[Disclosure: I have no personal or professional relationship with anyone associated with the Hillsborough County Schools. Any opinion expressed here is the direct result of disinterested inquiry.]
The Hillsborough County School Board has gotten some publicity over the last few days – and not the good kind.
With a new school year underway, HCSB held a teamwork training session this week for its members. The activities were meant to develop the professional relationships that, in theory, make a school board a cohesive governing body. It went sour.
Letitia Stein of the St. Petersburg Times sets the stage:
School Board member Jennifer Faliero told colleague April Griffin to change her style and “learn to swallow your medicine.” If not, Faliero said, she’ll become a maverick on the losing end of votes.
As other board members chimed in concerns about her defensiveness, Griffin retorted, “I’m not buying what you’re saying.”
“Then you need to resign,” Faliero shot back.
Amid cries for a “time out,” Griffin stormed out of the training exercise.
Griffin was especially bothered by a call for her resignation from a Board member who, as I’ll explain later, is no stranger to a contempt for the law worthy of resignation herself.
But this is more than an emotionally-charged spat; it’s an instructive example for how to think – and how not to think – about school district governance.
The Hillsborough Board, from what we can see and read, has further separated into two camps following the evaluation of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Griffin and Susan Valdes were critical of Elia’s performance; the other 5 members, including Faliero, weighed in with overwhelming support. The problems here, however, are less political than with members’ differing commitments to serving the district.
Take a moment to glance at the recent 8-page evaluation of Elia’s performance [Adobe PDF, 8 pages, link opens in new window]. It consists of a scoring rubric on various elements of her leadership, then a collection of board members’ comments on those elements. Though Faliero has cried foul and subtly characterized Griffin as a mean-spirited rogue, the proof is in the PDF.
The comments for “Standard VIII. Values and Ethics of Leadership” demonstrate not only Griffin’s commitment to moving beyond finger-pointing to solve a problem, but also the indifference of other board members:
[Jack] Lamb: You know where she stands and why.
[Doretha] Edgecomb: The Superintendent models leadership that is ethical and acts in a professional manner that demonstrates a respect for others and an understanding of statutory standards that must be adhered to for operating a responsive, ethical and caring district.
[April] Griffin: The School Board has “…any power except as prohibited by law…” (F.S. 1001.32 (2)) and may adopt policy or procedure (F.S. 1001.43 (10)) while the Superintedent’s powers are either to advise or recommend to the Board (1001.49 (2), 1001.49 (3), 1001.49 (4), 1001.49 (5)) while providing “general oversight” of the district operations in order to identify problems so that the Superintendent may make additional recommendations as needed (1001.49 (1)). F.S. 1001.51, in describing the Superintendent’s duties, continues the trend of not providing discretionary decision-making authority, instead vesting in the Superintendent’s power and influence in her ability to advise and sway the Board. Based on numerous conversations and “events” I do not believe that MaryEllen shares this interpretation of Florida School Law. I find this most troubling as I believe that this misalignment is the source of many of the challenges that I have cited in this performance evaluation.
[ed. - Comments from other Board members did not appear in this section of the document and, presumably, were not submitted.]
Though one may not agree with Griffin’s criticism of Superintendent Elia, there is no question that her reasoning has a solid foundation; she demonstrated that by explaining herself in full and citing relevant statutes to support her argument. This is what we expect from our elected officials: clear, transparent views supported by evidence. Board member Carol Kurdell accused Griffin of “disengaging” from Board meetings, but Griffin’s comment above – and plenty of open, honest admissions on her website – demonstrates both purposeful engagement and a sound commitment to problem-solving.
We expect that an elected Board member overseeing a district with 203,000 students and over 25,000 personnel would provide a full explanation for his or her actions. We don’t expect a single, incomplete sentence better suited to a comment on a Myspace profile than to a public, District-wide report for a major school system – and we certainly don’t expect to see no comment at all.
One need not be on this Board to understand how these differences in accountability, transparency and “vision” – one of the things Tuesday’s teamwork building episode was supposed to heal – could manifest itself into real tension.
Valdes commented to Faliero that the call for Griffin’s resignation was, “below the belt,” to which Faliero responded:
“I don’t feel it was below the belt,” Faliero said. “I feel it was a candid comment based on an assessment.”
“You’ve got to earn your way,” Faliero added. “You’ve got to earn your respect and you’ve got to learn how to work in the system.”
Griffin fired back that she wasn’t elected to “go along to get along.”
That’s because April Griffin understands that she was elected to serve a large school system responsibly, a mission that can’t be clouded by a selfish, immature focus on emotional outbursts.
Faliero needs to realize that, as a recent self-help book advised readers to remember, “it isn’t all about you.” Disagreement and contentious debate – which sometimes can become angry – isn’t about the individual personalities involved. It’s about those 203,000 students, 25,000 employees and the nearly 1.2 million who make up its taxpayer base. Public servants in municipalities as small as Cooperstown and as large as Hillsborough County need to commit fully to their constituents – and that means realizing that their individual sensibilities are far less important than the community that you serve.
If one needs an anecdotal Hollywood example of this principle in action, consider the scene in Lean on Me in which Dr. Frank Napier argues ferociously with Eastside High Principal Joe Clark. What follows the highly emotional argument? “Alright, let’s go get something to eat.”
If Hollywood understands that school leadership isn’t personal, members of the Hillsborough School Board are certainly capable of understanding, too. As education technology specialist Scott McLeod has asked, “Are we doing what is best for our students, or are we doing what is convenient for us?” Words like “comfortable” and “easy” can be substituted for “convenient,” and the simple answer given to that question would speak volumes about a Board member’s attitude toward school governance.
In short, Faliero needs to grow up and act like the secure, professional adult that she was elected to be. And secure professionals who are devoted to their constituents don’t have unhinged outbursts.
But I can understand how Jennifer Faliero’s skin might be thinner this August than in years past. Last week the St. Petersburg Times reported that she had moved from the Hillsborough district that she was elected to represent as a result of her divorce – an allegation that she initially denied:
Faliero, who has enrolled her daughters in two of south Tampa’s best-regarded public schools, initially denied she was living there when questioned by the St. Petersburg Times.
A day later, she decided to share the details of a situation she acknowledges having tried to keep “under the radar.”
“My intent was not to leave the district, but I really had no choice but to find other places to live,” said Faliero, 44.
Faliero’s attendance this summer for Board meetings and functions has also been sparse:
Faliero has been notably absent at School Board meetings this summer. From July to mid-August, she missed five meetings and workshops – half of the last 10 scheduled.
The intent of raising these issues isn’t to embarrass Faliero or to exacerbate her difficulties in life. Any competent leader – and any competent follower – realizes that there are exceptions to rules. Extenuating and unfortunate circumstances happen. Faliero isn’t the first to undergo an unforeseen restructuring in her life and she won’t be the last. Even so, she does, as an elected public servant, need to be held accountable for the way that she handled the situation.
I have trouble imagining that anyone would punish Faliero for a temporary move based on the circumstances, but she had no reason not to be candid about her situation. A responsible leader is proactive and honest when such things arise; real leaders don’t sweep them under the carpet. As Pro on HCPS summarizes, Faliero moved discreetly, denied it to the press, admitted the truth when she was caught and then suggested that another Board member resign.
The Hillsborough County School Board has enjoyed easier times. As this scene plays out, Board members must remember that they are held accountable by their constituents and need to behave like responsible, professional adults who put the community first in their commitment to serving the District. Griffin has done this; hopefully others on the Board will follow suit.
To Ms. Griffin, I say, “Onward, Christian soldier.”
And to keep the theme, I’ll deliver to Ms. Faliero a piece from the Gospel of Luke: “…Physician, heal thyself.”
UPDATE at 08.30.07, 9.41pm:
Stephen Downes has posted a lengthy response at his site HalfAnHour. I’ll respond as soon as I get some time to put my thoughts together.
The Wall, an unofficial blog designed to provide a forum for Hillsborough County School District employees, has posted a take on Faliero’s conduct.Â
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