Learning on the Job

Learning on the job is a good thing, right? So, the Sag Harbor School Board is to be commended for finally figuring out the fund-balance thing. You know, that pesky thing they have to figure out about how much padding to put in the budget to make sure they don’t run out of money in case there are unexpected expenses during the year. It’s hard because the State Education Department says you have to put something aside, but it can’t be too little and it can’t be too much. Up ’til last year, it seems, the Board has had trouble with the too much part. The limit used to be 2% of the total budget. Then recently it went up to 4%, but the Board just kept socking the dough away accumulating fund balances of more that 16% in at least one recent year. Then, as part of their learning process I guess, they let the pendulum swing the other way, letting the fund-balance get so low last year that they got a little slap-on-the-wrist letter from the State auditors.

But this year…this year they assure us they’ve got it figured out and the fund-balance, like little bear’s porridge, will be just right. As I said, learning on the job is good. I really mean that. Now, what about those accounting errors?  They are the other villain in this year’s budget scenario, yet the Board was a little less specific about those. However, the District’s new business official, Janet Verneuille, assures us she’s got a handle on it, and from the depth of knowledge she displayed at a recent budget presentation, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m also inclined to giver her a word to the wise…it’s not necessary to try to defend or even explain the mistakes of your predecessors. They were their mistakes, not yours. Defending them makes them look like your mistakes. Correct, don’t defend.

Which, by the way, is advice the School Board should take to heart as well. In the current political climate — yes, the School Board is political — you can’t win an argument with the public. The public is angry, and that anger is not aimed at anyone in specific. Are you an elected official? If the answer is yes, just assume that the public is pissed-off at you. The best thing you can do is to publicly accept your role in whatever mistakes were made, apologize sincerely, and then be completely transparent about what you are doing to fix the problem. Don’t defend, don’t argue, and especially don’t get arrogant.

Unfortunately, when there’s a lack of leadership, defensiveness, argumentativeness and arrogance often appear to fill the void. Former Board President Walter Tice got it exactly right at Monday evening’s Board meeting when he admonished the board for expecting the public to, again, vote on a budget in which the dollar amount of the single largest expense — teacher’s salaries — is a guess that can’t even be revealed to the voters.  Tice advised the board to get the contract settled before the budget vote so that the public could have confidence that the proposed budget accurately reflected the amount the District would need to meet its obligations — not too little, and certainly not too much. That being a concept the board and administration have had difficulty with in recent years, they should carefully consider the wisdom of Mr. Tice’s advice.

The good news is that leadership can be learned on the job. All that’s needed to get the contract negotiation ball rolling again, is for one or more Board members to accept the fact that it is the Board’s job to get it done and to stop making it personal. As things stand right now, the animosity directed by some board members towards the teachers’ union is palpable, and that’s not appropriate. This is not an ego battle. Board members must put aside their personal feelings and their preconceived notions of whatever it was they thought they could “accomplish” in the negotiations, and actually start to negotiate.  A leader would recognize that “winning” is no longer the most important point. (It actually never was.) Preserving the vision, the quality, and the harmony of the District is what’s important now. A leader would know this, and would do whatever is necessary to make his or her colleagues understand it as well. I know that leader exists on this board. I just hope that he or she is ready to start learning on the job.

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7 Responses to Learning on the Job

  1. John Battle says:

    Walter Tice knows full well that it is standard practice when in contract negotiations to build into the budget a “guess that can’t even be revealed to the voters”. He did it himself while he was the Sag Harbor Board of Education President. He lectured those of us at a Board meeting, some years ago, that the practice was reasonable and that any one with common sense would understand why a Board still in negotiations would not want to reveal their figures to a bargaining unit. Watching him admonishing this Board has certainly become old hat but this grandstanding was truly remarkable.
    One other thought, please help me understand your comment; “the animosity directed by some board members towards the teachers’ union is palpable, and that’s not appropriate.” Leaving aside last nights audience and their palpable animosity towards the Board, have you ever spoken with a Teachers’ Union leader about the Board? Is their utter disdain, anger and disgust more appropriate? I think not.
    The sad fact is that your last points apply equally to the Teacher’s leaders. We all should be hoping there is a good student among them as well.

    • Saltbox says:

      Thanks for the comment, John.

      I agree with your last point, and to a certain degree with your other points. In situations like these, responsible leadership on both sides is always a positive factor that speeds resolution of the issues.

      That said, I do not think that your criticisms of Mr. Tice, or of the teachers’ union leadership speak directly to my point. It is certainly possible, even likely, that as board president, Mr. Tice employed the same strategies as the present board in dealing with contract negotiations, and so an argument could be made for calling him a hypocrite. But, does being a hypocrite invalidate his point? I don’t think so. Going into a budget vote with a teachers’ contract that remains unsettled after more than two years of negotiations, creates an environment of uncertainty as far as the legitimacy of the budget figures presented by the board and creates doubts as to the Board’s ability to effectively manage the affairs of the district. This remains true whether or not Mr. Tice is a hypocrite, and is not the way you want to go into what will undoubtedly be a close budget election.

      As for the teachers’ union, sure they have made some impolitic statements over the course of a two year negotiation. Sure, they are angry. Who wouldn’t be in their situation? And, yes, it would be better if they would refrain from public displays of animosity toward the Board. However, in this situation, the party that has the greater power, also has the greater responsibility. In this case that’s the Board of Education. It is similar, although not identical to an incidence of workplace harassment (which I hasten to point out, this is NOT, but it’s a useful example). While harassment of any sort is illegal, harassment of an employee by an employer is regarded as a much more serious offense, because an employer has all the power in that relationship. Therefore it is incumbent upon the employer to always behave impeccably. The Board of Education should be held to the same standard. They not only hold a more powerful position than the teachers do in this situation, but also are elected representatives of the people of the school district, which brings with it a necessarily higher standard of behavior during the performance of their official duties. Therefore, while the teachers may be just as wrong, and should rise to a higher standard, it is the Board that must rise to that standard.

      • John Battle says:

        Dear Eric Cohen,  (let’s talk about anonymous blogging sometime soon!) Thanks for hosting this site and for your thoughtful response.  

        Firstly, I called Mr. Tice’s comments to the Board “remarkable”.  I am sure he has his reasons for his new position.  A debate about whether a hypocrite can make valid points I will leave to others.

        Secondly, I am quite sure that no Board wants to go into any Budget election with an unsettled contract and certainly not for two consecutive years.  The Board has not done a great job allaying fears and reassuring the public and we all know that they are still negotiating with the teachers, but this is a far cry from your suggestion that the Board’s ability to effectively manage the affairs of the district is in doubt because of this slow and unresolved contract negotiation.
        Why not debate the wisdom or lack thereof of holding to an offer that they believe to be fair?
        Why not discuss the sustainability of the teachers demands over time.  Why not consider the merits of a Board that believes the District can not afford more than they have offered.  Assessing the details in the negotiations is not our business but assessing and understanding many many other affairs of the District and the Board’s effectiveness are and would be a welcomed and substantive discussion to have.

        • Saltbox says:

          I would briefly like to comment on your “anonymous blogging” reference: I am far from anonymous on this blog. Please see the about page, and scroll down to the “About the Blogger section.”

          I have been away and not had the time to write more. I am sure I will have more to say after tonight’s board meeting.

          • John Battle says:

            Eric, Please know that I was very much aware of the “About the Blogger section” that you referenced and it was because you were not “anonymous” that I suggested a future discussion about those who are. I have concerns about the tone of public debate in our community and was hoping to have a conversation with you, an identified blogger, about the pros and cons of anonymous expressions.

  2. Walter Tice says:

    Eric and John:

    First the facts. As Board President a few years ago, I did answer a query during the annual budget process by saying it was standard practice when in contract negotiations (that had not yet been finalized) for Boards to include in their proposed budget amounts that would fund estimated costs of a new agreement. These estimated amounts were ‘hidden’ in the budget figures, so as not to reveal publicly, information that could disadvantage the Board in the ongoing negotiations. That was true … in normal negotiations.

    But, as in most things in life, the application of the rule depends on the context of the situation.

    Neither the current teacher negotiations nor the budget process for 2010-11 is a ‘normal’ process. The teacher contract negotiations ceased being a ‘normal’ bargaining process when the Board, fifteen months ago, unilaterally decided in the middle of bargaining to abandon the normal bargaining model of closed bargaining and decided to conduct bargaining in public. One of the effects of this was to force the teachers to respond publicly. Each side was forced by the process to make publicly the strongest arguments possible for their positions and to publicly denigrate the arguments of the other side. What had been closed negotiations became, instead, a public battle. The result was each party lost any negotiations flexibility because of the stigma attached to backing off their own public arguments. comprosie became must less – if at all – possible. As a result, the Board subsequently rejected a ‘Compromise’ solution put forth by an experienced, knowledgable and impartial state arbitrator.

    The budgeting process for the 2010-11 budget also lost its ‘normalcy’ when the Board last Monday made the process part of its collective bargaining strategy. It made the budget adoption meeting part of collective bargaining by announcing at the meeting that they would hold off on adopting a proposed budget for one week in order to give TASH time to accept the Board’s demand for a freeze. They made it clear that failure to accept a wage freeze would result in a 2010-11 budget proposal which would contain job cuts and other pain for the teachers and the community. This public ‘take it or suffer’ demand by the Boartd meshed together the collective bargaining process and the budget adoption process in a way which made the budget process also not ‘normal’.

    Therefore, in my opinion, by insisting on a public negotiations process in which the public would be entitled to all necessary information and by using the public budget process to pressure teachers to accept their contract demands, the Board opened the door to the public asking any and all questions regarding the contract negotiations and the proposed budget… including the one I asked.

  3. Eric R Cohen says:

    Hey Eric
    I was recently introduced to your blog and thought I’d say “hi” after I read your “About Us” comments.
    I am one of the “other Eric Cohen’s” out here. Eric R Cohen.
    I look forward to reading your comments about our unique community.

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