper packets of a Power Point presentation, moved through it briskly, touching on the main points.
Then it was time for questions. In addition to Mr. Bounds, present board members Sandra French and Ellen Giles, plus past members Diane Mikulis and Larry Cohen were there to respond as well.
It was interesting how many different questions people raised that touched on responsiveness, accountability, and transparency in one way or another. Some were system-level, some were school-level. But what struck me in the responses was an overall tone-deafness to people's desire to be 'plugged in" and empowered.
Mr. Bounds did an excellent job in his presentation, focusing on the main points of what the job description for a board member looks like. Where he failed, in my opinion, was in truly taking PTACHC members' concerns seriously. He didn't seem willing to go beyond a stock response, nor did most of the other members. (Although Larry Cohen's folksy demeanor was a highlight of the otherwise serious meeting.)
I asked a question about how voters look at this election. I have talked to a lot of parents and community members who are concerned about responsiveness and transparency. So how can we, as voters, evaluate candidates based on these concerns?
He didn't really answer my question. He deflected it. He made light of it. But he didn't truly answer it. He suggested that when people say responsiveness, they really mean "having a board member who will solve my personal problems." He said Howard County has open meetings laws so there is no problem with transparency. End of discussion.
The fact remains--if voters, your constituents, have concerns with responsiveness, transparency, and accountability--those concerns should be your concerns. Question after question was turned back on the asker--you didn't ask the right people, you didn't go to the right meeting, you didn't do it the right way. If I didn't know better, I would assume that the slogan of the Howard County School System is: the Customer Is Always Wrong.
To be clear, the tone was always polite, sometimes puzzled, a few times a bit patronizing. There was no downright rudeness here. But at no time did I get a sense that the concerns of the PTACHC members were truly being heard.
An interesting moment came when a woman stood up and suggested that the school system implement something like the "Tell HoCo" app which has been recently launched to help citizens resort non-emergency problems. I heard someone said, in a rather dismissive tone, "But that's Howard County."
(Wait--aren't we Howard County?)
Anyway, it was very telling to see the enthusiasm as parents heard the explanation of how Tell HoCo works--you report your problem, you are able to watch as your report moves forward, you can also see other similar reports in your area, you know who you can contact for follow-up...
"We couldn't do that." "Student issues are confidential." "You should just call the ombudsman." "That would take too much work." "This isn't really needed."
A parent at my table said quietly, "think of how you could make it work, instead of saying why it can't happen."
Imagine. Issues could be tracked by broader categories--Special Education, Facilities, Course Placement--and the public could see not only how many issues were reported and which ones, but where they originated. How long it took for them to be resolved. Responsiveness, Transparency, Accountability.
If this is public education, and the public gets to vote for Board of Education members, then we as voters have the power to influence what kind of school system we want by choosing board members who share our values and our goals.
In March of the year 2000, Stephen Bounds was running for re-election to the Howard County Board of Education. When asked "Are there any changes you would make to the way the school board operates?" this was his answer.
We can always improve communication, but it might help to first review the available methods of communication with board members, who do not each have administrative assistants as do council members. Each board member is available by phone (home number published), fax, e-mail and letter, in addition to the more formal public hearings, Listening Post, community meetings, PTA and CAC meetings and coffee and conversation sessions. Our meetings are televised live and on tape, and our actions are widely reported in the media. If there are suggestions for other methods of communication or improvement of existing methods, I would be very open to suggestions.
Candidate Virginia Charles said:
Reduce the term of office from six to four years; expand the Board of Education from five to seven members; elect five members from councilmanic districts and two at large. Allow community responses concerning items on the agenda in a Listening Post format after Board of Education meetings. Anyone who sits through a meeting should be able to respond to what went on at that meeting. The Board of Education should allow interaction with some members of the audience (HCEA, PTACHC, and CAC). The yearly Board of Education schedule and quarterly agendas should be published in every PTA newsletter. Minutes should be posted on the HCPSS Web site. The summaries should be done immediately, with the complete minutes following ASAP. Citizens also need to be reminded that any Board of Education meetings are open to all members of the public.
Ms. Charles won. Mr. Bounds lost. And if you read through her statement again, you will see that she advocated for things that we take for granted now.
Think your vote doesn't matter?