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Friday, September 16, 2011

The Illusion of Communications

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

I included this statement on my blog many years ago. The statement represents  why EVERY organization will list communication improvement as necessary for advancement. Which makes it seem strange there was a discussion between board members about too much communication with the superintendent.

Before I get into the specifics, let me say, I don't believe the focus of the school superintendent (or building administrator) is to answer emails or phone calls. They are the face of the organization and should be visible and interacting with their staff and school community. This can't be done with an email. I'd be OK if this group never personally sent out an email. It is not necessary for them to do so to perform the task we are asking them to do. This doesn't mean  the organizations they represent should not do so, and, we must realize, in a world of text messaging, a lot of our community expects instant communication.

Normally I'd say  go to the policy manual to see what is mentioned about communicating. But, a lot of our policy is devoted to communications (listed at end of this post) and none that I have found suggests we should be doing less.

Let me say the discussion Monday night was between and directed toward, individual board members. Although the administration was part of the discussion, this was a board issue. Even though it was not directed toward me, it was  uncomfortable - but a necessary discussion. Every one was right and wrong at the same time, and I am probably the worst offender on the board. Email, to me, is efficient because it can be answered when convenient. However, it is the worst way to communicate and often does more harm than good.

As best I can tell, the issue was over board members asking questions (or making comments) by email (or phone, or in person) which take a lot of resources to answer. Well, policy BDD says it is the responsibility of the superintendent to provide information about school operations and problems to the board and it further says that any communications with staff (by the board) must go through the superintendent (note - while this may seem like a foolish policy, it is in place because of wayward board members. In fact, a lot of policy is in place to deal with that. The reality is, policy does not stop an out of control board member). Policy BD says the superintendent must make staff accessible to the board. If a board member has a question - policy requires it be directed to the superintendent. 

The suggestion that all questions should wait for a board meeting  because other board members may be interested in the answer is not very efficient use of my time as a board member, and certainly, not a very good use of  technology.  

That doesn't mean we don't have a problem. Modern technology, especially with smart phones, has made us captive to; texts; emails; and phone calls. But the cat's out of the bag and we can't stop it. We have to change the way we do business.

One of my first jobs was an administrative assistant for the President of the company (before personal computers and email). At that time, a copy of all correspondence outside the plant had to be sent to the President. This was a lot, not to mention all the other correspondence that gets directed to the President of a company. It was my job to sort through everything, determine what needed to be seen by the President, and to designate who should respond, if not the President.  This policy was quickly dropped with the introduction of email. Maybe it's time to revisit our policies and the way we do business.

If I were the superintendent, this is what I'd do:

  • Only use email to set up a meeting or phone call, ask for information, and acknowledge receipt of information. Matters that needed further discussion would be handled with a meeting or phone call.
  • Someone else would screen my emails and phone calls and forward them to the proper authority if necessary.
  • I would empower my staff by inviting the board and community to direct questions to them (department heads and building administrators). In this day, if they can't be trusted to handle this communication, someone else should be doing the job.
  • Encourage questions from the board so my staff would be well prepared for their presentations and to be sure our message was being understood by everyone.
The point is, I'm going to utilize my staff to find out the most efficient way to handle communications and I'm going to empower them to take some of the load off of me (RHIP - Rank Has It's Privileges). Their goal will be to make the board the most knowledgeable in the state. How else can you have a great board?

As a board member I'd:

  • Respect the time of school officials. All visits to schools and the district office will be scheduled in advance and limited to less than one hour. This would include phone calls. Schools have plenty of public events which you can attend and  get a lot of valuable information. Parents and staff are quick to tell you  what is good about the school (or bad for that matter). And it's OK if they don't tell you anything. There is nothing wrong with average. 98% of us fall into that category (I hate to be the one to tell you).
  • If the administration doesn't welcome questions, don't send them. But don't abdicate your responsibility as a board member. There are plenty of other ways to get "unofficial" answers and, as a last resort, ask them at the first available meeting.
I have asked questions to every administration. I think it is a win/win. They know what's going to be asked and can prepare and look well organized (or better yet, can use the answer in their presentation so no question has to be asked). But, that is not a deal breaker.  As I told them Monday night, I have no problem zinging them at a meeting if they don't know an answer - and to that statement - there was much agreement. Why would they want to be put in that position? 

Communication Comments Found in Policy
  • Maintain two-way communication with citizens of the district. The board will keep the public informed of the progress and problems of the school district and will urge citizens to bring their aspirations and feelings about the public schools to the board’s attention (Policy AB)
  • The board will present the needs of the schools before the citizens of the community (Policy BDD)
  • To maintain viable communication linkages among the various constituencies served by the schools (Policy ADA)
  • The district will involve all segments of our community in accomplishing our goals and mission (Policy KA)
  • Community members should assist in the development of responsible citizens through appropriate involvement in the education of children (Policy KA)
  • The district will encourage support of effective partnerships among schools, parents, community and business (Policy KA)
  • The board of trustees will seek to keep the citizens of the district regularly and thoroughly informed through all the channels of communications (Policy KD)
  • The board will invite discussion and suggestion on important educational policies (Policy KCA)
  • The board will determine how the citizenry feels  about the school district and what it wishes the school district to accomplish (Policy KCA)
  • The board will help citizens assume a more direct responsibility for the quality of education the school district provides (Policy KCA)
  • The board will involve citizens in the work of the board and the solving of its educational problems (Policy KCA)
  • The board will promote a genuine spirit of cooperation between the board and community in sharing leadership for the improvement of the community (Policy KCA)
  • The board holds the superintendent responsible for the administration of its policies, the execution of board decision, the operation of the internal machinery designed to serve the school program, and the provision of information to the board about school operations and problems. (Policy BDD)
  • (Duty of The Board) Carry on communications with staff members through the superintendent. (Policy BDD)
  • Information from the district to the local news media will be disseminated through available channels of communication under the supervision of the superintendent and the director of information services. (Policy KDC)
  • (Duty of The Superintendent) See that the staff can have necessary communication through the superintendent with the board. In order for the public to be informed of the programs and progress of the schools and of the district, the board endorses the publication of newsletters and news articles about education in the district. (Policy BD)
  • The board expects the administration to specialize in the following; the processes of decision making and communication; the development and maintenance of close working relationships and channels of communication within the school system and community. (Policy CA)
  • Close communication between home and school is an important factor in establishing a highly effective school program. Personal conferences between parents/legal guardians and teachers supplement the formal reporting system. These conferences are one way of creating better understanding between the home and school. They also provide an opportunity for open communication regarding the following; administrative procedures; instructional programs; goals and objectives; pertinent information regarding student progress. (Policy IKACA)
  • In order for the public to be informed of the programs and progress of the schools and of the district, the board endorses the publication of newsletters and news articles about education in the district. Information from the district to the local news media will be disseminated through available channels of communication under the supervision of the superintendent and the director of information services. (Policy KDC)
  • Access to the network, Internet, e-mail, and other technological services is a privilege, not a right. With this privilege, there also is a responsibility to use these technologies solely for educational purposes (Policy GBEBD)
  • District intends to promote educational excellence in schools by facilitating resource sharing, innovation, communication, (Policy GBEBD)
  • This medium (internet) of communication provides an opportunity to share accurate information with the community, our nation, and the world about the District's curriculum and instruction, school-authorized activities, and other related information. (Policy GBEBD)
  • Users will not use their e-mail accounts for personal use, (Policy GBEBD)
How are we doing complying with these policies?

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