Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some thoughts on the South Bend School Board race - background

Don Wheeler

It’s pretty well known that I was one of fifteen candidates for two at-large School Board seats in 2008.  I was also seriously considering a run for a district seat in 2010.  That turned out to be too difficult with my other responsibilities.  But before I came to that conclusion I prepared myself for a run by watching local events, and reading about what other communities have attempted, and how those attempts worked out.

It’s easy to understand citizen frustration with our public school system, but in some ways this frustration lags behind events.  Test scores have generally improved and last years High School graduation rate was around ten points better than the year prior. 

Unfortunately, this frustration seems to have offered challengers the strategy of being “change agents’, without offering any serious proposals likely to create improvements.  The chorus seems to be “things are bad, but I’ll do better”.  They’d have us believe that they are inherently better, more capable people than those they would replace.   But they don’t offer much evidence they’re right about that.

In my view the operating problems of the South Bend School Board are unlikely to be mitigated by the results of the upcoming election.  But the possibility exists they may be exacerbated.

Despite the calls for a “vision” or similar expressions, the fundamental problem the School Board faces on an operational level is that they have no functional decision making model.  Instead, complicated, important, (generally) expensive proposals are rolled out piecemeal and in isolation.  In roughly a year’s time the School Board pondered the questions of The Early College program, the New Tech High School Program, shifting school scheduling from semesters to trimesters, and funding full day Kindergarten.  Again, all these were discussed independently- and outside the context of the already passed budget.

I don’t see how coherent policy can be made this way.  The Board needs to adopt a mechanism - which parallels their budget process – for policy.  There are organizations that specialize in helping governing boards do this sort of thing, and one should be retained for this purpose.

As to the issue of who sits on the Board, one member has consistently served as an agent provocateur.  Bill “Common Sense” Sniadeki has engaged in a stunning level of bad behavior – and he’s not up for re-election.  Unfamiliar with conventionally accepted civil discourse, disdainful of parliamentary procedure, Mr. Sniadeki was particularly disruptive when Sheila Bergeron chaired the meetings as President.  I was in attendance at two meetings where there seemed to be some choreography in the audience.  The group was appreciative when Bill S spoke and vocally disdainful when other members spoke in opposition.  These were like no business meetings I’d ever witnessed.

Mr. Sniadeki has voted in opposition to state law – he won’t vote in favor of low bids when the company bidding is not local.  (State law requires School Boards to accept low bids).  Mr. Sniadeki is known to leak information from Board Executive Sessions, (which is illegal), and security personnel are always just outside the door of these sessions, because at least some fellow Board members fear his temper.

The case of Roger Parent is far more complicated.  Former South Bend Mayor Parent raised and spent around $37,000 to win his seat on the Board.  The darling of the local Democratic Party machine, many people fear he intends to put together a cabal for which he is the leader.

Two-plus years ago the South Bend Community School Corporation Board narrowly decided to conduct a nationwide search for a permanent replacement for Dr. Robert Zimmerman – having already named James Kapsa as Interim Superintendent.  The reasoning was that the SBCSC had some seemingly intractable problems, and it made sense to many of us we should seek someone with experience dealing with similar situations.  Funding for such a search was offered from an outside source.

Mr. Parent, however, campaigned against such a search – insisting Mr. Kapsa was what we needed.  Though Mr. Kapsa had Superintendent Credentials, he’d never been one.  Also, as an insider, he seemed unlikely to shake things up in a way that most folks thought needed to be done.  To be clear:  No one suggested he was not a good administrator.

The other eventual winner of an at-large seat, Stephanie Spivey, campaigned advocating for the hiring of what she called a “turnaround specialist”.  She was adamant about it.

There had always been strong sentiment by some Board members to name Mr. Kapsa to the post permanently, and since the decision to search had been a narrow one, the sitting Board consulted the incoming Board members about the issue.  Obviously I was not in on these private discussions, but Ms. Spivey assured me her position had not changed – up to and including the day of the Board meeting.

She and I walked into the building together.  We parted company in the lobby – she to huddle with the Board members and I to find a seat in the gallery.  Imagine my surprise when the motion to name Mr. Kapsa (permanent) Superintendent came up, to hear Ms. Spivey speak in support of it.

So there’s a case to be made that the public should be somewhat wary when it appears that a highly influential person is attempting to “stack the deck” on a governing board, while arguably having the Chief Administrator in a position of at least some obligation.

This continues.

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