What Poor School Board Governance Looks Like

The evolutionary struggle for survival has provided us with three fundamental metrics we can use to evaluate the performance of any and every organization.

The first is Effectiveness — Have we established goals that, if achieved, will enable us to at minimum survive and hopefully thrive? And are we reaching them?

The second is Efficiency — How many resources do we require to achieve our goals?

The third is Adaptability — How much do our effectiveness and efficiency suffer in response to changes in our external environment?

By these metrics, Jefferson County — the nation’s 36th largest school district — has performed very poorly for at least the past 15 years.

In terms of effectiveness, the district assures parents and taxpayers that 98% of Jeffco teachers are effective or highly effective. But on the 2016 ACT, only 32% of Jeffco 11th graders met all four college and career ready standards in English Composition, Reading, Math, and Science. This increased to 40% last year, when Colorado switched to the SAT.

However, the SAT doesn’t have a science test, which is the area where the most Jeffco students fall short. In other words, the apparent improvement is an illusion. In short, despite spending a billion tax dollars each year, Jeffco is failing 60% to 70% of its students.

To be sure, there is more to college and career readiness than competence in reading, writing, math, and science. But I have never heard anybody say that these competencies aren’t necessary, even if they are not sufficient.

Unfortunately, after 12 years of schooling, far too few Jeffco students have developed them. Moreover, you can’t blame all of this terrible performance on poverty — only 33% of Jeffco students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and over the past seven years at Wheat Ridge High School I’ve seen many of them excel. Poverty is not destiny, and not an excuse for Jeffco’s failure to adequately educate its students.

When it comes to efficiency, Jeffco is a classic example of an organization that focuses far too much on financial accounting and far too little on cost accounting. The private sector discipline of activity based costing — which connects goals to the activities required to achieve them, and those activities to operating and capital costs — is completely absent in Jeffco.

Let me offer a painful, but very telling example. On the district’s “financial transparency” website, you can see individual Jeffco purchase transactions. But you cannot aggregate them into meaningful cost categories. I have repeatedly asked district leaders how much Jeffco spends on teacher professional development, (including both direct costs and the value of employees’ time), what metrics are used to measure its effectiveness, and what return the taxpayers are getting on this investment. I have never received an answer.

We live in an uncertain and rapidly changing world in which adaptability is critical to organizational success. In K-12, we have seen other districts, most notably Denver, Washington DC, and New Orleans, aggressively innovate and significantly improve their student achievement results. We also saw that when we lived in Alberta. We know it is not impossible.

But for at least the past 15 years, achievement results have been poor and stagnant in Jeffco. Tens of thousands of children have graduated not ready for college or a career, despite the billion taxpayer dollars spent each year on their education.

In stark and depressing contrast to our experience in Alberta, in the seven years since we moved here from Calgary I have never met a Jeffco leader who could clearly answer these questions:

· What are the three most important innovation projects the district launched three years ago?

· On the basis of what evidence did Jeffco choose them instead of others?

· What were their expected results?

· What was their budget?

· Were they implemented with high fidelity?

· Did they come in on schedule and on budget?

· How did the actual results they produced compare to what was expected?

· What lessons were learned? How were they communicated to others?

· And what happened next? Were the innovations terminated? Scaled up? Or did they just peter out, as we’ve seen too many of them do.

It is painfully clear that innovation is not a priority in Jeffco, and no surprise that its adaptability is weak, as evidenced by the fact that for fifteen years taxpayers have been spending more and getting less.

In diagnosing the root cause Jeffco’s poor performance, a critical question is the extent to which directors who serve on the district’s Board of Education have performed their fundamental fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.

The Duty of Loyalty requires directors to put the interest of the organization they serve above their own interest and the interests of other organizations from which they personally benefit.

In the public sector, questions about directors’ loyalty usually involve the extent to which their decisions are influenced by outside parties that supported their election, especially (at the local level) public sector unions. As New York municipal union leader Victor Gotbaum once famously said, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

Thanks to a judge’s decision, Jeffco voters only learned after the fact that the 2015 campaign to recall three school board members was mostly paid for by the teachers’ union, despite repeated assurances by Recall supporters that this wasn’t the case.

It thus sadly came as no surprise that in the FY 2018 district budget the Board awarded teachers a $25 million raise (distributed on the basis of seniority), despite the absence of compelling evidence to justify it (see the District Accountability Committee Dissenting Opinion that opposed the raise).

Directors’ fiduciary Duty of Care requires them to make decisions only after taking all available information into account, and then to act in a judicious manner that promotes the organization’s best interests.

This Duty of Care is often further broken down into five critical board governance imperatives.

The first is to set direction, which involves establishing the most important goals the organization must achieve in order to survive and thrive, and then approving management’s strategy for reaching them. The current Jeffco Board has, shockingly, not set student achievement improvement goals.

Another potential root cause of Jeffco’s poor results is that the district has no strategy, and the Board has failed in its duty to ensure that it does. While the Board approved an aspirational and buzzword-filled vision for the district (“Jeffco 2020”), vision is not strategy.

A real strategy is a causal theory of how to use limited resources to achieve critical goals in the face of uncertainty.

Strategy is not a collection of politically correct buzzwords cobbled together by a committee. Nor is strategy equivalent to endlessly whining that the district needs more money, in addition to the billion tax dollars it receives each year. Finally, strategy is not doing the same things over and over again while hoping for a better result.

All of these lessons apparently escaped Jeffco’s directors.

The second aspect of the Duty of Care is allocating resources to drive implementation of the organization’s strategy.

Given the absence of a district strategy, the Jeffco Board has instead focused the annual budget process solely on allocating incremental revenues (about $20 million last year), and has refused to examine how efficiently and effectively a billion taxpayer dollars are being spent. This approach has only served to reinforce the failed status quo in Jeffco schools.

The third aspect of the Duty of Care is to assess risks to the success of the strategy and survival of the organization, and to evaluate and approve the steps management is taking to mitigate them.

Here I am not talking about operational and financial risks that can be insured. Rather, a board’s primary focus should be on existential risks to an organization’s strategy and survival, as these are the ones most likely to be denied or minimized by management teams. The strategic risks facing Jeffco include the following:

(1) The certainty of another teacher pension (PERA) funding crisis;

(2) The high probability that substantial increases in state K-12 funding will not be forthcoming, because of competing demands from a backlog of infrastructure projects and an explosion in social safety net spending to support the rising number of people who lack the skills needed to succeed in today’s economy;

(3) Voter resistance to paying higher taxes unless and until governments (and our schools in particular) significantly improve the value they provide;

(4) Declining enrollment in district-run schools; and,

(5) A deeply rooted district culture that is very resistant to change, reinforced by the very one-sided contract with the teachers’ union that the current Board approved.

For example, in the 2016/2017 school year, Jeffco teachers took 43,353 personal and sick days — the equivalent of 248 teachers. Put differently, that is almost 2 teachers with no-show jobs at each of the district’s 135 district-run schools. Yet 98% of Jeffco teachers were still rated effective or highly effective. The negative impact on student achievement is substantial.

Even worse, based on US Department of Education data, 30% of Jeffco teachers are chronic absentees, using personal and sick days to miss more than 10 days out of the 185-day contract year. To people who work in the private sector, this is shocking. Unfortunately, too many people in K12 seem to regard it as business as usual.

The Jeffco Board of Education has failed to acknowledge any of these strategic risks, much less publicly discuss actions the district is taking (or not taking) to address either their causes and/or their potential consequences. Private sector directors of a billion-dollar organization could not be so negligent and not get sued by shareholders.

The fourth aspect of directors’ Duty of Care is to hire and evaluate a leader for the organization. The Jeffco Board hired a new superintendent from a district just one-tenth the size of Jeffco.

The Board agreed to pay him a million dollars in salary and benefits over three years, the highest superintendent pay package in Colorado. They also gave him a contract that, amazingly, failed to include any student achievement improvement goals. Can you name the CEO of any other billion-dollar organization whose million-dollar contract does not include performance improvement goals?

The fifth aspect of the Duty of Care is to monitor and evaluate the organization’s performance, including continually testing the assumptions that underlie its strategy. Sadly, like too many other school boards, the current Jeffco directors havelargely been nothing more than cheerleaders for the district, at a time when its performance suggests a desperate need for critical, hard-nosed governance.

Using the above criteria, the Jeffco Board of Education has fallen far short of a reasonable standard of performance for directors of a billion-dollar organization.

The short-term consequences of poor board governance for student achievement are clear. Unfortunately, the far greater lifetime consequences for the tens of thousands of students who Jeffco has failed are not.

Tom Coyne is a political Independent. He was a member of the Jeffco District Accountability Committee, and chair of the Wheat Ridge High School Accountability Committee.

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