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OPINION: Texas school boards team up against change

Dallas Morning News
October 2, 2014

By Dave Lieber

“My goal as governor,” Republican candidate Greg Abbott said this week during a debate, “is to work toward elevating the Texas education system to be ranked No. 1 in the nation.”

Can’t happen. I’ll show you why.

A leap to the top requires big change. Yet built into the infrastructure of the Texas public school system is a bias against change agents.

It’s part of the culture of the Texas Association of School Boards and the regional education centers across Texas. Training programs help school board members understand that they need to stay on the same page.

It’s even built into state education law that boards must meet three hours every year for team training.

Group-think is an honored practice on school boards across the state.

On the face, that sounds like a healthy idea. Maybe members of Congress should share team-building exercises. But what happens is this: Newcomers elected to school boards on platforms of change are often co-opted by “the team of eight” concept, seven board members and a superintendent.

Outsiders who come in with ideas of change and accountability are often minimized, scorned, and in the worst cases, described as crazies or nut jobs. I’ve seen it for 20 years.

The title of a session at last week’s state convention in Dallas for the Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas Association of School Boards says it all:
“Dealing with Mavericks, Malcontents and Mutineers.”

I attended the session and heard more of the same. Afterward, I met members of the Queen City ISD school board and their superintendent. All wore shirts with the word “Team.”

At a prior state convention, I attended a session where the speaker from the school board association referred to a malcontent as “a lone wolf.” He said the community often views this trustee as “a real nut.”

In a state school board training video I watched a few years ago, a school board member says, “When I first got here, I had an agenda, and that was a mistake. … If you are a good board member, you can’t have an agenda. You have to come there thinking you have six more board members to work with. By having six to work with, you get something done.”

No. 1 in the state?

A hundred school board members and administrators were in the Mavericks, Malcontents and Mutineers session. Leader David Koempel used humorous code words to describe troublemakers.

He called them “beep-holes,” “jerks,” “difficult,” “special” and “interesting.”

When I talked to Koempel after the session, he reminded me that he wasn’t talking about school board members only, but also everyone in any life situation that causes difficulties.

Malcontents, he told me, “have some benefit. You do have to learn how to work with them, but we also have to remember what the purpose of the board is. If somebody is doing something that’s counterproductive ....”

Years ago, I grew so tired of school boards rubber-stamping superintendent and staff recommendations without public discussion that I printed buttons with the message “Ask a bunch of questions.”

Dissent doesn’t mean dissension. At least it’s not supposed to. But on a school board, when one or more step off the team of eight bandwagon, hell breaks out. They get criticized for asking for their own information both inside and outside the district. Sometimes these school trustees get censured by their own boards.

Business principles teach us that most successful ventures have leadership teams that encourage conflict.

Business writer James Surowiecki writes that group-thinkers “become increasingly sure that their collective judgment is infallible. They listen mainly to each other, and they emphasize the need for consensus.”

“Living in a kind of echo chamber of their own opinions, they pay attention to information that fits their conclusions and ignore information that does not. As a result, the more that people in this kind of group talk, the more sure they become that they’re right.”

I don’t mean to issue this as a blanket condemnation of all school boards everywhere. There are exceptions of course in the more than a thousand school districts across Texas. I’m talking about the culture as a whole.

Change requires mavericks, mutineers and malcontents. But not here. So much for No. 1.