Saturday, July 28, 2007

Raising the Bar on Indecision

Last Monday I attended my first pre-agenda workshop of SAISD. Somewhere, there may be a better example of how to institutionalize inefficiency in a governing board of something, but I will have to be shown evidence of it before I believe it.

Mind you, this entire session was dedicated to discussing whether or not to discuss agenda items on the real agenda come next Tuesday. The handout I was given was titled, " Agenda of Pre-Agenda Workshop Meeting". I did not make this up. This format precludes any actual decisions on Agenda items beyond deciding to place or not place an item on the real Agenda. I am told this increases the probability of unanimous votes on items, but I must ask; when did Board unanimity become the over-arching goal of any representative body?

The actual effect is to render half of the Board's meetings useless. By rule, no decision on any topic will be made, Board merely decides whether or not it might try to decide, as opposed to table, an issue next time.

At least this exercize in sleep-avoidance was moving along briskly until we got to item "O", "Consider legal representation". Apparently, (and I use the term advisedly, very little was truly apparent), the firm currently representing SAISD had presented a new contract proposal. Now the logical things for a governing body to consider on such a question would be; overall cost, compared to last year's contract; payment schedule; if we decline this offer and the firm refuses to renew existing contract, do we renegotiate or look for new lawyers.

Here we commenced the first of the night's politically incorrect ethnic firedrills. It shortly became evident that neither staff or Board of our educational system had done the respective homeworks. No one seemed sure what was in the text of either contract, let alone what the implications of the new contract might be. The audience was treated to the sight of two assistant superintendents ($100,000+ salary each) dashing back and forth making copies of the contracts in question so that Board members could at least pretend to know what they were discussing whether or not to discuss next Tuesday.

The crowning moment in this exercize came on the final Agenda of the Pre-Agenda agenda, item X; "Consider construction method for various projects at Central High School". Now to set the stage, in case you have been sharing a cave with Osama Bin-Laden, SAISD just lost its first bond election ever. A large part of that vote was based on poor maintenance of existing facilities. The proposed projects at Central were designed to demonstrate that SAISD was at least going to try to accomplish some long overdue repairs while students were on summer break.

In order to expedite this process, administration elected to use a device called "job order contract". It is perfectly legal, it does get things done, but it put $500,000 into a Ft. Worth firm, avoiding the more time consuming process of requesting and approving bids for individual parts of the work from local firms.

Here member Tim Archer pointed out that under job-order contract the carpet, for instance, would cost nearly three times a locally available rate. Assuming his figures are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, this is Mr. Archer's business, that does seem a bit steep for timely performance. Then citizen Burk steps up and basically reads the board the riot act on why job-order contracting is a poor idea responding to to anything short of fire or tornado.

Friends and neighbors, what we have here is a failure to communicate. These contracts should have been put to bid locally, about the time Board put the bond on the ballot, if not before. Given the designed inefficiency of the trustees' process of deliberation, it seems to take at least six months to approve six weeks, and I am including generous beer breaks in the six weeks, worth of actual work.

JWT and I have met with Dr. Bonds. Our impression was of a very bright, dedicated lady who was hired into a situation not of her own making. For instance, she had no input on the bond we defeated, but as part of the job, had no choice but to support what had been decided already. I hesitate to get warm and fuzzy about anyone running anything, I am just saying, we did not detect from Dr. Bonds the all too familiar odor of smoke being blown up our backsides.

Someone, somewhere in highly paid administration dropped the ball on this. It might have been my first view of the pre-agenda format, but by now anyone knocking down six figures a year should have had the process down cold.

The summer vacation window of opportunity has already been missed. That is not to say the jobs cannot be done, just that it will take longer, inconvenience more people (students and teachers for instance) and not exactly persuade obviously reluctant voters that SAISD is ready for prime time.

I know Dr. Bonds is aware the school system needs a large sum of money, STEER accepted from the start of our bond opposition that SAISD needs a large sum of money. I think the Board members believe the system needs a large sum of money, I know some members do, but at the current turtle's progress, they will be lucky to have a viable bond designed in time for the May election, forget about November.

There is a world of blame to be passed around, this Board, former boards, current administration. What gets done now, their fault or not, lies with the serving Board. The deliberative process must be streamlined. The portion of blame I have not mentioned yet is ours, the voters.

If I were to tell someone from another locale that a school Board which just suffered the worst electoral bond defeat since McGovern, the first bond defeat here, ever, had also gone through the same election without a single member having opposition, they would cackle at me, thinking I was tugging their lower limb. Well, folks, that is just what we just did.

There are good members on this Board, but there is also a lot of, as Texas Monthly calls inactive legislators, furniture. The ball's in our court. There is no excuse for our ignoring school trustee elections anymore. It might be an electoral afterthought while things are going well, why fix it if it ain't broke. Problem is, our Board is obviously, glaringly, record-settingly broke.

Step up voters. Denying them money for grandiose schemes is one thing, at least it was a good wake-up call. Now we have to insist that something positive gets done. The amateur hour show last Monday would have been funny except the cover charge for the show ran into 9 figures.

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