Why won’t the school board deliberate in public?

7:53 am

The Portland Public Schools board of education’s appointment last night of Martín González was certainly no surprise. Two of the five candidates — Blanton and Stephan — were unqualified, and two of the remaining three — Buel and Moore — were openly critical, one even sarcastic, about the board’s student transfer and school funding policies which have created a second tier of neighborhood schools in our poor and minority areas.

Evidently these two didn’t get the memo that the student transfer policy is the Thing That Shan’t be Mentioned in Public. After all, it solves such a Very Important Problem.

González got this memo, and also the one about keeping all dissent under wraps. As he pointed out in the candidate forum Tuesday, he worked for many years in an organization that makes all decisions by consensus. He as much as said he’s a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He appears completely unlikely to rock the boat on any significant issues (e.g. the student transfer policy).

For at least five years, this school board has ruled by inertia. It is extremely rare, if not unheard of in recent history, for any significant policy to originate with the board. Instead, they abdicate their policy-making role to staff, discuss it in private and rubber stamp it in public.

When they do have to make a decision — hiring a superintendent, approving or denying a charter school, appointing board leadership — the decisions are made behind closed doors with no public deliberation, and are almost always unanimous (or nearly unanimous). By the time they go before the public, it is a done deal, and any board discussion (not to mention citizen comment) is moot.

If there is dissent, or even difficult considerations arriving at consensus, these are rarely articulated publicly.

The appointment of González shows us two such examples. First, when approving the process for appointing a new member on July 7, the vote was 5-1. Sonja Henning voted “no,” but during board discussion of the issue, she deferred. “I don’t need to say it here,” she said.

After the meeting adjourned and the cameras and microphones were turned off, two of her board colleagues joined her for a discussion that greatly exceeded the length of the official board meeting.

Doesn’t the public have a right to know why she voted “no”? Isn’t public deliberation a fundamental piece of the democratic process?

In last night’s pre-ordained appointment of González, board “discussion” focussed solely on kudos to González and how excellent “all five” candidates were.

Surely, in private, the board had discussed the other four candidates in some detail. Surely they spoke of the fact that two were not truly qualified, that Steve Buel, while arguably the most qualified candidate, spent too much time directly criticizing the board’s failure to act on equity, and that Rita Moore seemed too willing to challenge them on their student transfer and school funding policies. Surely they talked about how much easier it will be to work with somebody who supports the current transfer policy and whose style is non-confrontational.

Yes, it might be uncomfortable to come right out and say these things on the public record, but we all know they’re being said, and we all know important decisions are being made in private.

I’m not suggesting this board is breaking Oregon’s public meeting law. Legally, they can meet privately in non-majority groups, and they can play phone tree, deliberating and reaching consensus out of the public eye.

But even if they’re hewing to the letter of the law, they habitually violate the spirit of open, democratic process.

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Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

filed under: School Board

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2 Responses

  1. Comment from Terry:

    That’s precisely what I was thinking as I watched the twenty minute rush to unanimously anoint Martin Gonzales as the new and congenial board member. Much of what the board was actually thinking was left unsaid.

    Ruth Adkins came closest to saying anything of substance when she acknowledged that she would probably differ with Gonzales on certain issues. Problem is, she didn’t say which issues.

    I didn’t know that Sonja Henning was a holdout on procedure. As a publicly elected representative of the district, it seems to me that she has an obligation to speak her mind in front of the cameras.

    When I taught in Hillsboro, the faculty of our school used consensus decision making, too, on contentious issues involving school reform and team teaching.

    None of the consensus building, however, took place behind closed doors.

    Great post, Steve.

  2. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    A reader who wishes to remain anonymous points out that in the charter schools processes, much public debate was had in committee meetings (and, I would add, much was said in full board meetings, too, even if the decisions were already made coming in).

    A valid point. I should have highlighted this as something where they’ve had pretty good public deliberation, but instead I included it with decisions that were made with very little or no public deliberation.