Questionaire helps JC school board look inward

During a four-hour session Tuesday, the Jefferson City Board of Education completed a self-evaluation and spent some time contemplating how they will evaluate Supt. Brian Mitchell this year.

Facilitated by the Missouri School Boards’ Association, the evaluation posed 108 questions to the board members. All seven of the current board members, plus outgoing board president Tami Turner, answered the questionnaire which was designed to elicit board opinions on a variety of governance issues. It also highlighted areas where board members might not be as well-informed about board business as they want to be.

For example, two in eight respondents disagreed with the statement: “I can name the three subjects or grade levels or schools where student achievement in my district is the lowest.”

Three board members indicated they weren’t certain if building-level strategic plans are shaped by building-level performance data. Three indicated they didn’t know if the board encourages the administration to engage in staff evaluations exceeding minimum state requirements. And three reported they either haven’t seen copies of the tools used to evaluate the district’s staff or didn’t know if they had.

Two of the eight said they hadn’t received exit interviews gathered from staff who left the district.

“My guess is we do perform exit interviews, but it may show we’ve got a problem with practice or communication,” said Ken Theroff, board member.

Joy Sweeney said she has heard verbal annual reports explaining why staff left the district, but noted those reports didn’t reflect some of the more candid explanations she’d heard in personal phone calls. She said administrators’ explanations seemed “watered down, inaccurate” to her.

“What’s customary? Do boards dig into exit interviews?” Theroff asked the two MSBA facilitators who led the meeting.

“Personally, I would do them electronically so they could be anonymous,” Phyllis Barks, the MSBA’s executive director of leadership development suggested.

Board member Doug Whitehead said he didn’t care for anonymous responses.

The work session also caused the board to consider adding specific objectives, strategies and actions steps — for themselves — to the district’s strategic plan.

Three didn’t know if board members’ requests to add agenda items were generally granted or not.

Kelli Hopkins, who serves as MSBA’s executive director of board services, said she encourages school boards to allow all board members’ agenda requests tendered with 24 hours’ notice to be heeded.

“Then, at the meeting, if the board doesn’t want (to discuss it) they can take it off the agenda,” she said. “It doesn’t put the superintendent or the board president into an awkward situation.”

She also congratulated the Jefferson City board for their congeniality.

“This is one of our rare boards who does a good job of disagreeing with one another and not being mean about it. You hand things in a highly professional level.”

Board President Dennis Nickelson said the self-evaluation process was intended to “help us improve our governance of the school district.” He also noted it will help the board set goals for itself and for the superintendent.

He noted the board has already set three main goals for Mitchell, including:

• Motivating the staff, students and families to achieve the vision of learning.

• Establish a culture that promotes equity and excellence.

• And, implement structures, policies and procedures in support of the vision.

“We are going to focus on ‘the what.’ And Dr. Mitchell has to focus on ‘the how,’” Nickelson added.

Later in the meeting, the board discussed ways to evaluate Mitchell’s work.

The group started out using a new “Missouri Educator’s Evaluation System” recently promulgated by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But they changed course after become ensnared in the document’s vague verbosity, although some at the meeting said they’ll still rely on the rubric in meetings to come.

They also wavered over what kind of evidence they would need to evaluate Mitchell. Nickelson recommended allowing Mitchell to use his “professional judgement” in bringing forward whatever evidence or measures would best illustrate his contributions to the district’s success. Sweeney added the board could then weigh in with its own expectations.

Mitchell is expected to have sources of evidence ready for the board by June 16, so the board can discuss it further on June 23.

Hopkins discouraged the board from thinking that a single set of data — such as the the annual yearly progess data issued annually by DESE — could be used to evaluate a superintendent.

“That’s a post-mortem,” she scoffed. “This is not about a contract. It’s about continuous improvement.”

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