July Board Meeting Recap: The Board Considers Changes to the Code of Conduct Once Again, Featuring the Administration as Sisyphus (Now with Video!)

Summer is a relatively slow time for the School Board.  We had no committee meetings this month, just our monthly meeting on Monday, July 25.  The agenda was light but the meeting was long, with much time devoted to a proposed revision of our Code of Conduct.

Here’s a recap of that discussion, and a few other issues we talked about.

2011-2012 Budget.  Assistant Superintendent Erik Kass updated us on our prospects for state aid for this year.  As I have previously written, last month we adopted a no-property-tax-increase budget premised on the assumption that we’d receive about $2.2 million more in general state aid than DPI recently estimated we’d actually receive, which caused a spot of consternation.

Erik reported that this year we would become eligible for state aid that is earmarked for high poverty districts, since more than 50% of our students will qualify for free or reduced lunch.  This should increase our aid by more than $1.7 million.

In addition, our required contribution to the Wisconsin Retirement System will be less than we had projected, saving us another $400,000.

Finally, as a consequence of a debt defeasance strategy that we adopted last month, we’ll free up an additional $700,000 that would otherwise have gone to pay long-term debt.

So when all the dust settles, we should be okay.  We won’t have to impose a higher property tax than we planned on in order to support the level of expenditures that we approved.

Allied Drive 4K Site.  Last month the Board voted to establish a four-year-old kindergarten site at the Allied Learning Center in order to ensure a convenient 4K site for the Allied Drive neighborhood, even though the Center isn’t an ideal facility for that use.

This month the administration reported that a better site had been identified – the Boys and Girls Club’s Allied Family Center, across the street from the Allied Learning Center.  The Family Center is actually located just over the line into the Verona School District, so we’ll have to enter into an agreement with our friends in the Verona School District to authorize our operation.  But the facility promises to offer a better experience for our youngest students from the Allied neighborhood as they start their adventures in learning.

Internet Acceptable Use Policy.  The Board discussed but took no action on proposed changes to the District’s Internet Acceptable Use Policy for Staff and Students.  The policy was updated to keep up with technological advances, to provide staff with clearer notice of the circumstances under which their District emails might be viewed by others as well as to clarify expectations about their computer use, and to supply students with a plain language summary of the do’s and don’ts of their usage of District computers

Proposed Revisions to the Code of Conduct.  Last summer the Board rejected a proposed rewrite of the District’s Code of Conduct intended to bring the Code more in line with the District’s Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) approach to student conduct and discipline.  I thought the changes to the Code proposed last year were good ones by and large, and would have adopted the proposal.

This year the administration tried again.  Input on the Code was solicited from all principals in January.  In February, a Code of Conduct Work group was formed that included administrators, principals and assistant principals.  The Work Group met about a dozen times during March and April and came up with a significantly revised version of our Policy 4502, which sets forth our Code of Conduct.  You can find their proposal here.  The revisions were again intended to move the Code away from the sort of formalistic, legalistic document it has become and make it more compatible with the school district’s PBS approach to student behavior and discipline.

PBS is described as a data-based approach to positive teaching and supporting expected behaviors at multiple levels in a school.  It is a philosophy that focuses on developing a set of school-wide behavioral expectations and then directly teaching them to students.

The PBS approach was reflected in the proposed revised Code in a couple of ways.  First, the existing Code includes a somewhat formal list of the rights and responsibilities of students, parents and teachers.  The revision included an expanded version.  This information was presented more as a compact among students, teachers, and schools by including a table that listed plain-language statements of students’ rights aligned with descriptions of students’ corresponding responsibilities.  For example, “Every student has the right to learn in a school that is free of bullying and harassment,” was paired with “Every student has the responsibility not to bully or harass others and to report incidents of bullying and harassment to an adult.”  (There is no mention of bullying or harassment in the current statement of student rights.)

Similarly, in the Work Group’s proposal the various categories of student offenses were presented in a grid with columns that denote the increasing seriousness of the listed conduct and severity of potential discipline as they move from left to right.  The grid presented a much more easily grasped representation of the structure of our discipline system.

In addition, very much in the spirit of PBS, the revised Code included a new Behavior Response Chart that listed a menu of interventions to assist in determining the appropriate level of teacher response in terms of instruction, intervention, consequence and restoration for the different levels of misconduct that are listed in the Code.

The Code of Conduct Work Group also brought the Code itself up to date, adding some behaviors that had not previously been included, such as being in school without permission, and (David Blaska take note) “wearing clothing in an inappropriate manner, such as when a student’s pants are worn below the student’s waist line (i.e., male or female underwear/undergarments is/are visibly observable.”

The document prepared by the Work Group also proposed some significant substantive revisions.  For example, a violation of aggravated theft (involving physical force or the use or threat of use of a weapon) was added to the Code.  A mandatory recommendation for expulsion was removed from the offenses of unintentional use of force against a staff member and possession and distribution of drugs and alcohol by students who do not bring the drugs or alcohol onto school grounds.  (These offenses still subject a student to suspension for up to five days.)

After a few delays, the Board finally acted upon the proposed revision to the Code of Conduct on Monday night.  I think the proposed changes represent a substantial improvement compared to the overly legalistic, excessively long (nearly 10,000 words!) and virtually impenetrable policy we currently work with and expect our students to understand.

As is becoming increasingly common these days however, mine turned out to be a minority view.  Other Board members took turns identifying parts of the revision that they did not like, raising some concerns that they had previously expressed and some that were new.  The general tenor of the comments was that the current format of the Code was fine but that Code should be stricter and that more violations should lead to mandatory recommendations for expulsion.

About an hour into the meeting, I expressed some frustration with the proceedings (since I’m just figuring this stuff out, this video starts with eight seconds of black) :

Eventually Board members settled on deep-sixing the Work Group’s proposal but adopting some (but not all) of the substantive changes reflected in the revision.  For example, the aggravated theft offense was added.  The change to the unintentional use of force against a staff member violation was adopted (a very good move, btw), but the change to the possession and distribution of drugs or alcohol violation was not (I think).  Another change boosted the potential consequences imposed for non-physical acts of bullying or harassment.

Also on our agenda Monday night was the creation of a new Board Ad Hoc Committee on Student Discipline, Conduct and Intervention, to be chaired by Lucy Mathiak.  Some Board members suggested that the revisions recommended by the Work Group and rejected by the Board might be re-considered by the members of this committee in some fashion.

I found the Board’s rejection of the proposed revisions and ad hoc amending of the existing Code an unfortunate turn of events and criticized what I described as our legislating on the fly right before the vote:

My powers of persuasion were underwhelming.  Only Beth Moss joined me in voting against the proposed revisions while the affirmative votes of the other five Board members carried the day.  We now have an approved version of the Code that no one has yet seen in written form.

The View from the Loser’s Side (A Dismayingly Regular Feature of My Board Meeting Updates)

And now on to more explicit editorializing.  Our Board seems incapable of dealing very well with Code of Conduct issues.  Or perhaps there is just a fundamental disagreement between the administration and the majority of our Board over whether it is desirable for the Code to reflect the approach to behavior and discipline that we actually follow in our schools.

It is discouraging to me that a proposed major revision to the Code went down in flames for a second year in a row.  A criticism Board members expressed last year was that the proposal we considered then was not sufficiently vetted with school principals, who are on the frontlines of dealing with discipline issues.

That was certainly not the problem this time around.  The Code of Conduct Work Group solicited comments from all principals and, along with downtown administrators, had seven – count ‘em, seven – principals and assistant principals as work group members.  Apparently, the opinions these principals had formed through their frontline experiences weren’t quite enough for our Board either, as we tossed aside their recommendations as well.

When we expel a student we provide him or her with an internship for a career as a dropout, with a good chance to advance on to imprisonment.  To state what I think should be obvious, our goal should be to expel fewer students, not more.

Why does the Board tend to go in the other direction?  One reason may be that kids who get expelled are probably among the most powerless students that we serve.  They don’t have much in the way of organized groups lobbying on their behalf.  We don’t get pushback on Board members’ efforts to increase the number of offenses that lead to mandatory recommendations for expulsion, or to expand the offenses that automatically disqualify a student from participation in our Phoenix expulsion abatement program.

There are exceptions to this.  Beth Graue is an MMSD parent who addressed the Board on our expulsion policy on Monday night.  She made powerful points.  Here is what she said:

If we on the Board had more occasions to hear and consider these kinds of reasoned objections to our approach, perhaps we wouldn’t feel quite as empowered to go our own way on these issues.  But we don’t, since the vast majority of the kids we expel don’t have the benefit of effective parent advocates.

It seems to me that the absence of this community opinion counterweight makes it particularly important for us to respect the balancing of interests that the Work Group arrived at, particularly when dealing with fraught topics like bullying and sexual assault where our critical faculties can be blunted by strong feelings and emotion.  That’s what I think anyway; the majority of the Board clearly thinks otherwise.

This raises a larger point.  We Board members are empowered to shape policy and the votes of four of us are enough to adopt whatever lawful policies we want.  We can certainly reject or modify whatever recommendations are presented to us, and that can be appropriate when Board members feel obligated to consider a broader range of concerns than were taken into account by the authors of the recommendations.

But I think a responsibility of a Board member is to have a realistic sense of the scope of our own competence.  We should resist the temptation to substitute our views for those of our staff who have far greater knowledge and current experience regarding school issues than we do, as our principals do with respect to behavior and discipline issues.

Instead of following our own idiosyncratic instincts, we should also be willing to invest some trust in a consensus-building process at the staff level, like the one that led to the Code of Conduct document that we were asked to approve.

In addition, rejecting the work of one of our committees – after its members have collectively devoted hundreds of hours to their task — is not an approach calculated to enhance the morale of our staff or encourage them to invest a lot of time and effort in preparing recommendations for us to consider next time around.  So our we-know-best approach is counterproductive as well as presumptuous.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that the best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.  We’d do well as a Board to develop sufficient modesty and insight to heed his words.

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2 Responses to July Board Meeting Recap: The Board Considers Changes to the Code of Conduct Once Again, Featuring the Administration as Sisyphus (Now with Video!)

  1. Jane says:

    I attended this meeting and also thought the code of conduct proposal was a big improvement over the present code. Unfortunately, once the work of the committee was dissected, I wasn’t sure just what you voted on.

    • Indeed. I believe that Board members thought they understood what they were voting on, but we won’t know whether everyone had the same thing in mind until we have a chance to review a copy of the Code that incorporates someone’s idea of what the changes are.

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