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Norwalk volunteers ‘grade’ BoE members

ConnCAN Community Organizer Toni Williams, right, explains the Board Watch program Thursday in City Hall. Listening, from left, are Board Watch member Katherine Villanueva and Board Watch advisory committee member Julie Corbett.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Board of Education members have something new on their mind – a group of watchdogs in the audience.

Board Watch, a volunteer effort initiated in November by the education advocacy group ConnCAN as a pilot program, has issued a report on 10 BoE meetings held this year. The report was reviewed by the Board at its recent retreat and used as part of its self-evaluation, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said last week during a press conference.

“Some members were not thrilled with some of the things they read in the report but I think it will make us better Board members,” BoE Vice Chairman Mike Barbis said, later admitting that he had the Board Watch audience members on his mind Tuesday as he turned in what he thought was a less than 100 percent performance.

“I wouldn’t say I was concerned but I did think about it,” Barbis said.

Nine volunteers graded the 10 meetings based on the training they were given by ConnCAN, offering “their own honest assessment of how the public views the superintendent and the Board of Education,” ConnCAN Executive Director Jennifer Alexander said.

Their trial run at the Dec. 20 meeting, a discussion of potential new schools, was considered just practice, with no grades issued but comments offered:

 

  • “Some Board members were unprepared – this process has been going on for months and some board members seemed profoundly uninformed.”
  • “Some board members seemed to completely disregard the recommendations of professional consultants and wanted to craft their own solutions, even though they lack the appropriate skill set. Better governance would have resulted in questioning the experts rather than voicing uninformed opinions.”
  • “More research, some board members raised concerns on items that should have been read and understood before the meeting.”
  • “{Shirley} Mosby was uninformed and lacked credible information. Mosby was arguing against state law – does not make sense.”
  • “Barbis was clearly well informed about these issues.”
  • “Mosby wasn’t well informed on issues.”
  • “Yvel {Crevecoeur} started making new proposals as alternatives instead of focusing on the already well researched proposal.”
  • “Mosby – I was not clear as to where she was going with her delivery & questions.”
  • “Focus on Mission/ Role Clarity – {Artie} Kassimis was second guessing ‘professionals’’ recommendations.”

 

All observations and comments in the reports are unattributed.

Asked about the veracity of anonymous reports, how readers would know they did not reflect bias, ConnCAN Community engagement team member Toni Williams emphasized that Board Watch volunteers are trained and operate under a code of conduct.

“We have conversations around what it means to acknowledge any bias or association that a volunteer may have with a Board member as well as the expectation of being an independent observer,” Williams said.

Volunteers come from every district of Norwalk and reflect ethnic and socio-economic diversity, she said.

Katherine Villanueva, a volunteer present at the press conference, said she has “learned so much” from attending Board meetings.

“To hear that they are using them for self-evaluation and even discussion, it is so rewarding,” she said. “This will mean that the next few Board meetings that I go to maybe my comments will be different, in terms of things I thought could have been better. Maybe I will see improvement. I really love the experience and I am really looking forward to being a part of it.”

Grades are given as being “I,” ineffective, or “E,” effective. There are many blanks in the report’s grids, as many members are not graded.

“The task isn’t to evaluate every comment that is made, it’s to give an opportunity of what has landed, what demonstrated as effective governance and working as a Board member with the superintendent to advance the strategic operating plan,” Williams said.

Board Watch reports are posted online, with a goal of posting them promptly so Board members can access their reviews.

Board Watch graded its last meeting in the report, on June 27, with a C+. Asked what the Board could have done differently to result in better governance, three volunteers said:

  • “Started on time.”
  • “Clarified what was mentioned as far as pre-k”
  • “Not let someone participate in public speaking if they have not signed up for it; and be strict with all speakers time limits.”
  • “Seems as some members were not prepared for some of the discussions.”
  • “Have better communication between themselves especially with big cuts to programs.”
  • “Time management should be handled better, less time making irrelevant comments.”

Asked for specific comments about Board members, they offered compliments to Barbis and Erik Anderson, saying that Barbis showed a “role clarity” by mentioning that the Board only responsible for K-12, and Anderson is “always respectful and competent” and “was very eloquent in expressing concern for students while asking for ”

The overall grade for the 10 meetings was a B, an average of 3.73.

Mayor Harry Rilling said that when he was police chief he encouraged accreditors to offer criticisms, so that police officers could improve.

“I did find {the report} very interesting, some of the observations,” Rilling said. “It can’t help but improve all the different metrics that you are measuring for the ‘Board of Ed.’”

“I like to think that the ConnCAN work has contributed to the quality of our governance,” Adamowski said.

Board of Education Vice Chairman Mike Barbis, right, endorses Board Watch last week in City Hall. Listening from left are ConnCAN Executive Director Jennifer Alexander, Mayor Harry Rilling and Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.

Barbis commented that there’s been a lot of turmoil in his six years on the Board of Education.

“Because of the way technology and the world has changed, the role of media has changed,” Barbis said. “Historically, the media was our biggest watchdog. But the role of media, the way people use media has changed, and therefore I would say the connection between Board members and all stakeholders is not what it was. There is what I might label a missing link. I have been a big supporter ever since Toni came to me asking for some input on Board Watch … We needed this probably more than anything because there was this missing link. The Board of Ed, you could argue, was operating in a vacuum. … They are generating a review they are creating more transparency and hopefully at the end of the day they are creating more accountability about board members.”

“In a time of deep uncertainty and divides, nationally and in Connecticut, I think it would be very easy to sort of hunker down and put your head down and just do your job as a Board member, or a Superintendent or a Mayor… or not show up for Board meeting when you have a lot of demands on your plate,” Alexander said. “I am really encouraged and have a lot of hope by what has happened here, which is leadership opening up their doors and their minds to feedback even when it might not be positive, and to community members volunteering their own time and efforts in a selfless way to try to improve governance and outcomes for kids, and helping reach others in the decision-making process in Norwalk. While we have a lot of uncertainty and negativity flowing around us I think this is a bright spot that is encouraging and I look forward to seeing where we can go.”

Board Watch_Report_Pt._1

5 comments

Casey Smith September 11, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Just a couple of comments on the assessments:

There are some people who would legally challenge not being able to address the Board if they did not sign up in advance.

Curious as to why the proposal of alternatives or “second guessing” was deemed as negatives. It is easy to offer blanket criticism on almost any issue. Most people don’t offer alternatives. As for the ” second guessing, isn’t that an issue of clarity rather than challenging authority.

Andy Conroy September 11, 2017 at 8:48 pm

I think we should applaud the board for inviting the reviews and then accepting the possibility of improvement. The board oversees a huge portion of the expenditures of the City as they educate our school-age children. That they aspire to excellence is very encouraging.

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