When six Fresno Unified trustees and the superintendent traveled to Boston this summer, it wasn’t so they could take in a ballgame at Fenway Park, go on a sightseeing tour of the Boston Common or Old North Church, or tuck into a Cape Cod picnic.
Their destination was Harvard University, the site of a weeklong development program for big-city school officials that they uniformly described as “intense,” with days that started early and ended late, and after-hours homework for upcoming sessions.
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They said they learned a lot, such as that compared to other school districts in the nation, Fresno is doing pretty well; that it’s OK if school board members don’t agree all the time, but they need to maintain a collaborative spirit; and that the district would benefit by bringing in an outside consultant to evaluate which programs are working, and which aren’t.
The Accelerating Board Capacity Institute was custom-designed for the Council of the Great City Schools by Harvard faculty for nearly 100 school board members and administrators from 18 of the nation’s largest urban school districts, some with decades of experience but others with much less.
The institute’s focus was on developing strong and effective school board governance, using case studies from the business world that education officials could apply to their decision-making processes.
It Was No Vacation
Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson, who paid for the trip for himself and the six trustees out of his rarely-used district travel budget, said the benefits far outweighed the cost.
“People could say, ‘How could you spend that much money to fly all the way to Boston with all your trustees?’ If it gets us to a better place of governance and sends a message to the community that we are unified and we can get our stuff together on behalf of our kids, (it’s) worth every dollar that was expended on it.”
The district has paid $32,021 so far, with receipts yet to come from trustee Terry Slatic, district spokeswoman Vanessa Ramirez said Friday.
Nelson said the district’s active role with the Council of the Great City Schools — trustee Valerie Davis was on the council’s executive committee that planned the training, and other district officials have contributed time and effort to council activities in the past — was repaid with invitations to the institute for all seven trustees and himself. Board president Claudia Cazares, citing personal and work obligations, did not make the trip to Boston.
The Washington, D.C.-based Council of the Great City Schools aims to improve education for children in inner cities by connecting urban school district personnel and also by keeping policymakers and the public aware of the needs of larger urban districts. Fresno Unified, California’s third-largest school district, is one of the council’s 76 members.
Davis, however, says Fresno “jumped the line” in front of other districts because of the seemingly endless political and public relations challenges that have embroiled the board for months.
“We were definitely a candidate to show up to learn something,” she said.
The trip to Harvard came the same month that Slatic was accused by parents of overstepping his authority when he told Bullard cheerleaders to stop talking about the so-called “blackface” incident involving a JV cheerleader or risk losing their place on the squad.
The complaints in July were the latest in a series levied against Slatic. And no sooner had they returned from Harvard, the trustees were considering — and approving — a resolution to censure Slatic, stripping him of some board leadership duties and of his indemnification from any legal actions taken against him as a board member, and requiring him to attend an anger management program.
Staying On Track
Will the lessons learned at Harvard be lost, overshadowed by continued drama and conflict? Board members and Nelson say they don’t think so.
Trustee Veva Islas said she’s already seeing evidence that trustees are using what they learned at Harvard. One example is the type of thoughtful questioning she hears now.
But district officials says there’s clearly a need to move past conflict into reconciliation and restoration — and then onward to tackle the district’s main mission of providing the best education possible to students in a district where many struggle to make the grade.
“Our kids have no time, for any of that,” Nelson said. “They don’t have the luxury of waiting for us to get our act together.”
How They Were Divvied Up
To encourage candor and straightforward talk, and also to make sure that no state open-meetings laws were violated, participants at the institute were grouped in “families” with officials from other districts.
They were presented case studies that helped them think about and learn how to approach decision-making and problem-solving from a different angle.
Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said one case study shed light on risk tolerance with a scenario about a race car driver and whether a car was safe to drive, with information being gradually parceled out. She said it was apparent not everyone is as risk-averse as she is.
Islas said that when participants were gradually provided information and asked to make decisions with the information at hand, sometimes those decisions would change once all the information was available.
It’s OK to Have Second Thoughts
Another takeaway from the institute is that board members need to have the confidence to revisit their decisions when necessary, and to keep an open mind when gathering information before making a decision in the first place, trustee Carol Mills said. A lot can depend on how a question is framed or whether a questioner is “over-confident” about already knowing the answer, she said.
Mills said professor Francesca Gino, author of “Rebel Talent,” talked about decision-making and the importance of approaching decisions with a different mindset.
“She talked about how sometimes you can be overly reliant on readily available info and not ask for the deeper, harder information,” she said. “Sometimes when people have a predisposition, they only look for the information that confirms it, instead of looking at the information that might alter that predisposition.”
Another case study outlined one company’s drive for excellence that included awarding bonuses to employees who skipped family birthdays and anniversaries because they were “all in” for the company, Davis said. To achieve excellence, there is often the need for sacrifice, she said.
It’s OK to Disagree
Several board members noted that one of the key points of the conference was an emphasis on the ability of a successful, collaborative board to agree to disagree at times. Board members and staff need to know that they may safely raise questions without fear of attack. Not every board vote has to be 7-0.
If nothing else, board members can be a role model for students who are learning how to be graceful, and not offended or hurt, in defeat. “Welcome to life,” said Nelson. “You’re not getting your way 100% of the time.”
Trustee Keshia Thomas said she was glad that Fresno Unified board members are still maintaining a sense of collegiality after disagreements, unlike other school boards that are riven by in-fighting to the point of a state takeover.
“Besides the mishaps that we’ve had with our fellow trustee and his choices in the district, I have to say that I’m really happy that we have the board that we have, because many people aren’t able to collaborate the way that we do,” she said.
Talking to Peers Around the Nation
Exposure to officials from other big-city school districts let newer trustees interact with veterans at the institute. Slatic, one of three Fresno Unified trustees elected for the first time last November, said that he was flabbergasted to discover that Philadelphia schools have 31 elevator operators, even though none of their elevators have worked for the past five years. Their jobs are protected by union rules.
“When you look at stuff like that, Fresno’s … problems don’t seem as insurmountable,” he said. “We don’t have problems with our unions — on our worst day, we don’t have stuff like that.”
At the institute, Slatic said, he could engage with veteran school officials who gave him food for thought about his role as trustee. There are limits, such as the Brown Act, to the conversations he can have with fellow board members in Fresno, he said.
“But you can in this environment, with people who have no skin in the Fresno game, nothing to be gained by punching me in the face or patting me on the back,” he said. “I will say that I will be very carefully scrutinizing my broad definition of my oversight role here going forward and almost certainly narrowing it at least a little bit, consistent with some of the feedback I got from my fellow trustees around the country.”
Several trustees and Nelson say it might be time to have a third-party assessment of the district and its programs, analyzing what’s working and what’s not. Mills and Nelson said they’d like to recruit an outsider like John J-H Kim, a Harvard Business School faculty member and the institute’s lead professor, to evaluate and assess the district’s programs.
Having an outsider’s perspective would be valuable, especially as the district is on the cusp of preparing its next five-year plan, Nelson said. He said he wants to institute a “decision-making protocol” on the district initiatives and programs, evaluating them on their value to each other and also to students.
“I think there’s plate-spinning that we’re not even aware that those things are still spinning,” he said.
With limited resources and seemingly unlimited challenges, it’s up to the trustees to make sure taxpayers’ dollars are being spent wisely, Jonasson Rosas said.
Biggest Bang for the Buck
For example, she wonders which is more effective, tutoring or mentoring? Is one after-school program more successful than another?
In some cases, Jonasson Rosas notes, the district’s hands are tied because programs are linked to grants that require specific spending. But where the district can have an active role in targeting how money is spent, “we need to know which ones are working better than another and make our investment accordingly,” she said.
The new five-year plan will need community input and buy-in if it’s to succeed, Nelson said.
“If our community doesn’t have its fingerprints on it, if our board doesn’t have its fingerprints on it, if they think I’m cramming it down people’s throats, it’s not going to have any weight in the community,” he said.
“I cannot start from ground zero either, so to some degree you need to lean on general ideas … and then use the community to help you refine what it is you want to do.”