CH-UH BOE should be able to hear directly from all school stakeholders
What are boards of education elected to do? According to adopted policies, their primary purpose is make policies and to hire a superintendent of schools who will enforce them. I would agree with this statement, but would add that they are also elected to ensure that the interests, values and needs of the community they represent are being met in the operation of the schools.
In the Heights we consider ourselves the home to the arts. They are valued in our community, which should be reflected in the priorities of the CH-UH school board. Our school administration understands this and commits resources to the arts—probably not as much as some would like, but much more than many other school districts in Ohio.
How the school board becomes aware of what is happening in the schools and how it acts based on the interests of the community are big questions. As an employee of the school district, I am sure that I do not want board members micromanaging what goes on in my school or classroom, yet I want them to have a level of awareness so they can make informed decisions. They should get their information from the superintendent and administration, parents, students and non-administrative employees. You can learn a lot about what is happening in a school if you talk to the administrative assistants, for instance.
According to board policy, the only communication a district employee should have with a board member is through the superintendent. This policy does not preclude discussions at social events, but should not include specific grievances that should be handled through other procedures. This limitation makes it difficult to get information to board members in order for them to get a complete picture of what is happening throughout the district. Board members only have access to what the superintendent wants them to see, which assumes that the superintendent has a good handle on what is going on. The board may or may not be able to change this policy because the only policies it can adopt are—you guessed it—ones that are recommended through the superintendent (usually through legal counsel).
What I see is a lot of filtering of facts and information. This has been going on for a long time, and is not new to our current superintendent. It seems to me that to be able to make truly informed decisions, board members need to get some of their information from staff members. I envision an elected board that speaks freely with, and elicits information and opinions from, a variety of constituents. We talk about transparency in decision-making, but what does that mean? We need a board that has a presence in our schools often, that talks to parents and students about their experiences and needs, in addition to getting information from the administration.
Reaching Heights Director Krista Hawthorne has pulled together a large group of people from different Heights organizations involved in the schools to discuss how important decisions are made and communicated. (I am a member of the group, as a representative of the teachers union.) The group will be pushing for ways for the board and administration to seek input from a large group of stakeholders. This is not always easy to do, but there are many missed opportunities and lessons to be learned when decisions are made [based on] limited viewpoints.
The group believes the board should hold the superintendent and administration responsible for proving that everything possible was done to ensure that nothing important was missed before a recommendation was given. This is what separates public entities from private corporations. There are multiple stakeholders to be considered before boards of education make decisions. The process takes longer and is more frustrating, but it is the right way to ensure that decisions that affect many people have the support needed and are in the best interests of the whole community.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.