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A Winters Express op-ed column

The phrase “Let them eat cake,” attributed to Marie Antoinette prior to the French Revolution, is a dubious attribution that has often been used to illustrate the frequent detachment from reality of those in government.

On June 3, the school board of trustees approved a no-bid contract for an equity consultant to provide a total of eight and a half days of professional development for $34,000. That is equivalent to the daily rate of a $1,040,000 per year salary.

In that meeting, trustee comments made this seem like it was a foregone conclusion that this was a ‘yes’ vote. Unsurprisingly, the approval was unanimous. After all, there is an awful lot of agreement in this city at all levels of government. The trustees had little substantive discussion on the contract.

I don’t believe the exact contract price was ever read aloud. Trustee comments were mostly cheerleading and affirmations that this professional development for Trustees and Administrators — people with no direct instructional contact with students — represents an investment in the children.

School board meetings typically start with Board President Carrie Green opening the period for public comment saying “this is the public’s chance to provide comment on non-agenda items….” But, there is no appreciable opportunity during the meeting flow for public comment on agenda items. I’ve noted that neither the superintendent nor the board of trustees regularly stop to check for public input. Items are addressed in rapid succession until they adjourn to closed session for their monthly superintendent performance review.

I suppose that if you email your comment ahead of time it, would be read into the record, but zero time is afforded to the public to address the elected officials of the Winters Joint Unified School District on agenda items directly. The third estate must be allowed to speak on action items after hearing the proposal presentations.

The school board should take notes from the way public comment is facilitated by city council: the mayor asks if there is any input from the public before any vote is called or the topic is closed. The time limit is more of a guideline than a hard stop, and people can speak multiple times. This is the way.

Prior to this motion to approve the contract, no one checked for public input. Meeting chat was (and is always) turned off. No one checked for raised hands to speak. I know at least one person tried. I’m not sure how anyone could have submitted questions beforehand since the presentation and statements given by the superintendent were not part of the publicly available board packet.

My issue with this approach to public comment, or lack thereof, is primarily procedural. I have no opinion on whether an equity consultant is needed. I don’t know enough about the intricacies of what and how students learn. I’m an operations, finance, business, and strategy guy. But, frankly, as many as four of five board members may not know either, since they’re not educators and only on their fifth month of the job.

For that matter, the superintendent hasn’t finished a full school year in the Winters district yet, so her contextual knowledge of issues may also be improved with opportunities for public comment.

Performance data was briefly mentioned in a different agenda item, though without substantive analysis. The major issue I heard is that students who speak English poorly, and receive instruction in English, perform below grade level for multiple metrics. Have we tried putting emphasis on language development?

Already, this consultant thing seems easy. How do I get $4,000 per day for these ideas?

More in-depth discussion should have been had on the testing data, or a brainstorming session with the site administrators and educators. I suggest getting input from the people who see issues first hand and find out what they need to succeed. Identify, define, and work the problem.

Lack of analysis and public input aside, I wonder how expensive professional development for school board trustees and site administrators, trickles down to students and is it effective?

What value does this offer beyond the Professional Learning Network lessons, led by the same instructor, in which the district has already participated? Would applying the same funding to yet-uncovered areas of professional development yield better educational results for kids in the district in the areas they need help?

We won’t know, because trustees did not ask those questions and the public wasn’t afforded the opportunity to weigh in. That is a systematic problem that could be addressed with a new procedural approach to public comment.

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