Amid transition, D97 board parses governance

? Just how the board oversees district a matter of intense discussion with new superintendent on eve of arrival.

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By DREW CARTER

Finding itself at a watershed moment, with two new members elected in April and a new superintendent coming July 1, the District 97 Board of Education met twice in the past month to discuss roles and responsibilities.

Led by Bill Attea, the consultant who helped find incoming Supt. Connie Collins, a central issue to the discussions was how involved the board and community should be in the daily operations of the district.

Management of the district is the superintendent's job, Attea said, while developing vision and providing oversight?#34;governance?#34;was the board's responsibility.

The once philosophical discussion found a tangible application at the board's regular June 7 meeting. Recently elected board member Julie Blankemeier asked if the board could see copies of principal evaluations completed by parents and teachers.

Supt. John Fagan said the board could not because of an "oral contract" with principals and teachers that stipulated the information would be used for principals' advisory use only.

But the comment sparked a brief discussion on management vs. governance, with board member Marcia Frank saying regular review of principal surveys would "approach micromanagement."

Frank said her thoughts on governance crystallized with the Attea sessions, and were built on "single-issue" concerns brought to the board table. In recent years, the board has emphasized the need for parents to recognize a "chain-of-command" approach to handling concerns: first address the concern to the person directly involved, then go up the chain, rather than skipping directly to the board.

"We still need community participation and interaction," Frank said, drawing a line between community input and parents who look to the board to solve a management problem.

"The board in my mind is a vital link between the school district and the community," board President Carolyn Newberry Schwartz wrote in an email. "I believe we need to find ways to 'convene the community' to ensure that we clarify purpose, vision, and direction for our schools."

After the meeting, Blankemeier explained that she hoped to view the surveys as a tool to gauge success in schools, one of many "dash board controls," such as standardized test scores, monitoring district progress.

While it's not the board's responsibility to handle day-to-day operational matters, it must provide oversight of the district, Blankemeier said.

"It's hard for me to see how to oversee the district without information to base that on," Blankemeier said. "I think success in our schools is so much more than test scores."

"We have oversight and people expect us to exercise it," said board member Sharon Patchak-Layman.

Newberry Schwarz said in an interview that assessing satisfaction at schools is important, and ways to measure it at each school have been written into the principals' contract. The surveys now given to parents and teachers "are not designed as satisfaction surveys," she said.

Attea talked about a "gray area" between the lines of management and governance. Newberry Schwartz and others believe in limiting that area. She said the board and parents aren't professional educators and don't have the experience to make day-to-day decisions. Also, if they were to do so, board members could lose their sense of direction and compromise the extent to which the board could hold faculty and staff accountable for their decisions.

Also, keeping the board out of daily operations makes for a more efficient board, allowing it more time to ponder vision, direction and things within its purview, Schwartz said.

But Patchak-Layman disagrees. She sees a "very large" gray area where the board deals with management issues, and that oversight depends on dipping into those responsibilities.

Where is the line drawn on how much input the board or community members should have on day-to-day operations?

"I think it's pretty far down the line," Patchak-Layman said, based on the premise that there are many ways to do education. If the community identifies a viable alternative to the "way" administrators have chosen, shouldn't the community's wishes be granted?

Newberry Schwartz said the community should be involved from the start, with community input informing and guiding the development of the "way," giving examples of the World Language Program and School Leadership Teams as examples.

Frank said she gauges the gray area by asking herself, "Is this my role or is this the role or responsibility of someone else in the district?" She's in the right place if she decides she's acting on behalf of all schools, Frank said.

"We are elected to fill that vote on behalf of everybody in Oak Park," Newberry Schwartz said. "I don't have a discrete constituency in Oak Park."

But Patchak-Layman believes she needs to represent the constituency that elected her.

"You're coming on [the board] because you see that way about an issue," she said. "I don't think being a representative...says that you blindly vote just on their interests."

Newberry Schwartz called the governance discussion "vital," said there is a direct link between high-achieving schools and effective boards.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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