July/August 2021

From the Field: The Difference is Process

By Dee Molinare
What has it been like to be a board member through the pan­demic? What does the future hold? The challenges school districts have faced during the pandemic have been paramount. The polarization of our society made its way into the fabric of our educational system. Some boards rode these challenges gracefully, while others were in a topsy-turvy ride in a lifeboat, constantly bail­ing, trying to stay afloat. But why the difference?
In my recent in-district work with boards, I have discovered the difference. Or, so I believe, it is a big part of the difference.
The difference is process. Boards that have followed the process, vetting through deci­sions, appear to have had less turmoil than those that have not stuck to the process. Notice I say “less turmoil,” because no board has experienced this time as pleasurable, or without turmoil. Boards that have weathered the storm in their metaphorical life­boats had a process in place for decision-making before the crisis of the pandemic. The process includes bringing forth a decision that must be made in a timely manner and allowing opportu­nity and time to vet the decision. For example, a discussion item is placed on the board agenda to allow discussion and questions on the item, for all team mem­bers to have clarity. This helps guide the superintendent and the staff on what further informa­tion or research is needed by the board on the item. At a subse­quent meeting, the item is placed as an action item. This process does not “surprise” board mem­bers with an urgent, must-do-it-now decision.
Furthermore, big-ticket items such as boundary changes, clos­ing a school, a referendum, etc., require deep discussions and ample time for decision-making. Vetting often includes bringing together a team of stakeholders (parents, community members, staff, students, board members) to provide input and perspective to the decision. With those types of decisions, it is important to hear from and include many voices during the process. This not only provides clarity and communica­tion, but also creates ownership of the decision throughout the system.
The process helps build con­sensus around the decisions at the board table. Granted, board members will not always agree unanimously. But allowing the divergent exchange of thought at the board table in a respectful manner gives a positive impres­sion to all stakeholders. When I work with boards of education exhibiting inappropriate behavior (yelling at one another, foul lan­guage, name calling) at the board table, I ask the group to look at IASB’s sample PRESS policy 8:30 Visitors to and Conduct on School Property. It states, “The School District expects mutual respect, civility, and orderly conduct among all people on school property or at a school event.” Why would board mem­bers at a duly convened meeting violate their own policy? This type of behavior creates angst throughout the district. And it is not the behavior to model for staff, students, and community members.
At a recent board self-evalu­ation, a comment of a retiring board member to fellow board members resonated with me. He stated, “In this environment, I have never had this much respect with a group I have disagreed with.” Respectful dia­logue at the board table creates a solid team, prepared to ask difficult questions and make challenging decisions.
Facing the ever-changing landscape of COVID has put school boards in a reactive mode, challenged with making decisions in an unknown land­scape. For many, it was chaos like never before experienced. Boards that have the process in place fared better. Now it is time to get back to a proactive mode, looking at the district goals and planning for the future: a future beyond COVID-19 and the new normal.

Dee Molinare, Ed.D., is Field Services Director for IASB’s DuPage, Starved Rock, and North Cook divisions.