Last month State School Board Member Jennifer Johnson asked for suggestions on how to make the State School Board more friendly. Being a long time observer of the board, here are a few of my thoughts on making this happen:
Allow More Public Comment
Currently to give any public comment at at State School Board meeting, one must sign up in advance. The opportunity to give comment also takes place at the very beginning of the meeting prior to any discussion or conversation. The result is organization representatives standing up and giving their talking points that may or may not relate to later agenda item discussions. This seems strange and unhelpful for everyone involved.
As a member of a city council, we have a lot of public comment. We take it on agenda items as well as in an open forum at the end of the meeting. Sometimes it means we are yelled at. Sometimes it means our meetings run long. But I am a firm believer in it happening. To represent my constituents I need to know what they are thinking and where they are at on certain issues.
Almost all legislative meetings have public comment as well. This comment period takes place after the initial presentation of the bill, but prior to the committee’s discussion. It is planned for and anticipated. When time is short, the chair is given leeway to limit public comment.
There is no reason the board is incapable of taking more public comment. So let’s make it happen.
Shrink the Size of the Board
The State School Board is unwieldy. Twenty-one members is too many. Six of those members are ‘non-voting appointed’ seats representing various entities. I believe strongly that charter schools, minorities representation, local school boards, higher ed, and CTE should give input in board meetings, but I do not believe they should be on the board. If the board allowed adequate and appropriate public comment than the opportunities for these groups to give meaningful input would still exist. There may also be a place for these representatives to be appointed to committees. Let’s look at the options, and shrink the size of the board. Optimally, I would love to see a 7-9 person board. (The logistics of that will have to come in another post.)
When You Ask for Feedback, Be Sincere
Recently the Board and USOE evaluated and changed the World Languages Standards. As part of that process they asked for public comment. The document distributed was easily over 100 pages, and not written for public consumption. While I realize that the standards should have technical and data driven research backing them. What was given to the general public for comment should have been created for them. It is one thing to give the appearance of wanting public feedback, it is another to actually want it. Be sincere.
Be Creative in Pushing Out Information
It is difficult for the State Board to not meet during the day. The logistics simply get tricky. There is a reason the Legislature meets during the day. But that does then limit accessibility for parents, teachers, and administrators. This does not give the Board a free pass.
Can meetings be held at satellite locations around the state? Streaming capabilities could be available at all the state colleges and universities. Go out, tour the state, and hold a town hall while you are there.
The hiring of a PR professional especially for the Board was a great first step. Now use her! Use her in creative ways. Can short snippets of the meetings appear on the Board’s website? For example, here is what we learned from our discussion on the ESEA waiver and where we are at in a 4 minute YouTube Clip. Can you create short explanatory blog posts: Here are 5 Things The State Board Will Discuss Friday That Affect Your School? Be creative.
Add Transparency to Advisory Boards/Commissions/Task Forces
The Governor appoints numerous boards, and each of those boards memberships are posted on this site: http://www.utah.gov/governor/boards/. This site also allows applicants to apply for board positions and notices current openings. The State Board should create something similar. For example, the Board is currently trying to fill the parent standard advisory committees. This would be a resource both for the Board to outreach, but also for the Board to have more varied qualified applicants. Listing the memberships to these groups would also increase public transparency to the processes. Something missing from the Governor’s page is a list of meeting times and agendas for those commissions, this would be a valuable addition.
Don’t Overlook the Traditional Stakeholders
State School Board members need to have established relationships with the stakeholders in their areas. Attending local school board and charter board meetings, listening to local PTAs and other parent groups, emailing and calling principals, administrators, and teachers at their schools are all important. The on the ground folks have invaluable insights. Ask them for them. As board members better understand these varied perspectives, policy decisions benefit.
These six suggestions should be part of continually evaluation on how to improve the friendliness of the Board. I appreciate Jennifer Johnson’s willingness to pose the question, and hope that through thoughtful responses and changes we will see a benefit to public education from a more friendly State School Board.