I attended the meeting of the West Bend School Board that I mentioned this morning. What a deplorable example of governance.
Quick background… West Bend has two high schools in one building. It is apparently unique in this regard. Several years ago, in an effort to trim the cost of administration, the district went with a combined principal and single administrative staff. Tonight, the board voted to go back to two principals and, presumably, two staffs.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision itself. I see the sense in having two principals and as long as the cost of administration remains neutral or decreases, then it’s really just a matter of organizational structure. I can make an argument for either structure. But the method by which the board made their decision was an example of exceedingly poor governance.
Bear in mind that this is a board whose newest members have promised better transparency and stakeholder input. It is also a school district that was just completed a study about its communications. The study was fairly critical of the district’s communications and transparency and had several recommendations. The campaign promises and study were ignored in this process.
First, the board called a special meeting with almost no notice. The meeting notice was released the night before the meeting. They claim it was released 24 hours in advance in accordance with the law, but if they did it was by the skin of their teeth. The notice was buried in their website, but did not appear on their social media outlets or anywhere else. The only way anyone would have known about the meeting was if they happened to scan the public notices at the library this morning or dug into the meeting agendas about seven clicks down into the district’s website. Fortunately, the Washington County Insider saw it and wrote about it. That appears to be how most people who managed to attend the meeting heard about it.
Second, the description of the meeting in the notice did not mention one principal versus two. It was generic language about administrative policies. The only reason anyone knew that the board would be discussing splitting the principal position into two was because the board president emailed The Washington County Insider saying so.
In other words, the board planned to make a rather significant decision regarding the administrative structure of West Bend’s High Schools and failed to make even a cursory effort to inform the public or invite input. Indeed, their actions indicate that they were almost trying to evade public input.
During the meeting, Board President Tiffany Larson read a lengthy preamble laying out the rationale for the meeting. She stated that after hearing feedback during a listening panel, she thought that the public wanted two principals, so she brought it to the board. Board Member Monty Schmiege questioned her on this point later in the meeting. Larson admitted that the panel was actually a listening panel for hiring a new principal and was not to discuss this issue. She admitted that it was an off hand comment from someone during the meeting. One of the few speakers was an assistant principal who was a member of that panel. She questioned it and said that she did not recall the issue even being discussed. Larson also didn’t name who made the comment. Nobody can apparently even verify that the root comment that generated this meeting even happened.
A few speakers managed to speak during the public comment period. They all supported two principals, but several of them also complained about the lack of communication or notice. One person mentioned that she is a parent whose husband is a teacher and the only way she found out about the meeting was on the Washington County Insider. There was no notice to parents, faculty, staff, or anyone else.
Larson and board member Tonnie Schmidt both brushed aside concerns about communication or public input. Larson made some comments about this being a discussion in the community for years. They said that the reason for the urgency was that they wanted to get it changed prior to the new school year starting. The cited a couple of letters from former principals and comments from unnamed people in the community. Apparently, that passes for public input. I, for one, didn’t even know it was up for discussion until this morning, and now it is done. I suspect that hundreds of people will read this, the Washington County Insider, or the Daily News over the next couple of days and have had no idea this even happened.
Schmiege also made reference to the fact that the issue was discussed previously in a closed executive session and apparently the Superintendent was going to conduct a study of the issue and make a recommendation. The board acted without any research, study, cost estimates, or recommendation from the administration. We have no idea what the cost will be. We don’t know what the division of labor will be. We don’t know what the reporting structure will be. We don’t know anything. All we know is that now there will be two principals instead of one. Larson dismissed such concerns saying that West Bend had two principals for decades and it will work. Only ignorance could instill such confidence.
I would note that I did reach out this morning for comment from every board member. None of them have responded. This is the third or fourth time I’ve asked for comment without any response. The new board’s communication policy appears to be to not communicate at all.