26 August 2015: School Board should reassess its value

School board should reassess its value

In last week’s column, I noted Mark Twain’s dismissive attitude toward school boards. Needless to say, Twain was eviscerating.

Unlike my literary hero, I have been on both sides of the school board table, having negotiated a master contract in Summit County in my capacity as teacher association president and served on the Clear Creek board. During those experiences, I dealt with some who brought to mind Twain’s epithet. But I primarily collaborated with stellar, thoughtful citizens who focused on creating sound educational policy.

The difference between the two came down to one element: ego. Those in the former camp came with agendas and operated from I’m-in-charge and I-know-it-all approaches, while those in the latter set ego aside and approached their roles with open, engaging, problem-solving attitudes.

Despite their travails, there is a silver lining to our Jefferson County neighbors’ ordeal. It is probable they will be voting in November on recalling three board members that have made a muck of things there. If successful, their hand-picked superintendent’s days are numbered, and the pursuit for a highly qualified leader will begin.

Here in Clear Creek however, we are not so fortunate. Only two of the five board seats are up for election, which portends business as usual and the district remaining rudderless and adrift for years to come. That will ensure further flight of students and great teachers from CCSD.
The history of in-and-out Clear Creek superintendents over the past decade is local legend. Quite frankly, I’ve lost count.

Interesting though, in that revolving-door group were several distinguished leaders, including Doug Price and Bill Patterson, who both had to exit due to health concerns, and Jeff Miller. That gives evidence Clear Creek can be a place highly qualified, proven leaders would like to work.

Or used to be.

That changed in May 2014 when the Board of Education fired Todd Lancaster, our last qualified superintendent, in an unpleasant scene. After a split vote on whether to retain Lancaster, the BOE privately caucused, thereby violating the sunshine statute. Immediately after, two members flip-flopped, which was shocking given they were solemnly voting on a board’s most critical decision. One wonders what was whispered.

Not only does that speak to the leadership skills of board president Jeanne Biggs, it also calls into question the others’ deliberative skills. Of greater harm, it also made a statement to the professional education universe about how we do business in Clear Creek. And since then, nothing has happened to alter that image.

In conversations with community members and officials, I hear nothing but expressions of frustration with an unavailable superintendent and an increasingly insular board. Courant news reports note the level of distrust and tension between the district and the county.
Public schools lie within the realm of politics and BOE members are politicians accountable to their constituents. And in politics, perception is reality.

While Roslin Marshall is officially the head of the district, the perception is that Biggs is the de facto superintendent. Further, with the likelihood of Biggs remaining at the helm, the district will struggle attracting qualified professionals to consider leading the Clear Creek School District.

The Clear Creek School District is perceived as a hostile environment for superintendents, a place in which their tenure is dependent upon the good graces of a coterie of staff and teachers.

In the real world of public school governance, a school board hires one employee: the superintendent. Once hired, he/she takes control hired and the board recedes, avoiding any appearance of micro-managing. It can be a tricky course, but one that skilled professionals can navigate.

That doesn’t happen, however, when the superintendents are hand-picked, as they have been in Jeffco and Clear Creek, and not publicly and competitively vetted among several candidates.

No one, other than board members, knows the details of the history and the merits of Lancaster’s case. At this point it’s not germane, but what remains relevant is the board’s handling of the situation and how it has blithely and breezily gone on as if it were no big deal.

And therein lies the rub: As long as this board remains intact, the Clear Creek School District will remain off-limits to highly qualified prospective leaders.

It is time for the other board members, especially Biggs, to reconsider whether their ongoing presence is in fact a help or deterrence for the Clear Creek schools and community. And if not helpful, do the ethical thing by resigning.

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