Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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Top Five Actions to Stop the Teacher Exodus During COVID and Beyond


 
 
 
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, schools across the United States are on the brink of collapse
 
There is a classroom teacher shortage. 
 
There is a substitute teacher shortage.  
 
There is a bus driver shortage
 
There is a special education aide shortage.  
 
The people we depend on to staff our public schools are running away in droves.  
 
It’s a clear supply and demand issue that calls for deep structural changes.  
 
However, it’s not really new. We’ve needed better compensation and treatment of school employees for decades, but our policymakers have been extremely resistant to do anything about it.   
 
Instead, they’ve given away our tax dollars to corporations through charter and voucher school initiatives. They’ve siphoned funding to pay for more standardized testing, teaching to the test, and ed tech software.  
 
But the people who actually do the work of educating our youth. We’ve left them out in the cold.  
 
Now with the smoldering pandemic and increased impacts on the health, safety and well-being of teachers and other staff, the exodus has merely intensified.  
 
Frankly, I’m not holding my breath for lawmakers to finally get off their collective asses.  
 
We need a popular, national movement demanding action from our state and federal governments. However, in the meantime, there are several things our local school districts can do to stem the tide of educators fleeing the profession.
 
These are simple, cheap and common sense methods to encourage teachers to stay in the classroom and weather the storm.  
 
However, let me be clear. None of these can solve the problem, alone. And even ALL of these will not stop the long-term flight of educators from our schools without better salaries and treatment.  
 


1)    Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks 
 


The list of tasks an average teacher is expected to accomplish every day is completely unrealistic.  
 
Think about it. Just to get through a normal day teachers need to provide instruction, discipline students, grade papers, facilitate classwork, troubleshoot technology, provide written and verbal feedback, counsel disputes, role model correct behavior, monitor the halls, lunches, breakfasts and unstructured time, meet with co-workers, follow Individual Education Plans, scaffold lessons for different learners and learning styles…  
 
The list is truly staggering. 
 
And it never stops. 
 
Researchers have estimated that on average teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day. That’s about 4 decisions a minute. 
 
No one can keep up that pace, day-in, day-out, without strain. No one can do it without their work suffering.  
 
If we truly want to help teachers feel empowered to stay in the profession, we need to reduce the burden. And the best way to do that is to eliminate everything unnecessary from their plates. 

That means no staff meeting just to have a staff meeting. No shotgun scattered initiatives that teachers are expected to execute and we’ll see what will stick. No reams of paperwork. No professional development that wasn’t specifically requested by teachers or is demonstrably useful.

Nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.

 
2) No Formal Lesson Plans

The number one offender is formal lesson plans.  
 
I’m not saying we should tell teachers they don’t have to plan what they’re doing in their classes. I’m not sure how an educator could realistically enter a classroom of students and just wing it.  
 
However, the process of writing and handing in formal lesson plans is absolutely unnecessary. 
 
Teachers gain nothing from writing detailed plans about what they expect to do in their classes complete with reference to Common Core Academic Standards. They gain nothing from acting as subordinates to an all knowing administrator who probably has not been trained in their curriculum nor has their classroom experience teaching it.  
 
For educators with at least 3-5 years under their belts, formal lesson plans are nothing but an invitation to micromanagement.  
 
Should administrators monitor what their teachers are doing? Absolutely. But the best way to do that is to actually observe the teacher in the classroom doing the work. And to conference with the teacher before and after the observation with the goal of understanding what they’re doing and how to best help them improve.  
 
Forcing teachers to set aside time from their already overburdened schedules to fill out lesson plans that administrators don’t have time to read and (frankly) probably don’t have the training or experience to fully comprehend is top down managerial madness.  
 


 
3)    More Planning Time 

Teachers need time to plan.  

It’s pathetic that I actually have to explain this.  

Education doesn’t just happen.

Parents need called. Papers need graded. Lessons need strategized. IEP’s need to be read, understood and put into practice.

All this can only happen within a temporal framework. If you don’t give teachers that framework – those minutes and hours – you’re just expecting they’ll do it at home, after school or some other time that will have to be stolen from their own families, robbed from their own needs and down time.

Every administrator on the planet preaches the need for self-care, but few actually offer the time to make it a reality.

Even if we could discover exactly how much time was necessary for every teacher to get everything done in a given day – that wouldn’t be enough time. Because teachers are human beings. We need time to process, to evaluate, to think and, yes, to rest.

I know sometimes I have to stop wrestling with a problem I’m having in class because I’m getting nowhere. After two decades in the classroom I’ve learned that sometimes you have to give your brain a rest and approach a problem again later from a different vantage point.

I need to read a scholarly article or even for pleasure. I need to watch YouTube videos that may be helpful to my students. I need to get up and go for a walk, perhaps even just socialize for a moment with my coworkers.

None of that is time wasted because my brain is still working. My unconscious is still trying untie the Gordian knot of my workday and when I finally sit down to revisit the issue, I often find it looser and more easily handled.

Administrators must prioritize teacher planning time.

There is no simpler way to put it.

Do not ask your teacher to sub. Do not ask them to attend meetings. Do not ask them to help you plan building wide initiatives – UNLESS you can guarantee it won’t interfere with their plans.


I know this is difficult right now with so many staff falling ill or being so plowed under that they simply can’t make it to work.

However, the more you push them to give up their plans, the more you diminish returns.

Not only will their work suffer but so will their health and willingness to continue on the job.

Some districts are finding creative ways to increase planning time such as releasing students early one day a week. We did that at my district last year and it was extremely helpful to meet all the additional duties required just to keep our building open. However, as the new school year dawned and decision makers decided to simply ignore continuing pandemic issues, this time went away.

Most teachers are in the profession because it’s a calling. They care about doing the best job they can for their students.

If you take away their ability to do that, why would they stay?

 
 


4) Better Communication/ Better COVID Safety  

Communication is a two way street.

You can’t have one person telling everyone else what to do and expect to have a good working relationship.

Administrators may get to make the final decision, but they need to listen to what their teachers tell them and take that into account before doing so.

This means setting aside the proper time to hear what your staff has to say.

Many administrators don’t want to do that because things can devolve into a series of complaints. But you know what? TOUGH.

It is your job to listen to those complaints and take them seriously.

Sometimes just allowing your staff to voice their concerns is helpful all in itself. Sometimes offering them space to speak sparks solutions to problems – and a whole room full of experienced, dedicated educators can solve any problem better than one or two managers locked away in the office.

However, not only do administrators need to listen, they need to speak.

When issues crop up, they need to make sure the staff is aware of what is happening.

This is especially true during the pandemic.

We are so sick of half truths about who has Covid, who is quarantined, what is being done to keep us safe, etc.

No child should return to the classroom after a negative COVID test without the teacher already being appraised.

No child should be placed in quarantine without the teachers knowledge.

No teacher with a prior medical condition should have to serve lunch duty while students eat unmasked.

Safety protocols should be the product of the entire staff’s input. If everyone doesn’t feel safe, no one feels safe.

 


5) Respect 


 
 This is really the bottom line.

Teachers need to feel respected.

We need to know that administrators and school board members understand our struggles and are on our side.

I don’t mean taking a day or even one week out of the year to celebrate Teacher Appreciation. I don’t mean free donuts or coupons to Sam’s Club. I don’t even mean a mug with an inspirational message.

I’m talking about every day – day-in, day-out – respect for teachers.

No union bashing.

No snide comments at school board meetings.

No gossipy whispering in the community.

Being a teacher should mean something to district leaders. And they should prove it in every thing they do.

The items I mentioned here go some ways to showing that respect.

Eliminating unnecessary tasks, not requiring formal lesson plans, respecting our planning time, better communicating and safety measures are all necessary to keeping your teachers in the classroom.

But they are not sufficient.

As a nation we need to change our attitude and treatment of teachers.

No profession exists without them. They create every other job that exists.

We need to start paying them accordingly. We need to start treating them as important as they are. We need to ensure that they have the time, tools and satisfaction necessary to be the best they can be.

No district can do that alone. No school director or administrator can do that.

But these are some ways you can start.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!