The Clarke County School Board’s planned day-long goal setting session on Wednesday didn’t require anywhere near a full day to complete. With elections just around the corner that ensure replacement of at least two of the current board members, the School Board needed less than three hours to affirm its confidence in Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy’s leadership in improving test scores and rejected efforts by School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post) to overhaul the International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, and Dual Enrollment programs.
Twelve school staff members, including all of the school principals, assembled for the session along with all five school board members and several citizens. The meeting became contentious from the start when School Board member Bouffault expressed her dissatisfaction and surprise with the agenda for the meeting.
“I’m sorry to say that I’m really disappointed that we were not given the opportunity to see this agenda,” Bouffault said. “The agenda really doesn’t respond to what I would consider a school board member’s retreat.”
Bouffault also protested that the agenda had not been distributed until 7:00pm on the evening before the meeting, saying that the meeting had been discussed for several weeks, but also because she believed that it didn’t address the substantive questions that had been raised at two previous School Board work sessions focused on advanced education and vocational issues.
“Several of these questions, for example ‘What do we value’ I would put in the ‘DUH’ category,” Bouffault said.
Bouffault’s attempts to adjust the agenda failed.
“Actually I was hoping to offer an alternate agenda, one that is more dedicated towards the retreat and towards the questions I thought we were going to have an open and frank discussion about – the good things that we’ve done as well as the things that need improvement.”
Bouffault suggested that the meeting’s focus should be on comparing the goals stated in a 2008 School Board position paper with what the Board had accomplished to date. However, other members disagreed and blocked Bouffault’s attempt to modify the meeting agenda through rules of order.
“We had a very concise position paper, the education goals that we put down were very clear,” Bouffault said. “Dr. Murphy in his entry plan of June 12th 2008 addressed each of the goals in two or three phrases and he said that he was going to do this through the prism of our position paper. So I think that this is the logical place to start.”
School Board Member Janet Alger (Russell) disagreed.
“That position paper was in 2008 and it needed to be reworked as I said at one of the last board meetings,” Alger replied. “And the other thing is, this agenda, to be changed, we have to have a unanimous vote because this is a special meeting.”
When Bouffault persisted in her demand, Alger continued to object.
“We need to have an overall vision and goal and direction,” Alger said. “That is what we need to do first before we can formulate. We can’t go backwards and look at the plan and see how it flies. You have to have a vision.”
“Janet we had a vision,” Bouffault responded.
School Board member Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh) attempted to intervene between Bouffault and Alger by suggesting that the meeting agenda be reordered but Rhodes quickly expressed frustration when she encountered an agenda item labeled “Review and Discussion of School Board Foundations and Basic Commitments.”
“Let’s change agenda item five to item four because no one really knows what item four is,” Rhodes said.
“I know what item four is,” replied Superintendent Murphy.
“What is four?” Rhodes replied.
“Four” replied Dr. Murphy “Is the piece that I think that we are seriously missing in the Clarke County Public Schools. ‘Four’ talks about those basic foundations and commitments that school boards undertake in their work. Whether or not we like VSBA Policy Services, whether we like the VSBA or not, the VSBA has, in their policy manual, a section called ‘Foundations and Commitments’. ”
Murphy said that he believed that the VSBA Foundations and Commitments are the basic fundamental premises that school boards should operate under. Murphy said that while CCPS had down very well under two of the VSBA “Foundations” – school division legal status and nondiscrimination – other management oversight areas were lacking.
“We work very hard not to discriminate and we have a legal status. The school board is a legal entity,” Murphy said. “VSBA proposes, though, that every school board should have an educational philosophy, a policy that defines their philosophy, what is it that we believe. We have no underpinnings that would suggest that policy, at least that I can find. The VSBA has a policy that suggests guidance for goals and objectives. The purpose of this meeting today was to talk about goals and objectives. They have a policy that describes what a comprehensive plan looks like. And they even have a policy that says that the school board should annually evaluate its operational procedures.”
“We have two of the six,” Murphy said referring to the VSBA guidance. “I think that in some ways without a conversation about what your guiding organization, about your support organization even suggests, I think that it sets us up for having to come back and do this whole conversation again.”
Although School Board Chairman Barbara Lee (Millwood) offered to delete the ‘Foundations and Commitments’ agenda item it was too late to quell Bouffault’s discontent over the direction that the meeting appeared t be headed.
“Although I think that we can have a discussion about school board foundations and commitments, I don’t think that that is the discussion that we had in mind for our retreat,” Bouffault said. “We’ve had three years of student performance declines and what we need to do is to address that in future goals – which I wouldn’t even call goals. I would call them recommendations to the incoming board.”
Bouffault’s statement rekindled the most recent issue to divide the School Board; recent declines in student test scores and the proper strategy for improving student performance.
“I just want to say publicly that the staff and administrative team here certainly take offense to the blanket statement of three years decline in scores. We work very, very hard. We’ve done a very good job of raising up certain segments of our population. I think that we were all quite surprised by our SAT scores. I’m not sure that a one point decline from three years ago to two years ago is necessarily indicative of a declining score as much as it is of an adjustment of the standard deviation,” Murphy replied.
As the discussion progressed Bouffault was not the only School Board member to lose patience with the philosophical nature of the meeting discussion.
“I’m just listening to a lot of this and right now it just sounds like a lot of fluff from what I’m hearing,” said Emily Rhodes after nearly an hour of discussion had passed. “I think what we need to do is get down to talking about some of our specific goals. I don’t want to sit here today and listen to a bunch of different philosophies on education. Let’s just do it and make our recommendations.”
While yesterday’s School Board goals session touched on several issues – including Clarke’s excellent on-time graduation rate and very low drop-out rate, the Board’s commitment to maintaining its advanced education programs as well as its desire to do more to support vocational programs – at the end of the session the School Board moved only to endorse four generically worded “Board Goals” taken verbatim from the Washington County, Maryland School District.
After the meeting School Board Chairman Barbara Lee said that she was very satisfied with the outcome of the session.
“We had planned to set goals and that is what we were able to do,” Lee said.
Bouffault’s perception differed with Lee’s.
“The meeting was a disappointment for me,” Bouffault said. “There was a complete avoidance of any discussion of why student performance has been declining over the last three years. There was no admission that performance has been declining and my concern is that it will continue to happen.