More than ever, school board needs to hold focused meetings

The Oct. 8 meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. It stretched to almost twice that long.

  • Friday, October 16, 2020 3:01pm
  • Opinion

The Vashon Island School Board is discussing some significant matters at its bi-monthly meetings – issues, frankly, that could have life and death consequences for local children, families and teachers.

As community members, we all have a right and responsibility to pay attention, and many are. School board meetings are well-attended these days; many parents are Zooming into the meetings.

But the world of Zoom — while making it easier to “attend” meetings — is also extremely challenging. It’s a strange and disembodied platform, a difficult way to participate in civic life, and it requires our elected officials to run tight, efficient and focused meetings.

Unfortunately, recent school board Zoom sessions presided over by board Chair Rheagan Sparks have been anything but brisk.

The Oct. 8 meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. Instead, it stretched to almost twice that long.

It took more than an hour, after the start of the meeting, for the board to get to the most urgent matter at hand — Superintendent Slade McSheehy’s plan to re-open schools for in-person learning, possibly as soon as Nov. 9.

To be fair, there were many other substantive issues on the agenda, but some of them, at least, could have been held for another time. The transition to in-person school is a complex subject, and it needed to take precedence at the meeting.

Centering this topic would have also given the board more time to fully discuss the many safety implications at play in hybrid learning, a long list of which were brought up in a public comment to the board by a community member, Barbara Gayle.

As it turns out, many of these issues have been addressed in a 19-page COVID-19 safety handbook developed by the district, but the discussion of this important document was mostly focused on praising the team that had created it – as part of a round of over-the-top thank-yous that have become a tiresome and repeated ritual for the board.

At the start of the meeting, McSheehy and board members took almost 20 minutes to deliver comments that were in large part a litany of plaudits for preschool teachers and principals in the district, as well as new student board representatives, district partners and funders of specific programs. McSheehy also extended accolades to the board itself.

Gratitude is great, and it is only right to recognize all those — especially VISD teachers and staff members — who are indeed working very hard these days under very challenging conditions.

But the core mission of the elected school board — oversight of the decisions of its well-paid administration, analysis of how public funds are being spent, and most importantly ensuring that no child is left behind by the district — sometimes seem to be drowned out by this too congratulatory, cheerleading ethos.

A board retreat is planned for next week, and at this retreat, we urge the members to spend some time examining their culture and to make a pact to try to keep the meetings running on schedule, without repeatedly telling the public what a great job everyone is doing.

We already know that and appreciate it. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that everything isn’t always great. Stuff doesn’t always work out like you thought it might. And even if you’re doing great, what you really should be focused on is doing better.

If the board and administration can both better watch the clock and shift to a more rigorous tone in their public discourse, we’ll thank them, profusely.

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