School Board Concerned About Public Perception

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The Payson School Board at a weekend retreat fretted about criticisms that it too often rubber-stamps the recommendations of Superintendent Casey O’Brien, and grappled with the relationship between the elected board and the hired administrators.

“We’re being scrutinized more than ever before,” said board member Kim Pound, who has in the past expressed frustration with the board’s role.

“There are some people on this board that are irritated when you ask a question,” said board member Barbara Shepherd who, like Pound, is a newcomer on a tight-knit board.

Board President Barbara Underwood said the public does not fully understand the complexities of the school’s budget and the limits on the authority of individual board members.

“The people don’t know the big picture. They wonder why are you laying off when you turn right around and hire,” she said.

Pound agreed, in a wide-ranging discussion as the board sought its balance after months of controversy and trauma involved closing a million-dollar deficit by closing Frontier Elementary School, trimming the personnel rolls by about two dozen positions and changing the grade level makeup of the two remaining elementary schools.

The board has recently approved new hires, some to fill necessary niches like math and science teachers and some to replace key employees who quit after the board approved layoffs two months ago.

“The public perception is that we have more power than we really do,” said Pound.

“The public sometimes thinks we’re not doing our job — that we’re just rubber-stamping stuff. But we can’t just bring something up in a meeting (due to the open meetings laws). But when you try to explain it, they look at you like you’re hiding something — especially in tough times.”

The discussion of the proper role of board members and how the board should deal with the superintendent came during a six-hour retreat mediated by Karen Beckvar, a leadership specialist for the Arizona School Boards Association.

Beckvar urged the board to respect the chain of command in the district, by mostly working through the superintendent.

“But we don’t work for Casey,” objected Pound at one point.

“Oh, absolutely. He works for you. I’ve never met a superintendent who didn’t understand that,” said Beckvar. “But everyone else works for him.”

The wide-ranging discussion amounted to a debriefing after a tour of budget combat. The forced budget cuts provoked repeated, long, difficult meetings this spring as the district grappled with the impact of both state cuts and declining enrollment. By the end of the meeting, the board seemed to have both healed wounds and resolved to better explain themselves in public meetings.

In the past six months, the board has had to lay off veteran teachers, shuffle administrators, close a school, make dramatic changes in attendance boundaries and even impose sharp limits on payouts for unused sick days for long-term employees, despite strenuous objections from the district’s teachers.

Throughout that ordeal, the board voted unanimously on most key decisions and almost always in support of O’Brien’s recommendations. The board members rarely explained their votes during the public sessions.

At the retreat, the board members pondered whether their desire to present a common front had fueled the impression that they were rubber-stamping O’Brien’s recommendations. Each board member said that they agonized about the decisions, researched the options in depth and talked to O’Brien and other administrators one-on-one outside the meetings to understand their choices.

“I’m going to start explaining my votes (during the meeting),” said board member Rory Huff. He said he had perhaps tried too hard to make meetings shorter and more focused, in reaction to frequent 4-hour board meetings when he first started. Currently, board meetings often take about one hour.

Shepherd said board members must feel free to ask questions, explain their votes and question people who make presentations.

Beckvar urged board members to get many of their technical questions answered ahead of time and also ask questions that will help the public understand the issues in public session.

She suggested the board members tell the superintendent ahead of time when they plan to seek answers in public session, so the superintendent can have an answer ready.

“But it seems like the other board members are always trying to rein me in,” said Shepherd.

Huff added, “Maybe that’s partly my fault: When I first got on the board, the meetings would go to 10 o’clock. You lose the public. You lose everything.”

Shepherd said the board puts too many things on the consent agenda, which precludes discussion. Board members can ask the board president to pull any item off the consent agenda for individual discussion, which the president virtually always does.

On the other hand, Beckvar warned the board members that the open meeting law prevents them from meeting in smaller groups ahead of time to work out common positions.

They can talk to one other board member or to the administration — but as soon as they talk to a third board member they run the risk of violating the open meeting law.

“People want to see how you made the decision. It’s OK to disagree in a board meeting — it’s not OK to be disagreeable to one another.”

But Matt Van Camp said that some previous board members have used their position on the board to settle personal scores and work out their own agenda. “We had a board member with a hidden agenda that didn’t come out until he left. I just felt burned.”

“Coming onto the board is a big job — and a thankless job sometimes,” said Pound.

“This is the most positive thing I’ve done in my life,” said Van Camp. “Those positive impacts are so rewarding.”

Pound said that he has struggled to determine the limits of his role as a board member and sometimes felt like an outsider.

Huff said “the three existing board members (Huff, Underwood and Van Camp) developed as a family because we went through hell” during an even more contentious round of layoffs last year.

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