Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Duties of a School Board Member

The following was taken from the Ohio School Board Association website:

What Does a School Board Member Do?

A school board sets educational goals and establishes policy for the school system based upon state laws and community values. Perhaps the most important responsibility of a school board is to employ a superintendent and treasurer and hold them responsible for managing the schools in accordance with the school board’s policies.

Board members make decisions on a wide range of issues, such as hiring and evaluating a superintendent and treasurer; setting district policy; planning student services; goal-setting and long-range planning; adopting curriculum; establishing budgets; engaging parents; being good fiscal stewards; acting in the best interest of the school district and within the scope of their legal authority; and creating community relations programs. A board member should be a skilled decision-maker; however, decisions are only made by the board as a whole at a public meeting.

Another important part of the board’s work is its public relations role. School board members help build public support and understanding of public education, and lead the public in demanding quality education. The school board serves as a link between schools and the public.

What a school board member doesn’t do

The role and function of board members often are misinterpreted by the public, and in some cases, by board members themselves. The board is a policymaking body and members are the chief advisors to the superintendent on community attitudes. Board members do not manage the day-to-day operations of a school district; they see to it that the system is managed well by professionals.

Board members are not education professionals. They do not evaluate staff, other than the superintendent and treasurer, nor do they become involved in employment interviews, other than those of the superintendent, business manager and treasurer. Board members may be consulted during the hiring process for other positions, such as assistant superintendent.

A good board member

We often hear that one person is a good board member or another is a bad board member, and yet we seldom hear a clear definition of what constitutes a “good” board member.

In reality, there are about as many philosophical theories about boardmanship as there are board members. However, there are some acceptable guidelines. Members must recognize that seldom do two persons react to the same problem in an identical manner, so flexibility is necessary.

As a start, the following guidelines are offered. A good board member:

• Knows that he or she can legally act as a board member only when the board of education is in session. No one person, unless authorized, should speak on behalf of the board.

• Avoids administrative decisions or attempts to second-guess the administration. The superintendent is the chief administrator and the board has no administrative function.

• Is well acquainted with school policies.

• Should vote at all times in the best interests of the children of the school district.

• Is flexible and realizes there are times when changes must be made, when tradition cannot be honored and when pressure must be ignored.

• Remembers that board business often requires confidentiality, especially in processes involving students, personnel, land acquisition, negotiations and security.

• Is interested in obtaining facts, but also remembers that the administration has responsibility for operating the schools, rather than spending all its time making reports to an individual board member.

• Is a good listener at board meetings, on the street corner, in the church or anywhere else approached, but never commits himself or herself, the board or the administration.

• Knows that the reputation of the entire school district is reflected in his or her behavior and attitude.

• Supports a board majority decision when it is made.

(emphasis added)

August Meeting

We had a busy evening last night at the Board Office.  At five o'clock, we held a special meeting that consisted of an executive session with our attorney on a pending legal matter.  After that had finished up, we were able to meet and greet the men and women who have joined the team at Swanton Local School District.

Over cake and punch, we were introduced to new teachers and staff who were able to attend last night's gathering, and during the first part of our regular meeting, Superintendent Paulette Baz introduced them by name and asked each person to stand and give a short statement about prior experience or relation to our district.  It is a loss for some of our surrounding districts that good teachers were RIFed due to budget problems, but a great gain for Swanton. 

As our regular meeting continued, we employed our new paperless system, BoardDocs.  For the audience, our agenda was made available on a large screen (as well as some printed copies for those with difficulty seeing).  We board members had the same agenda on laptops in front of us, and could also view associated documentation with a quick 'click' on the links provided.  It is a smooth system, and is also made available online through the district website.  Please take a look!

Mr. Ueberroth requested that meeting minutes be removed from the Consent Agenda as he had not been able to attend several meetings.  This was done, and then the agenda was passed as revised.  The Hearing of the Public was next, and no one indicated a desire to address the Board.

Items on the consent agenda were then passed, including  reports of the Treasurer, one Now and Then Purchase Order to cover an invoice from the NwOESC for Special Ed costs, and also the Personnel items from the Superintendent which were for the upcoming school year.

New business began with approval of the nine-page Permanent Appropriations for the 2010-11 school year, as required by law, which authorized the Treasurer to submit the amended certificate to the county auditor.  At this point, we then addressed the passage of the minutes for our July regular meeting and our August 3rd special meeting. 

Under the Superintendent's section for new business, we first learned that our district had been awarded a 21st Century grant with the NwOESC as the grant fiscal agent.  Mr. Rupp from the NwOESC (who had written on our behalf) was present to explain a few details of the process, and gave us each a brochure that spoke of the enrichment programs we will be able to provide to our kids before and after school, for those interested.  In conjunction with this, we will also provide a latch-key program for parents who desire that service.  The grant money is for the next five years, and totals $625,812.00.  Neighboring districts who have also participated in the 21st Century grant program are Archbold, Edgerton, Evergreen, Fayette, Liberty Center, Stryker, and Wauseon, among others.  Our program has been named "the DAWG Pound", and will officially begin on October 5th. 

Steve Gfell, high school principal, then presented information on the High School Flex Credit program that is a response to Senate Bill 311, which mandates that districts adopt a policy allowing a credit flex program by the 2010-11 school year.  Mr. Gfell explained how a flex credit program might work for a student and mentioned how it could allow inclusion of home-schooled and virtual academy students, credit recovery students, and charter school kids as well as parochial students and others.  This program has great positive potential for our kids, and interested parents of high school students should contact Mr. Gfell at the high school for more details.

Paulette then shared that a scant two weeks ago, the district received a notification letter from the Ohio School Facilities Commission - Classroom Facilities Assistance Program (OSFC-CFAP) that stated our district must notify them by August 31 whether or not we wish to pursue moving forward with a new building.  This is a multi-faceted process, with a myriad of steps and hoops through which a district must jump, but this fast-approaching deadline required us to begin the process.  This does NOT bind us to anything - it is not a decision that we WILL build anything, only that we will investigate the issue according to OSFC-CFAP guidelines so that IF (and that's a big IF) the community decides that it wants a new building, then we will have access to funding through the OSFC.  Cheryl Swisher indicated that our funding share with the high school was slightly over 60%, and would likely be the same with any other building the community might decide to build.  If the district goes through this process and obtains significant community input that indicates a new building is warranted, the district would then need a bond issue on the ballot to pay for it.  There was some discussion on enrollment requirements, and our existing buildings. 

Most of you remember the statements made years ago, that we were going to get "two for one" when the new high school was built.  Obviously, those statements were false, whether by error or intent, and we did NOT get two buildings out of that one bond issue.  People have been understandably confused over this issue, although the high level of anticipation has waned as the years have passed.  It is imperative that residents of our district make their voices heard on this matter!  As the process of gathering community input moves forward, don't be shy about what - if anything - you want done.  This will be a time of speaking up or allowing silence to speak for you, so please do not squander this opportunity to make your voices heard.

Part one of the process is to obtain an architect, who will work with the district AND the community on questions of usage, and other related matters.  An announcement in local trade journals will be placed.

The Board approved an agreement with the Wood Co. Juvenile Detention Education Program.

A few changes to the student handbook were presented, and approved.

Kris Oberheim shared that she had attended the most recent Village Council meeting to discuss a joint committee for the Swanton Recreation Program.  She was encouraged by the interaction at that meeting. 

Mona Dyke spoke about the Ohio Improvement Process moving forward, with a presentation to all staff planned for Aug. 23rd.  Attention is already being given to the three main goals of the program, and with all of us working together this has great potential to improve our curriculum approach and, thus, the education of our kids. 

During the portion of time set aside for Board comments, Mr. Ueberroth declared that he wanted a motion for a particular teacher to have a SmartBoard in her classroom.   Some discussion followed, as you can never be quite certain when the man is trying to be "funny" or not.  I prefer not to write about the discussion here, as it would be quite difficult to do so in a completely neutral manner - not that I have never shared my opinion on things in this blog, but I just think it would be better for you to hear what was said by listening to the recording of our meeting, and form your own opinion.  In addition, I will put information on this blog from the Ohio School Board Association that relates to the discussion.

We then went into executive session for the purpose of the superintendent's evaluation.  Once that portion of our meeting was complete, we came out and adjourned.  It was 10 o'clock.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How Facts Backfire

I ran across this editorial the other day - and the information it shares is sobering, especially to someone like me who has always firmly believed that people will usually do what is right if they know the facts of an issue.  That was (and remains) the basis for the existence of this blog - to share information with those interested in a manner easily understood, so that our residents could be informed as to what their elected school board members were doing with everyone's hard-earned tax dollars.

I may be wasting everyone's time.

Read this and see what you think.

posted originally at this site:  The Boston Globe

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

What’s going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we’re right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.

It’s unclear what is driving the behavior — it could range from simple defensiveness, to people working harder to defend their initial beliefs — but as Nyhan dryly put it, “It’s hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of fact-checking.”

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry. “It’s very much up in the air,” says Nyhan.

It would be reassuring to think that political scientists and psychologists have come up with a way to counter this problem, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The persistence of political misperceptions remains a young field of inquiry.

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.(we certainly have our share of demagogues in the Swanton community, unfortunately)

There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. He asked one group of participants what percentage of its budget they believed the federal government spent on welfare, and what percentage they believed the government should spend. Another group was given the same questions, but the second group was immediately told the correct percentage the government spends on welfare (1 percent). They were then asked, with that in mind, what the government should spend. Regardless of how wrong they had been before receiving the information, the second group indeed adjusted their answer to reflect the correct fact.

Kuklinski’s study, however, involved people getting information directly from researchers in a highly interactive way. When Nyhan attempted to deliver the correction in a more real-world fashion, via a news article, it backfired. Even if people do accept the new information, it might not stick over the long term, or it may just have no effect on their opinions. In 2007 John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California at Berkeley studied whether providing misled people with correct information about the proportion of immigrants in the US population would affect their views on immigration. It did not.

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort.

And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.

Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the “reputational costs” of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. “So if you go on ‘Meet the Press’ and you get hammered for saying something misleading,” he says, “you’d think twice before you go and do it again.”

Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible. Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery. Getting a politician or pundit to argue straight-faced that George W. Bush ordered 9/11, or that Barack Obama is the culmination of a five-decade plot by the government of Kenya to destroy the United States — that’s easy. Getting him to register shame? That isn’t.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Local Boy Makes Good

If you get the Swanton Enterprise, you already know the outcome of our special board meeting last night where we voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Ben Ohlemacher as Middle School principal and head football coach, and hired Ted Haselman as our new Middle School principal. 

If you are among those who do not get the Enterprise, you still know the news!

Mr. Haselman grew up in Swanton, and built a new house here a few years ago.  His children are in the Swanton school system.  He had been employed in the Perrysburg school district and now will be bringing his experience and talents to the Swanton Middle School. 

At last night's special meeting, we also hired an interim head football coach (Shawn Kinnee) and a part-time fiscal secretary (Brooke Butler). 

Some shuffling of teachers' positions at the Middle School was done a bit earlier, and we're now ready for a new school year!

Monday, August 2, 2010

July Board Mtg

On the third Tuesday evening in July, the Swanton Board of Education met for our regular meeting.  Only 4 board members were in attendance, as Mr. Ueberroth was again unable to be there.

After the routine matters of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, observing a moment of silence, and adopting the  revised agenda, we heard from BettyJo Sadowski on the Middle School yearbook, and also from the 8th grade team on the Tikatok Project.  We had one member of the public who addressed the Board, and then we went into Executive Session to discuss employee employment.

Upon our return, the items included in the Consent Agenda were passed.  These items included minutes of our past meetings in June, various reports from the Treasurer, and personnel recommendations from the Superintendent.

New business items included a discussion on a proposed panel of 5 residents from our district with aptitude in finance, who are willing to serve in an advisory capacity to the Board.  Other districts have used similar ideas and found that such a panel can be a great liaison to the community as well.  No vote was taken on this matter.  The proposed name for then group is: Financial Activities Communication Team (FACT).  I like it!

The contractural agreements with Chartwell's (our food service vendor) and Stapleton Insurance  for 2010-11 were accepted as presented.

New business under the Superintendent section included agreements with the Northwest Ohio Computer Association (NWOCA) and the NW Ohio Juvenile Detention Center.  Both items passed unanimously. 

A few minor changes to the job description for Prom Advisor were accepted as presented.  Boy, how times have changed since my high school days, back in the Dark Ages.  We never had a "prom advisor" - our Student Council worked on the details and got them approved through the proper channels without needing to have a contractural agreement with the union.  That was over 30 years ago - guess things are done differently now!

A job description for Class Advisors was also presented for our approval.  There was a short discussion on the matter - I asked when we last had these jobs filled?  The answer was back before the district went into fiscal caution and had to RIF the positions (among others).  The pay scale for these positions is 11% of the base salary.  The vote to accept the job descriptions and place people into the jobs was 4 to 1, as I voted "no" on this one.

Student Handbooks for the 2010-11 school year were presented and accepted as presented.

Delayed from our June meeting was a decision on the date for graduation in 2011.  At that meeting, Kris Oberheim shared some concerns she had been told by parents about the timing of this year's ceremonies.  Steve Gfell, high school principal, put out a survey to parents of 2010-11 seniors and asked their preference among a couple of options.  The clear favorite was Saturday, June 4th, which would allow us to avoid the Memorial Day weekend holiday.  We voted to approve Saturday, June 4th at 2 p.m. for graduation in 2011. 

Committee reports were next on the agenda.  On the subject of the Swanton Recreation program, Kris Oberheim stated that she had been in conversation with several community members about the possibility of creating another joint recreation program between the School District and the Village.  Kris is looking into all the ramifications of such a venture, and said she is scheduled on the agenda for the Village Council meeting in August.  There was some discussion on the matter, which you may hear on the recording provided on the school district website here.  (scroll down the page to the Podcast list for the July 20th meeting)

Mona Dyke reported on the strategic planning discussions with which she has been involved, and also spoke about the upcoming training on BoardDocs which is a software system designed to minimize paper and printing for meeting agendas and associated documentation.

The committee on drug testing is waiting for the survery results to be tablulated before we move forward.

The Board then went into Executive Session for the purpose of the Superintendent evaluation.  As the hour was late, we did not finish that evening and will need to do so at a later date.