Editorial: Keep Personal Conflict Out of the Ballot Box

By Dana Trumbull

With the General Election just a few weeks away, the ads, posts, snipes, muckraking and political grandstanding has reached fever pitch. The local race for two positions on the local School Board is no exception; however, one of the topics being wielded to bludgeon two of the candidates, including the incumbent, is something that should never have become an issue for the Board, much less a tool for contentious candidates.

What started as a personal tiff – an event that ignited a preexisting personality conflict between two passionate and tenacious board members, quickly bled into Board business, and on August 29, district administrators called in two facilitators from the AZ School Board Association (ASBA) for “Board training” to help mend the rift that continues to undermine effectiveness. In an emotionally exhausting four hours (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UH4B9Z-wrE), Board members hammered out an agreement addressing “Board Norms and Expectations.” All Board members participated, and the facilitators promised to forward the document, which was to be discussed, edited if needed, and added into the Board operations manual.

At the September 25 Governing Board work session (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk-jEf6JPu4&feature=youtu.be, at approx. 2:08), the illusion of accomplishment exploded as members attempted to discuss a draft agreement of the resulting Board Norms. “NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN.” bellowed Board member Christa Rizzi, while the remaining three people on the dais looked confused, obviously blindsided. “What do you need changed for this to be acceptable to you,” queried Superintendent Anderson. “I’ll send it to you in writing,” replied Rizzi… before continuing emphatically for another two minutes.

I assume we will find out exactly what statements Ms. Rizzi objects to at the October 23 AJUSD Board meeting (6 p.m., October 23, at the district office), when a new draft is presented for discussion, after taking Ms. Rizzi’s written comments into account.

Unfortunately, the existing draft, intended to help facilitate communication, unify Board messaging and restore professional respect – or at least civility – is now being held up by certain candidates and their supporters as an example of an intentional lack of transparency in the current Board. (Read the draft document here: https://www.boarddocs.com/az/ajusd/Board.nsf/files/B4X2WK820B11/$file/GB%20Norms%20and%20Expectations%20(draft).pdf)

Ok. Let’s go there. What, if anything, has this Board done toward increasing transparency?

When I accepted the position as Public Relations Coordinator for AJUSD in July 2014, there were a lot of problems that the members of the Board were struggling to deal with. Relationships between the district and the city had deteriorated to the point that district administrators and city council members only spoke through their lawyers. Communication was dead. Public trust was dead. Transparency wasn’t even in the picture.

As PR Coordinator, I did everything I could think of to bring attention to the great things the AJ kids and staff were doing,  increase communication and open a few windows, introducing transparency within the district. The efforts were well received; but I knew that there was only so much that could be done until Dr. Wilson left. He had been rejected by the community, and he wasn’t really trying to win anyone back.

Current Board members Jodi Ehrlich and Dena Kimble, along with recently resigned Board member Mike Weaver were instrumental in his exit. It was Dena Kimble’s fierce tenacity that sleuthed out the loophole in his contract that allowed the Board (which by then included Christa Rizzi and Cami Garcia) to recoup more than $148,000 of severance pay. Ms. Rizzi, by the way, was the one dissenting vote on the revised severance agreement. She explained that she was voting “no” because, had she been on the Governing Board in December 2016, she would not have approved the original severance agreement, and she did not agree with all provisions in the new agreement (https://ajnews.com/tag/chad-wilson/). Odd to base a no vote that saves the district $148K on a moot point, but I guess it’s ok to cast a “statement” vote when you know it’s going to pass anyway.

Since Dr. Wilson’s departure, June 2017, a lot has been accomplished toward building transparency – and there is still a lot more work to be done. The new website is an improvement over the old one, although it is yet to be fully populated with information and organized for easy access. Director of Finance Cindy Reichert now includes highlights of the financial statements in plain English when she presents them to the Board and the public, but the format of the actual reports is still convoluted and full of acronyms and terms that make it hard for the average Joe to interpret, even though anyone can access it online 24/7, if they care to try. (The format is prescribed by the county and state and is not subject to alteration by individual districts; however, it was my unachieved dream to assemble a glossary of terms and acronyms that would make it easier for the public to read and interpret financial documents for themselves. It would be a huge task, but it is needed if any school district is to truly achieve financial transparency.

All documents presented to the Board are now accessible online prior to and after the Board meeting for public review and comment, and all Board meetings are digitally taped and posted on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoODY77_Lzay4HvrMnLcNkA) and/or the district website (https://az01901895.schoolwires.net/Page/121).

Probably the biggest change toward transparency is that the superintendent actually participates in a multitude of public events, contributing to the community and being available to constituents.

Things are better; transparency is greatly improved. The current Board has contributed significantly to these changes.

It is frustrating to our community – and to the Board – to look forward and know that there is so much more to be accomplished; but sometimes one must turn around and appreciate where you’ve been to gain perspective and gather strength to continue to where you need to be – because there’s still a long way to go.

That’s why it is so important for the Governing Board members to be able to work together, and that is what the Board Norms are all about. Personality conflicts and petty disagreements over personal issues have no place in the Board room (or the ballot box). There will be conflict – there must be some disagreement if better solutions are to be found. But as long as the Board members are willing to listen to each other and consider opposing viewpoints, they will be able to navigate to common ground and improved solutions – for transparency and for a higher quality of education.

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