Oversight lack faced : Why did it take Jail for CEO's COO?

Submitted by jpelikan on Tue, 06/22/2010 - 13:19.

Note: Written in response to the Plain Dealer June 21st Editorial "Stiff Punishment For School Thief."

It should not have taken the trail of Dan Burns to conclude that the oversight at the Cleveland school district is insufficient. The major gap in the plans of the District is the lack of any objective and transparent review of the ways in which the management and governance of the District impact on schools, teaching, and community engagement.

Without these the case for what is spun as a transformation plan is weak. Anyone who has attended Board and other District meetings, read the documents, and tried to learn how the District makes decisions, has experienced warning sign after warning sign that the District isn’t yet ready to transform itself. We are in the midst of a more expensive and ambitious version of what we have seen before.

Years of governance and management dysfunction are poorly accounted for and decision makers have little grasp of their own contributions to the extreme disengagement of the District from the families and neighborhoods served.

In Cleveland it isn’t easy for Community reality to impact decision making. Work on the big changes begins only after those always in charge accept a plan as fitting into the vantage point at the top of our political- economic civic leadership. Under this banner it is less often the community perspective and more often a power perspective that defines and eventually imposes the change. Don’t however assume that either perspective in itself is right or wrong, both are just necessary.

From a Community perspective, questions about all the District plans rest on the multitude of small and large daily and yearly encounters with a dysfunctional institution. The dysfunction has deep roots in long standing and still preserved governance and management premises and structures that go beyond the scope of the academic plan now being launched.

When the impact of a bureaucracy reaches the community (parents, residents, students) it isn’t the isolated part but the whole that is at work. At point of impact there are no privileged parts or personalities. In many ways it this provides for one of the more objective views of the District than what we have seen in public discourse so far.

At a time when we have an opportunity for real institutional change it is particularly important that those with power be attentive to the reality and value of the Community perspective, be open to the same change in their perspectives that they asks of others, and practice some humility.

An example of the need to reconsider the adequacy of such a perspective is the June 7th Plain Dealer Editorial which argued that teachers should just trust that if they just bend, they will be treated fairly and real change will occur in the District.

This argument deals with only one of the critical input. Absent are other inputs playing a significant role in the outcome of the teachers’ action, those of governance and management. 

Dismissing the Community Perspective was already visible the day Cleveland’s civic leadership started the recruitment process for Barbara Byrd Bennett’s replacement. At the so called community input session I attend five years ago at the Lutheran church on Lorain near west 130th, the perspectives of Power and of Community were both visible. Power called the meeting and decided the outcome. Community came to speak and to be heard and wasn’t.

In that session whenever issues about the relation of the CMSD to the public (parents, students, community) were brought up as a major concern, those in charge would say “you mean we need better or more public relations.” The answer from the participants was “no, you need to be open to community participation.” At the end of the day, the deciders choose what they heard.

Public Relation is part of the political and economic power world. Its goal is to sell the product to consumers and leaves the consumer largely product of a script and hardly recognized outside of that script. Keeping a positive image of the powerful is central. 

Community Participation assumes the capacity to listen to others’ perspective, especially those different from our own. It is an inclusive capacity built on an understanding of shared authority and responsibility. Unlike the consumer role the participant role is one of a person as a whole, as agent in what affects their family and place of residence.

Only one of these appears to be part of Cleveland’s civic DNA. As long as we decide in the same way we always have decided, we will get the results we always have.

And any one who cares for the children and future of Cleveland should not lapse into comfort that the education the children of Cleveland deserve will occur by what has been Editorial endorsed up to now.