I was introduced to Paul Gorski’s book by Claustina Mahon-Reynolds, the current supervisor of Educational Equity in our school district. The Board of Education read and discussed the book during a number of our meetings, the discussion was interesting and very insightful to me personally, so much so I asked my friend Deirdre Straight if she might be interested in starting a discussion about the book with parents and community members in the Highland High School feeder pattern area. Deirdre has been a wonderful partner in this endeavor, with her and former teacher/administrator but more importantly, my friend and neighbor Joan Reynolds, our invite went out. Much to my surprise and delight, we had a great turnout! Over the many weeks we have met, Joan has taken us through the chapters, encouraged discussion and provided insights to the inequity that undermines educational opportunities for students experiencing poverty, which Gorski writes about in his book. The conversation has been rich with varying opinions, aha moments, and focused on our students. When the last chapter was read the overarching question…what do we do next, within our sphere of influence, to effect change? Recognizing a step by step, well thought out process must include asking our students, how can we narrow gaps and provide opportunities for them to feel and be successful. Building a caring and kind Highland community to help support the needs of our schools and students is a goal worth working towards. I count myself very lucky to be in the company of so many amazing individuals. The door is open to any who would like to join the conversation. Our next meeting will be on Monday the 21st at 9 am at Highland High School.
Every July, in Cedar City, there is a conference hosted by the rural schools in our state, Utah Rural Schools Association. I have attended the conference for the past four years as an officer for Utah School Boards Association, twice to present a workshop and the other times to attend workshops and meet the men and women who work in schools in some of the smallest districts in our state. Hands down, its one of the best conferences, filled with great information, wonderful speakers and some of the best people I have ever met.
This year, I had the privilege to present a work shop, “School Community Councils: Teachers Matter”, on the importance of being involved in our school’s community councils( SCC’s) at the local schools. The community councils are an important cog to the governance at each neighborhood school. The councils are comprised of teachers, parents, staff, and principal, all coming together to set student achievement goals in their School Improvement Plan, create a plan to spend the Trustlands dollars allocated to each school, oversee safe walking routes, wellness plans, emergency plans and any other issues the parents or principal want the SCC to weigh in on.
It’s important that our parents and teachers understand their voice matters in the discussions at the local SCC meeting. I was thrilled to be able to talk with teachers in Cedar City, about their SCC meetings and hear about how the council is working together for their students. It also gave me an opportunity to talk about Trustlands and the responsibility each council has to make sure the funds are expended for the academic achievement of students. Those dollars are a gift and should be safeguarded so our schools across the state continue to receive those resources.
Its local governance at its best! I have had the opportunity to serve on SCC’s as well as be a chair when my children were in school. Now, as a board member, I attend the SCC meetings at each of the feeder schools in my precinct. It’s a big time commitment, but in order for me to stay informed about local issues in the school, I would be out of touch with what is happening in my community.
The SCC meetings are usually filled with information and data about how the school is functioning, any challenges or changes to procedures and always a celebration around the good things happening in the school. Each time I attend these meetings, I come away knowing a little more about the great work going on in the building and gain a greater appreciation for the men and women who serve on these councils.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate to be asked to contribute to a statement about the work of local school boards. In collaboration with my colleagues across the state, the statement below has been adopted by Utah School Boards Association and was recognized by National School Boards Association, in the Key Works of Local School Boards.
My work board work on the local level as well as the state level, has helped me to keep my eye focused on my responsibilities and obligations as an elected official representing the children of Utah.
A school board is made up of individual members that are locally elected to represent their community in the policy making, budgeting and fiscal management, and overall supervision of their local public schools. They are the public overseers responsible for the education of the children of their community allowing students to receive an education that will lead to successful citizenship. A board member’s responsibility to their stakeholders is to look after the health, welfare and performance of the entire educational institution in a manner that instills public trust in the competence and integrity of the organization.”
An effective school board recognizes their predominant responsibility is to establish policies and procedures for the local district. An effective boards primary focus is student achievement when setting policy and allocating resources and revenues. An effective school board uses data to drive the decision-making process, which leads to measurable results. An effective school board puts in place mechanisms for community involvement in setting the vision of the district, community values and identifying the districts short-term and long-term priorities. Effective school boards are advocates, with a unified voice, for public education.
The relevance of school boards today is dependent on doing what matters. The functions and decisions of school boards are important, often those decisions made have a greater long-term impact on our communities and children than those of any other elected bodies of government.
On June 22, Utah School Boards Association had the tremendous opportunity to host Michael Zola, Associate Executive Director and Kim Richey, Senior Government Affairs Counsel, both of National School Boards, at Little America for an information presentation on ESSA, Every Student Succeeds Act.
Along with my fellow board members, Heather Bennett, Melissa Ford and our Superintendent, Dr. Cunningham, we attended their presentation.
When I was attending the NSBA meetings in Boston, as Officers of Utah School Boards Association, we felt strongly that this information needed to be shared with our members here at home. It was a great meeting! Their presentation included a general ESSA overview, and addressed specific information on the accountability regulatory action that’s taking place in the US Dept. of Education and information on the 2 sets of rulemaking that were proposed by the Department of Ed. We also learned about the legal requirements and the timelines that are required for the 2016-2017 school year. The turnout was great, we had Superintendents, Business Administrators, Board members, representatives from the Governor’s office, State School Board leaders, and State School Board members in attendance. This truly is welcome legislation, the whole focus is to guarantee local governance and we are anxious to ensure that our local boards have as much authority and opportunity as can be provided. There are several steps to this and we’ll all be involved in the planning and implementation. Board members that attended that presentation, hopefully become familiar with the requirements and opportunities that this law provides.
We were all asked to call our Congressional representatives, voicing our concerns about the regulations being proposed by the Department of Education, as well as to remind our representatives, they still have over sight of this very important piece of legislation.
Our representatives don’t serve on Education committees, but they all have a vote and a voice, I encouraged them to stay on top of the progress of these regulations and maintain the requirements of state and local decision-making under the law.
I was one of our Utah USBA delegation in June, which met with legislative staff in Washington DC. The information we provided was to inform our representatives to be our voice and the voice of our students when considering important issues like, ESSA, the Child Nutrition Act or the Perkins Act , which fund our Career and Technical Education options (CTE) in our local districts.
As a local board member, it’s critical we stay apprised of the legislative issues from the Federal Government as well as our own Legislature. Many times legislation is written with good intention, to help provide resources to contribute to the success of our students, however, the best legislation is legislation which allows for local governance and decision-making at the local level. As a parent, community member and elected official for the school district of Salt Lake City, I know our students best. I will continue to advocate for flexibility, resources and decision making, to be done at the local level, along with our educational experts, teachers, parents, and students.
Since the announcement of Dr. Withers, current Superintendent, to retire, I knew we were facing a significant decision. Over the months, the board hired a consulting group to advise us on how to begin our outreach to district employees and the community, asking what characteristics are you looking for in the next Superintendent.
There were 30 plus community and district meetings held, to gather information for help create an emerging profile. In April, the consultants provided 33 applicants for the position. All 7 board members read and studied all 33 applications. There were many qualified applicants. In a closed session , each application was discussed at length using the profile put together based on community input. Atlantic Research Partners (ARP), the consultant group, sat in on the interview, gave input and advice, but did not influence the outcome. After that discussion the Board chose 8 candidates to interview as semi-finalists. To protect the privacy of the candidates, those 8 semi-finalists were never announced publicly. It was significant to me, Dr. Cunningham was one of only two candidates to receive a unanimous 7 votes to be included in the semi-finalist round of interviews. The other candidate, did not move on to the final 3.
Once the final candidates were announced publicly with a short biography provided by the candidate, board members had the opportunity to call references provided by the candidates and contacts not provided by the candidates, to discover as much background as possible. Based on information received from this confidential process and shared between all board members in a closed session, Dr. Cunningham’s ability to problem solve and direct the district, helped her rise above the others. In short, her references were stellar.
Each finalist spent one day in Salt Lake formally interviewing for the position of superintendent. It was an extremely long day for them, but provided opportunities to meet and talk with employees and community members. It also gave me an opportunity to talk with each one, and watch firsthand how the candidates interacted. Each candidate toured three schools, met and spoke with staff, administration, parents and teachers, met with a group of diverse community leaders, met with different professional groups within our district. Each candidate had a 90 minute open interview with the board during which they answered a set questions put together by the board’s consultant based on community input and approved by the board. Each candidate provided a draft of a 90 day transition plan during the interview. And finally, each candidate had a community town hall forum in which they answered questions from the audience.
After each meeting, the consultants collected feedback from community members in attendance. The board had the opportunity to review all feedback as well as receive feedback from constituents, friends, and district employees. I made phone calls, emailed and reached out gathering thoughts and opinions about the candidates. I carefully read and weighed every email, every conversation, every bit of feedback I received. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the input. The feedback I received was weighted heavily for Alexa Cunningham, based on interaction and information gleaned about her career. Krish Mohip, was a distant second. Alexa has experience as a current, and well respected superintendent in Arizona. I believe that Krish’s experience level pales in comparison. Alexa has experience with a legislature that consistently funds education at the lowest levels in the country (similar to Utah). Many of Krish’s responses with ideas for our district demonstrated that he is more accustomed to problem solving with money—not always an option in our district. Alexa currently serves in a district that is, minority majority, primarily Latino. The achievement gap continues to narrow in her district, and I believe she can provide leadership, innovation and inspire our employees to help our children succeed. Some were concerned that Alexa has less experience with elementary schools as her current district is a high school only district. But in my estimation, and based on conversations with references, Alexa has done a great job coordinating and communicating with the 6 elementary school districts and feed into her high school district. This is experience that our district can use right now. With Dr. Cunningham’s leadership, our elementary schools will benefit based on her experience and best practices to prepare elementary and middle school students to be successful in high school. With her high school experience she has already demonstrated her ability to work and succeed in preparing high school students for college and career. I believe Dr. Cunningham will be sensitive and have the much needed conversations about issues of race and poverty, about our children who are currently struggling with conditions outside of their own control and who so desperately need our help. I could not have supported Dr. Cunningham as our superintendent if I did not believe she would make these issues her priority. Based on her responses to board questions and community questions, public and private, Dr. Cunningham has the necessary skills to understand the issues in our district. In honoring the process, we have arrived at the best choice for the children of Salt Lake City. I am encouraged that all board members supported and voted in a public meeting to appoint Dr. Alexa Cunningham. With board support and Dr. Cunningham’s leadership, I am as optimistic about Salt Lake City School District’s future. Together, with the good people currently supporting and teaching our students and with our engaged and educated community, we are on a great path. There is much work to do, we have pressing issues and problems to solve. I am looking forward to being a part of the process and future for Salt Lake City School District.