The buck stops here,” unless you’re the Vashon Island School Board.
The board’s primary job is oversight of the school district on behalf of the public. But they have largely abandoned this job, acting as uncritical cheerleaders for the superintendent’s decisions. Such an approach leaves teachers, staff, parents, students and community members without a meaningful voice in district decision-making. Nowhere is this problem clearer than the superintendent’s newly unveiled plan for distance learning this fall, which proposes to break up year-long classes like math, science and foreign language with built-in, two-month instructional interruptions that destroy any continuity or consistency in the learning process.
The recent decision on how the district will conduct its distance learning operations this fall illustrates how the board is failing in its oversight role. Over the summer, the superintendent failed to engage either the board or the public with the distance learning schedule that he finally disclosed just last week for McMurray and VHS. Other school districts have been publicly working on and refining these plans since June. After all, distance learning was, at best, hit and miss last spring. These difficulties were understandable in the beginning months of a pandemic, but it left many teachers and students without adequate educational support during those months. Summer was the time to fix this problem with the ideas of teachers, parents and students. But nothing much happened. The superintendent never engaged the large school reopening group on distance learning options. An unscientific survey failed to meaningfully address or solicit distance learning ideas.
With teachers, parents and students clamoring for information about the impending start of school, the board scheduled a special meeting last Thursday to discuss re-opening issues. The one thing missing from the agenda? The actual reopening class schedule for McMurray and VHS. A proposed reopening schedule was buried deep in the board packet assembled by the superintendent, but several of the board members expressed puzzlement at what was before them and whether they had to vote on the superintendent’s reopening schedule. The board was aware of the superintendent’s drastic schedule change only because a group of concerned teachers, parents and community members uncovered it less than 24 hours before the meeting. It was not fully disclosed to the general public until just after 3 p.m. on the day of the school board meeting. This left less than an hour for many islanders to digest the schedule change, compose their thoughts, and submit public comment by the board’s 4 p.m. deadline. In short, there was no transparent process, no meaningful engagement of teachers or the public, nor any opportunity for meaningful public discussion. This utter lack of public engagement falls not only on the superintendent but also on our board for allowing it to happen.
So why do we value public engagement and board oversight rather than leaving decisions to the whims of a learned superintendent? For the simple reason that decisions are better when they consider differing ideas and points of view.
The superintendent’s untimely and unvetted reopening schedule was a real turkey. It took McMurray and VHS off the time-tested semester system and adopted a strange variant of the quarter system whereby year-long classes like math, science and foreign languages were purposely interrupted by a nine-week break. This makes no sense, greatly hampers students’ ability to learn, and sets them up for failure. From a student’s perspective, I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to take a quarter of Algebra and then take nine weeks off from this subject with the expectation that proficiency should remain when the class finally resumes. Math and science teachers weren’t consulted on this schedule and it flies in the face of research demonstrating that long breaks in learning are a bad idea.
Faced with thoughtful and overwhelming public comments against this proposed schedule, the school board barely batted an eye. It accepted the superintendent’s claim that such a drastic change in school scheduling was solely up to him. The board cheered when it should have been asking critical questions and demanding answers. The superintendent acknowledged the problems with his schedule, but claimed that our teachers would somehow overcome its inherent structural flaws. In the end, with the start of school just weeks away, the school board neither debated nor voted on the superintendent’s proposed distance learning schedule.
There are better options out there that merit public discussion and consideration. Despite the lack of engagement, at least one teacher-created scheduling option fixes the substantial problems in the superintendent’s schedule. A parent group is actively exploring all options before yet another season of schooling is lost, but there is no indication that the superintendent is willing to reconsider. By statute, the school board has “the final responsibility for the setting of policies ensuring quality in the content and extent of its educational program.” In short, we need our school board to step up and perform its oversight role, rather than rubber-stamping the superintendent’s decisions.
David Hackett is a parent with two daughters in the Vashon Island School District.