The board was lead by Team Trek's Mike Gore in a team building exercise. After reviewing the 7 principles for high performing teams, the board was told that this was to be a forward looking discussion with no blaming. Apparently, an on-line survey had been distributed to the board prior to the retreat. A packet was given to each board member with the survey results. The board was given 15 minutes to silently read the results. They were not discussed among the board or shared with members of the public in attendance.
The board was then asked to go around the table and tell one thing that they would be willing to do to make the board function better then list three things that they would like to see changed in how the board operates. Without seeing the survey packet, it was hard to follow the discussion. But here is what the members said they would be willing to do to improve board relations.
Ken Hoover said he would clearly recognize good ideas, choose his words wisely, and avoid making disagreements personal.
Lisa Parker said she will work on not attacking others when she feels threatened.
Natalie Williams said she will not disengage from difficult discussions.
Mark Dely promised to be a better active listener and not argue so much.
Linda Fisher said she wants to hold others more accountable.
Jason Manuel noted that he served an atypical role on the board. As an education expert, he gets emotional and defensive about those who question his opinion. He promised to work on not being so sensitive.
And here are the three things each board member wants to see changed:
1. Need more open & honest communications without hidden agenda
2. Work on resolving conflicts quickly and readily by working towards finding a consensus with each other.
3. Have healthy discourse without personal attacks.
1. More respect & honor for each other's differences.
2. Act with more respect for ourselves, each other and the community
3. Attempt to resolve conflict directly and quickly (or as quickly as you can in the government).
1. Wants the board to commit to being present at all board events & meetings.
2. Need to listen to understand, not respond.
3. Stick up for one another, take responsibility for board decisions, and hold each other accountable. As a teacher, she is a rule follower and she wants the board to follow its policy in Section 1 to operate as a group and police board members who get off track.
1. Wants the board to come to meetings with an open mind, not with their minds made up and truly deliberate on the issues.
2. Wants the board to share information with each other and the community and spend time reviewing it rather than hurrying up the discussion to leave early.
3. Wants the board to have a joint understanding of their goals and what they are attempting to accomplish.
1. Asked the board to respect each other's differences.
2. Asked them not interrupt each other or take over the discussion.
3. And warned that a dysfunctional board affects the classroom.
The discussion then turned to what "norms" should be adopted by the board. Team Trek Leader Mike Gore noted that the board members agreed on a lot of things that were problematic so he suggested the board turn those problems into "norms." But Ms. Fisher interrupted him, saying that they were behind on the agenda and running out of time. Mr. Dely then said, that he felt the board needed to establish norms before discussing any business. The board then agreed to continue working until 10pm on establishing norms. At this point, individual board members began tossing out ideas:
- Create an emotionally safe environment
- Respect each other despite difference of opinion
- Hold each other accountable (Mike Gore intervened saying must have norms before accountability)
- Clear vision
- Active listening
- Discuss without attacking
- No grudges
- No interruptions
- More discussion and sharing of ideas
- Encourage respectful discussion
- Speak positively about the superintendent, district initiatives, and the board
- Promote the district
- No sarcasm, no berating
Mark Dely suggested working towards a shared consensus. He wants time to discuss ideas at board meetings without feeling rushed to vote on items. He feels that rushed deliberations takes away from time to build a consensus among board members. Mr. Gore intervened and said that Mr Dely's norm was not just about building a consensus but rather included the process of debate. Mr. Manuel interrupted and said that while Mr. Dely was a good debater, he should remember that others on the board do not enjoy debating as much as Mr. Dely does. Then, Natalie Williams jumped in by saying, she wanted the superintendent's role to be respected. She seemed to insinuate that the board should follow the superintendent rather than debate matters but her point was unclear. Even Mr. Gore said he did not understand Ms. Williams' point and turned the conversation back to Mr. Dely's original discussion on consensus, Mr. Gore said that consensus meant total agreement. He suggested that Mr. Dely meant the norm should be to pursue consensus. Mr. Hoover tried to help by suggesting Mr. Dely meant compromise, not consensus. After a few more minutes of this, Mr. Gore said his goodbyes and left the room.
After a brief discussion of whether to end the meeting or keep going, the board decided to continue on and review that TSBA sample chart. The chart contained four categories for the superintendent's designated authority. For some issues, the superintendent has complete authority. For others, he has complete authority but should notify the board. Some matters require prior approval from the board. And finally, there are other issues where the superintendent can only make recommendations. The board played a little game where they were given a scenario and would then decide what decision making authority was appropriate. For the most part, the board members agreed on what was in the purview of the superintendent's authority and what was a board decision. The session was finished for the night and the board resumed again the next morning at 9:00am.
The next morning, all five school board members were present after spending the night at the Westin. Mr. Manuel arrived at 9:00. He did not spend the night at the hotel. The topic of discussion for the day was the superintendent's evaluations. A copy of the evaluation was not available to the public but a copy was given to Commercial Appeal reporter, Jane Roberts. You can read her article here.
An interesting discussion came up about Facebook posts criticizing the district. Mr. Manuel said he tried to avoid Facebook but would hear about comments where parents were unhappy with GMSD about various issues so he responded by calling them. He now admits that was a mistake saying he was naive at the time in thinking it was a good idea. But now, he will defer to the board to engage with the public over concerns aired on social media.
Mark Dely said he also did not read Facebook and did not think it was the board's responsibility to respond to Facebook criticism. Mr. Manuel said, he was not suggesting the board members seek out critics. He just meant that in general, he would leave it to the board to be responsive to the community and represent GMSD. Linda Fisher said she no longer reads Facebook either. She appreciated Mr. Manuel calling parents when the district was new but now, those parents can go through the proper channels. Lisa Parker said that she did read Facebook pages and felt like it was one way to monitor the pulse of the community. But she was often appalled by the comments and found them to be full of hatred. Ken interjected by saying, he hoped the board would not become so thin-skinned that they could not hear any criticism. He thinks, the board can take community criticism constructively.
Another interesting discussion came up during the discussion on the superintendent's evaluation. Out of the blue, Mr. Manuel piped up and said he wanted the board to consider renewing his contract. He explained the July meeting would be the only time the board could discuss his contract prior to the school board election. State law imposes a black out period prior to elections where contract negotiations are prohibited. After July, the earliest opportunity for the board to renew his contract would be in December. Mark Dely cut the discussion off by saying he felt uncomfortable talking about such an important topic at the retreat. He wanted to discuss it at a work session then take some time to consider it before voting at a business meeting. He did not want to discuss and vote on the same night even if that meant calling a special meeting.
The board's discussion was briefly paused by a visit from the general manager of the Westin, Patrick Jordan, who has three children in GMSD schools. After asking about the hospitality and receiving favorable responses, Mr. Jordan wanted to know if the school district had a teacher of the year award. He said that he would be willing to donate a Westin's heavenly bed to the winning teacher. The board thanked him for his kind offer. Mr. Jordan said he could get a model of the bed sent out to the schools to generate excitement among the faculty.