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Split opinions greet Texas school board training sessions
06:46 AM CDT on Tuesday, June 1, 2010
By MATTHEW HAAG / The Dallas Morning News
As the school year ends, school board members across Texas are heading to class.
Their lessons are board training sessions, some of which will teach them to put aside personal agendas, support their superintendents, and embrace the idea that board members and the superintendents make up a team. Their teachers are often education consultants, mostly former superintendents and trustees.
"You want to do everything you can to make your superintendent successful," one such consultant told the Plano school board recently. "Governance is hard work."
Though the class time is state-mandated, the content is not. So, it's unclear just how many Texas trustees will hear the message the Plano trustees got. But plenty will, former school board members say, and the results aren't always in the public's best interest.
They say the mind-set encouraged by the training can squelch public debate, hurt accountability, and discourage trustees from working for the voters in their geographic districts.
"The training is designed to help make it easier for the superintendents to function," said Fiona Sigalla, a former trustee in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district.
Ron Price, a former Dallas ISD trustee said: "It's a great program to train boards how to be a rubber stamp. But it's not a good program for board members to represent your constituents."
He said, "Many school board members across the country call it a brainwashing session."
Dallas trustee Carla Ranger said: "The training minimizes the board's legitimate authority over the school district. It renders them useless."
Ranger so disagreed with the training that she refused to go.
She said, "Why would I or any other trustee sign up for training that teaches me not to do what I was elected to do?"
Since the 1990s, Texas has required new and current school board members to complete several hours of training every year. That training ranges from a three-hour course on the state's education code for new members to others designed to build camaraderie between the board and the superintendent.
The idea behind the training has been that a well-informed trustee, who shares a working relationship with other trustees and the superintendent, will provide better governance.
The state mandates the hours, but Texas provides little oversight over who leads the training, what the trustees learn or even if the board members fulfill their requirements. More than 300 organizations in Texas are registered to provide board training.
"You have to hope that they police themselves," said Ron Rowell, the Texas Education Agency's director of governance and general inquiries.
On the line
Six days after three trustees joined the Plano school board this month, education consultant Don McAdams drove from Houston to lead the new board's first team-building workshop.
The board members and Superintendent Doug Otto sat at a table together, scribbling notes as McAdams blazed through a five-hour training session. McAdams, who was a Houston ISD board president in the 1990s, talked about the board's role, the importance for the members to "speak with one voice," and how the trustees should never attempt to micromanage the district.
That responsibility, he told them, belonged to Superintendent Otto.
McAdams also suggested that board member not "interrogate" staffers during board meetings. And he encouraged trustees to vote unanimously, if possible, on important issues, such as school closings and bond proposals. Doing so sends a message to the public and workforce that the issue is a done deal, he said.
Throughout the session, McAdams returned to his main theme about governance: There's an invisible line between the board members and the superintendent. The superintendent can cross over into policymaking and governance – the board's main responsibilities – but members should never meddle in their boss's job of managing.
"The superintendent operates both above and below the line," McAdams told them. "It's because of the superintendent's knowledge, and the superintendent has to see the whole picture."
McAdams has delivered that message dozens of times as a trainer for almost 10 years. Among the school boards that have heard it is the one in Dallas, where McAdams was brought in from 2007 to 2009 in an effort to foster better teamwork.
The impact of McAdams' training was soon evident, said Ranger, who noticed other trustees placing more items on the board's consent agenda, where they could be approved with one vote and often without discussion.
"There was even more of an unwillingness to discuss items, and there was unwillingness to hold the superintendent accountable," Ranger said. "There was more of desire to make everything private."
After going through several years of board training, Sigalla found herself an outsider on the Grapevine-Colleyville board. She had repeatedly asked for records about items from student fees on activities to consulting contracts Superintendent Kevin Singer had signed without board approval.
When she started asking for Singer's contracts with consultants, he declined to release them, she said. She filed open records requests for them, which she said showed he had signed contracts without the board's approval.
But the other board members apparently didn't support her. They approved a resolution in 2003 that didn't mention Sigalla's name but admonished a trustee for calling "into question the integrity and ability of the district's administration and staff." Singer left the district near the end of Sigalla's only term.
"When a board member asks questions or questions the information given to them, it's perceived as being disrespectful," she said. "It's the culture, and you get that from the training."
Ranger's former board colleague, Price, said he liked McAdams' idea of boards and superintendents working as a team. But the team exercises failed to take hold, Price said, because Dallas trustees represent geographic areas, not the school district as a whole.
"Unfortunately, we are all subject to what our members are telling us in our area," Price said. "People in South Dallas and Fair Park, they don't care what's happening in the Addison part of Dallas ISD."
The TEA's Rowell said he occasionally hears criticism about board trainers. Some trustees have told him that their trainers favored the superintendent. But superintendents have also complained to him about the trainers supporting the boards.
But the criticism hasn't led to much change. He said that the state probably won't craft guidelines or outlines for trainers to follow. And state law provides minimal oversight of trainers, Rowell conceded. In the past decade, TEA has never revoked a trainer's license.
"It's sort of a self-policed," he said.
MAY 30, 2010
May's Big Selloff Could Be Just the Beginning
By BRETT ARENDS
Are you ready for a lot more turmoil?
You had better be -- because there's a good chance that's what you're going to get.
Nobody knows for certain, of course. All stock-market predictions need to be taken with a little salt. But there are reasons to suspect that the sudden plunges of the past few weeks may be unhappy omens of what's to come.
Like last week, with stocks lurching wildly with the headlines -- up by triple digits one day, down the next. For the month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 7.9% and is negative for the year. The Nasdaq Composite and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index also are in the red for the year.
Some pretty smart people are cautious. Seth Klarman at Baupost Group is worried. John Hussman of the Hussman Funds says all sorts of warning lights have lit up across his screen. Even Ron Muhlenkamp of the Muhlenkamp Fund, who usually takes a sunnier view of things, says he has moved a big chunk of his mutual fund into cash in case there's a plunge.
How far will it go? Mr. Hussman says the technical indicators have only been this bad 19 times before in the last half century -- and on average the market plunged about 20% over the following 12 months. When markets were also high, like now, the picture's even worse.
Too many people have simply assumed that the last 14 months have been the start of the next boom. But it may have been a typical "bear-market rally" doomed to fall flat on its face.
That's what stock-market historian Russell Napier says. He thinks we're in a giant, generational slide that began in 2000 and has several years still to run.
We forget that the stock market moves in long, decadal swings. Slumps like those in the 1930s or the 1970s, or in Japan after 1990, weren't simple, straight-down affairs. They were punctuated by huge "sucker" rallies that eventually faded away. But, over all, the market bounced along sideways, or down, for a decade or two.
The slide that began in 1969 didn't end until 1982. The slump after 1929 didn't give way until the late 1940s. Japan's gloom is still with us.
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