Governance main focus of school board retreat

The Mercer Island School Board convened at the Bellevue Harbor Club, looking over picturesque Lake Washington from the Symetra Financial Center’s 25th floor, for their annual board retreat last week.

Despite complaints by a number of residents that this year’s retreat was off the Island, the conference went on as scheduled, albeit with scant public attendance. Two of the three Mercer Island residents who did show up were politely dismissed as the previously scheduled discussion topics were postponed.

The majority of issues were tackled on Friday, June 22, as Thursday was devoted to housekeeping business. Members spent most of the three-hour meeting reviewing 2007-2008 board priorities, superintendent commitments, academic programs and their overall mission. After a short lunch break, the board moved into Executive Session where they discussed in-house matters privately.

Policy governance consultants Randy Quinn and Linda Dawson, who represent the Colorado-based Aspen Group, oversaw the retreat. The two mentors have coached MISD School Board members in effective governance for the past couple of years. During the meeting, Quinn and Dawson brought up a number of critical points; namely that the board should focus more on “the big ideas and how to achieve them” rather than “weeding through policies.”

“You need to be putting a greater emphasis on the ends. Ask yourselves: Are we producing critical and creative thinkers?” Dawson said of the kind of students the district wants to shape.

The criticism was well accepted and led the table of School Board members into an open self-evaluation session.

Finding a productive vein to the self-criticism, Superintendent Cindy Simms brought up a number of points: First that the consultants’ advice was respected and worthy of further discussion, second that previous boards had struggled with these same problems, and lastly that, with work, the board could improve its governance.

“[These obstacles] aren’t unique to us — it’s a history we’ve had as a board. Previous boards also struggled with the same problems. I hope we keep getting better at rising to the next level,” Simms said.

Board member Pat Braman also looked at the positive side.

“The advantage of governance is that it’s a structural way of forcing us to get to the ends. With more and more practice, we can get there,” she said.

Board President Leslie Ferrell pointed out that because Mercer Island is such a tight-knit community, their role as a board is especially complex.

“Because we’re a small district, it’s very different than being in Seattle,” she said. “We’re constantly getting input from parents, staff and students. It’s both the plus and minus of representing this community.”

Braman highlighted the board’s successful response to such community desires as “a positive example of our job.” Both consultants acknowledged this fact, and commended the board for its attentive role.

Discussion on MISD’s overall vision and the Mercer Island Schools Foundation’s Really Big Idea Group was postponed for a later meeting, as board members needed more time to review drafts of changes to the district’s vision and policies.

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