Saturday, July 26, 2014

Don't fix what ain't broke

This story comes from another independent school, in this case large, well-established and highly regarded. In fact, two years before the incident below its director was named "Superintendent of the Year". All was going well until a new parent representative was elected to the Board.

"Jo" had just arrived in town due to an employment transfer. A public school graduate herself, Jo's children had previously been in public school but her husband's transfer included fees at this independent school. In addition to a lack of history in the school, by which I mean she did not know the school culture (aka "the way we do things around here"), she had also not gone through the Board training and menotring programs.

At Jo's first Board meeting, she asked about the school's drugs policy. Apparently, this had been an issue at her children's previous school and so was very much on her mind. The director sent Jo the Board policy, the administration's interpretation guide and referred her to the parent handbook. She also pointed out the lack of any drugs-related issues at the school, and its proactive counseling program was highly likely to learn of anything before it became a problem.

Jo was not satisfied and asked the Board chair to place the drugs policy on the agenda of the next meeting.He did so. This was his first error.

At the meeting, Jo produced information packs intended to shock and to provoke the other Board members. They referred to a different state, demographic, type of school, and style of school governance and leadership completely. Nonetheless, they alleged the certainty of drugs in this school and the dangers the school was facing by not acting. Accordingly Jo proposed random drug-testing of seniors and mandatory testing of all athletes. The director was unprepared and speechless for both the information packs and testing proposal, and J accused her of wilfully burying her head in the sand.

The Board was outraged at the obvious dangers and voted immediately to institute the testing. This was the Chair's second error. Such a major policy should have been studied, more research and reflection were needed, and at the very least he should have placed the vote on the agenda of the next meeting. Instead, a vote was held in the midst of emotions and loaded accusations.

The director felt her judgement and reputation had been harmed and gave notice. She is now leading another school in another state which in a short time has become widely-known and well-regarded. Parents rejected the drug-testing and the policy was reversed in a few months. Jo was removed by a parent plebiscite. 

The board employed an interim director, but struggled to attract a new director. Qualified and experienced candidates were clearly wary of the governance, more so because of the high reputation of the previous director. They hired a second-tier candidate who left at the end of his initial contract. Over half the faculty has changed, many of the new appointees themselves leaving, resulting in a split between the 15-year plus old-timers and the newbies, many of whom are new to independent school teaching.

The school now has another interim director, the fourth leadership change in five years, and have re-advertised the position. It also has a faculty vacancy rate of almost ten per cent. Jo was right to raise her concerns, although she should have done some research and waited until she was more established on the Board. The Board Chair and the Board were wrong and harmed the school, and it will take years for the school to recover.

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