Thoughts and Priorities on Roger Rowe School Board

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Two years ago I was elected to serve on the school board along with Rose Rohatgi and Annette Ross.  The three of us were chosen by the community out of a field of seven candidates to fill three open positions.  We were a very young board in terms of experience, with the three of us joining the other two existing board members (Jee Manghani and Kali Kim) who they themselves had just been voted in two years previously.

It was a challenging time, early in the Covid-19 pandemic – a time of great uncertainty.  We focused our collective energy on the basics of simply staying open and trying to create some level of normalcy for our students in a world that completely lost its way.  The school remained open all year for the 2020-21 year and our entire community celebrated the tenacity and leadership of our school’s administration that made this possible.  Yes, being open that first year of Covid was a big deal!  But that was two years ago.  Life has moved on, and we don’t need to keep being reminded that the school was open two years ago as if that gives the school a free pass to being mediocre now.

Yes, the pandemic wreaked havoc in so many ways.  Despite our school being open, the time spent working all of the various Covid issues took time away from our ability to actually do what I thought a school board would be doing, which is to make the school a better place for our children.  As a governing board we unfortunately had to postpone and delay meaningful and substantive conversations about curriculum development, academic excellence, and leadership development of the administration … all sacrificed on the altar of getting through the Pandemic.  But no excuses.  The buck stops with the school board, and we need to do a better job going forward.

There is much work to be done to make Roger Rowe great again.  We are nowhere near where we need to be, and I am personally unsatisfied and disappointed with where things are at.

I agree with my colleague and fellow board member, Annette Ross, when she wrote last week that our board is ineffective.  But there is a lot more to this statement than meets the eye!  When I joined this board two years ago, I had already served for many years on numerous corporate “for profit” boards of very large companies.  I felt well prepared for the school board, with my business background and over three decades of significant military service in the Air Force.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the system is rigged against us.  And by “system” I mean the California education code and the so-called “Brown Act”.  In particular, the Brown Act is a California law which regulates and establishes everything that a board member can and cannot do.  One of the more perverse rules is that we are not allowed as board members to have any conversations about anything relating to the school outside of an official board meeting.  We are not allowed to talk among ourselves or go to dinner with three or more of us present.  We cannot go to each other’s homes, or visit socially in groups of three or more.  You might be thinking there is a loophole for only two board members to meet but no, the Brown Act has an answer for that as well:  the rule says that if any two board members do talk together outside of a board meeting, such as going to dinner together, they cannot talk about school business because they might try and (gasp) talk further with another school board member on the same topic, and then that would be skirting around the 3-person rule and it’s explicitly forbidden.  Furthermore, even when we are in official board meetings, we are not allowed to discuss anything that hasn’t been put on the agenda within the proper public notification period.

In every other board I’ve served on, we built relationships with each other.  We socialized and became friends, and we leaned into these relationships to work together on the policies and strategies we wanted implemented.  In fact, it was quite rare that we actually did any real “sausage making” in the actual board meeting, as all the wrangling and work was done off-line, prior to the actual meeting.

These efficient methods used in private industry are illegal for school boards to do in California, so we’re left strictly to the public meetings to actually figure out the various points of view and have any meaningful conversation.  It’s the first time we get to hear from our fellow board members on the issue and in that short period of time we have to formulate our thoughts, engage and debate the merits of the idea, and then vote on it.  All with zero ability to work the issue beforehand, or offline, or in smaller groups, etc.   Then consider the dysfunctional way we obtain input from the community at these board meetings: for the concerned parents and community members who show up, they get to say their 3-minute piece at the beginning of the meeting, before hearing the issue being discussed and debated, and before knowing what each board member is going to say.  It’s frustrating for the parents and it’s frustrating to me.

There are many more examples, but suffice it to say that yes, I do believe that the system is rigged to make us ineffective.  I’m sure the legislators in Sacramento devised all these rules to protect the public against some rogue boards that must have gone off the rails, so they imposed extremely inefficient rules in order to provide the public with maximum oversight.  But the tradeoff for this oversight is inefficiency.   I think it’s important for everyone in the community to understand these rules and their impact on school boards. And as board members, we need to understand our obligations to follow the law, while doing everything we can to become more effective within the legal framework that exists.  This will help us as we work to return Roger Rowe to greatness!

Finally, here are the issues that I believe we need to immediately address and solve:

  1. We need to hire a strong superintendent. Getting this right will be the number one thing we can do as a Board over this school year.
  2. We need to make Roger Rowe safe. Safe from bullying, safe from predators, safe from pedophiles and safe from danger.  We are falling very short in this area, and it sickens me every time I’m briefed on another bullyism incident or violence of any kind at our school.  We have an entire punishment protocol to follow that gives consequences for bad behavior but it doesn’t seem to get applied, evenly or at all.  This must change.
  3. We need to reinvigorate our academic curriculum, especially for the middle school. We need to develop and implement an honors/advanced program for those students capable of doing more. I categorically reject the proposition that this can be done exclusively within the existing classroom structure, and I reject the idea of teaching everyone “to the middle.”  We need to motivate, encourage and challenge the gifted children, who can and want to do more, while also attending to and meeting the needs of the regular students and to the developmentally delayed.
  4. We need to go back to our roots, and implement more enrichment programs that made Roger Rowe so magical in the first place. Things like Ocean Week, library programs, advanced robotics, and so much more.  Of course we need to be financially pragmatic and budget conscious but these programs, and others like them, provided so much more richness to the school day and the school life of the child.

So where do we go from here?  First off, we have an election this week.  Two incumbents are running against two challengers.  It’s been a spirted election season and I’m looking forward to the vote and learning who are the two people who will be picked by our community to serve for the next four years.  I’m happy there are challengers because I believe no incumbent should feel entitled to another term of anything without earning the votes for re-election from the voters.  So please do your civic duty and vote.  Pick the person(s) you believe will do the best job for the children, working with us three current board members to create the best team for success in the future!

For the four candidates running for these two seats, I wish you good luck.  For the two winners, I look forward to working with you over the next two years and hope you are ready to dig in and get started on Day One.  And for the two who do not prevail on election day, please continue to stay involved.  Our community is better for it when more people are involved.

John Tree