Fans of Monty Python will recognize the headline as a memorable utterance from their “Holy Grail” movie. No, I’m not dead yet, just busy.

This has been the longest span between posts since I wrote the first of 673 almost five years ago. The delay has been due to a heavy combination of professional and personal demands.

The professional stuff is the usual, just more of it. On the personal side, someone very close to me is seriously ill and may not make it to Christmas. A second radical surgery next month will determine both the length and quality of this person’s life. The end of this person’s life has been on my mind for several weeks and prevented me from posting anything because the posts would have been trivial in comparison.

But the education of our children is not trivial. I have no illusions about this blog and its role in effecting change. Perhaps it has made a difference, perhaps not. It wasn’t started so that it or I could become a change agent, it was started as a campaign tool and evolved into a place where the board and the administration could see that there is at least one person in Newport-Mesa who isn’t always buying what they’re selling.

The illness is a reminder to me that we are all destined for the same fate. Thinking about the sick person, I posted the following on Facebook two days ago:

“This morning, Laura and I kissed goodbye and I said, “See you tonight.” But the truth is that there is no guarantee of that.

“Last Saturday, a 5-year-old boy was thrown off a mall balcony by a stranger and is in the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Today, at least 30 people will die as a result of preventable driving accidents. One person today will fall off a ladder to his or her death, and about 110 people will die today from accidental poisoning.

‘I said, “See you tonight,” but I don’t really know. No one knows. We can’t live each day as though it were our last. That is both impractical and irresponsible.

“But during each day, we can take a moment to remember that every human being on the planet shares the same fate. From this perspective, we have a greater understanding of what is important and what is not. Most of what we think is important is not. That which we can see and touch is fleeting. Love, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness are everlasting.”

No disrespect intended?

Ashley Anderson is a responsible, independent, accomplished adult who plays a key role in the community and who got elected to the school board by working tirelessly. Trustee Ashley Anderson is already acting way beyond her years by asking questions that others should have been asking for decades and providing the board with some unique perspectives.

But something curious happened at the board meeting of March 26 that is a “tell” – an insight into the minds of the other trustees and the superintendent.

Before I reveal this, some background… In the meeting setting, trustees are referred to as “Mr.”, “Mrs.” “Dr.” or “Member [last name],” or “Trustee [last name]” etc. The bureaucrats who sit in front of the dais refer to the trustees and each other this way.

The folks who speak to the board do the same. In all of the times I have spoken at these meetings, I adhere to this protocol.

In the locker room after the meetings, yeah, it’s Karen, Martha, etc.

Except for Anderson. During one discussion, the superintendent and Trustees Martha Fluor and Vicki Snell referred to her as “Ashley.” The super said, “Member Ashley” before correcting himself and saying, “Member Anderson.

As I wrote, this is a “tell” – an unconscious use of language that provides an accurate insight into the speaker’s mind. Tells can also be physical.

These tells reveal that the speakers do not see Anderson as a peer or as someone deserving of the same level of respect that they expect for themselves.

This view of Anderson is also evident in the responses to her comments and questions. She is talked down to, sometimes in a subtle way, sometimes not. Altogether, this behavior is an attempt, conscious or not, to keep Anderson in place by making her feel as though she is not worthy.

In reality, conscious or not, it is attempted intimidation and it is wrong. The board wants to present itself as a team – a united bunch who may disagree on things from time to time, but which can also move forward together on programs and policies. (More on this in a few paragraphs when I cover the Secret Special Meeting of April 16.)

Talk has to match action. If the trustees are truly there for all of the district’s children and if they pride themselves in separate but equal status as trustees, they should start treating Anderson accordingly.

Acronym central

The March 26 regular meeting also produced an abundance of acronyms, including MTSS, SOAR (how clever!), SAI, IEP, RtI, SIPPS, and LLI.

If you take the acronyms for the programs and policies that have been created over the years and stacked them, they would reach to the moon. And back.

Language like this only increases the disconnect between the public and the school district. But despite their claims to the contrary, that’s how they like it. The district may claim to want public input and participation, but the truth is that they would rather you just stay home and keep your mouth shut because they know what they’re doing and you don’t.

“I’m confused”

That’s what Snell said twice during the March 26 meeting during discussions. No one else said they were confused, just Snell.

Snell also wondered aloud about the proper response to the question after a vote tally, “Anyone opposed?” Snell asked whether the response should be “aye” or “nay.”

I’m not sure why she cares because she’s going to rubber-stamp to her heart’s content anyway.

The challenges facing the district are greater than at any time in its history, dominated by the emergence of haters and by the existential threat posed by the ISSAC charter school. We don’t need trustees who are easily confused, we need trustees who can process the information they are given and make decisions accordingly.

That’s not to say that trustees shouldn’t ask questions – the more the better. But those questions should come from needing amplification, not to help overcome confusion.

And here’s the other thing… OK, so you’re confused. Twice in one meeting. Is it really a good idea to tell the world?

You’re invited to our meeting, but please don’t attend

On April 16, the trustees and two administration officials gathered in the board meeting room to attend the second session in board governance.

The facilitator was a consultant from the California School Board Assoc. who lives in Northern California.

So, let’s do the timeline math, shall we? The consultant has to travel far to get here – probably a flight – the agenda has to be prepared in advance (probably well in advance because this was the second meeting on the subject), the superintendent and the #2 guy have to make room on their calendars, a room has to be reserved and set up (need to give notice for that), and trustees have to respond to meeting invitations.

All that has to happen way before the meeting, agreed?

So why was the meeting notice and agenda posted only the day before, less than three hours before the deadline?

Because they don’t care if you attend. In fact, they would prefer that you did not.

As you can see, the strategy worked – I was the only one in attendance:

It should be noted attendance would have doubled to two people but someone who was on their way texted me to ask if it was worth it and I said no.

During the meeting, there was a blurb on a slide that read, “Active listening – all opinions matter.” Sure they do.

The underlying theme of the 90 minutes I spent at this Secret Special Meeting was unity messaging: Don’t rock the boat. Go along. After all, you may need the support of your colleagues for something and they won’t support it if you are an outlier. (My words)

I then wondered whether a trustee, here or anywhere, would not support a colleague’s worthwhile proposal or position simply because he or she did not support theirs. Nah.

I have facilitated many meetings and this one could have used a boost. There was agenda drift and people talking over each other, to name a few flaws. Then there was the slide deck, replete with punctuation errors and formatting mistakes. In this example, I see at least three punctuation or formatting mistakes:

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This meeting was not free. The district is paying to have the facilitator here and guide them through this process. For the taxpayer dollars that are being spent, I expect perfect slides.

The slides are bad enough, but there are two other more important issues. Multiple times during the meeting, the discussion among the trustees was reduced to granular, anecdotal commentary which should have been halted by the facilitator. This meeting was supposed to be about high-level stuff – not the time to recount an episode or vent.

The other was some language used by the facilitator that was directive instead of being guidance-oriented. I heard, “I want you [trustees] to be…” and “You need to be thinking about…”

Those statements are outside of the scope of the usual facilitator’s role. Both of these statements should have been posed as questions, such as “What should you be thinking about with regard to [topic]?”

But, that’s just me.

The end of the innocence

Two issues facing the district – the swastika video and the charter school – are the two most important challenges facing the district in its history.

The video is forcing the trustees and the administration to confront multiple topics and trends: Whether and how to discipline off-campus behavior, how to handle the increasing use of social media by students to bad ends, and how to address hate, to name a few.

The charter school means an end to business as usual.

In both of these, strong, clear, and direct leadership is needed from the superintendent. He should be out in front of both of these issues on an almost daily basis. But he is not.

Since the OCDE approved the charter school, the super has posted one notice telling the community that the charter school would not be under district control. That was three weeks ago.

Then there is the hate. This incredibly important issue and the pending formation of a task force to address it should be the number one or two priority for the superintendent. Instead, he has delegated it to a cabinet member.

This is not an issue to be delegated. Hate is a worldwide concern that has landed solidly on our doorstep and the superintendent should be front and center condemning it clearly and directly, that is, without the usual bureaucratic buzzwords, and leading the charge to change the culture. But he is not.

This is not the prom draft.

Steve Smith

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