MONTPELIER — There’s apparently a problem with the Montpelier school board and new Superintendent Brian Ricca, and it’s rooted in a lack of information sharing and transparency issues.
During the last budget cycle — Ricca’s first as superintendent — board member Kenneth Jones said he didn’t have enough information to be able to fully understand the budget.
When Ricca was asked for detailed copies of the budget showing line by line where the money is going, he denied the request, citing the district’s Policy Governance model.
In fact, when The Times Argus asked for the same information, Ricca rejected that request and provided it only after a formal Freedom of Information Act request was submitted and a school lawyer reviewed it.
“I need information,” Jones said Wednesday.
School board member Charlie Phillips, a former school administrator and longtime teacher, echoed that call. He said the board has had difficulty getting meaningful data to measure whether the school district is succeeding in its mission academically and financially.
Policy Governance is often cited as the culprit preventing the free flow of information. The trademarked governance model was implemented by the school board several years ago in an effort to focus board members on policy rather than getting bogged down in the day-to-day operations of the schools.
At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Vermont School Boards Association Executive Director Steve Dale and Policy Governance consultant Jim Lovinsky talked to board members about what good governance looks like.
Dale said there’s a common-sense element to governing, communication and relationships.
“Anytime that you find yourself, either the superintendent or the board, using Policy Governance as a club,” he said, that’s a sign that something is awry.
Policy Governance should not be used, Dale said, as a barrier to good governance that includes information sharing.
School board Chairwoman Sue Aldrich said that after adopting Policy Governance, the board began devoting as much as 75 percent of its time to policy. But now, she said, it’s closer to 30 percent.
“We’ve kind of fallen away from that,” she said, “and sort of been in a static mode.”
With new school board members and a new superintendent, Dale said now is the time to revisit the role of the board and the superintendent and how Policy Governance is being implemented and interpreted.
Lovinsky said board members need to feel comfortable speaking with a constituent about the budget, for example.
“If you’re not comfortable with that,” he said, “ask for more” information.
Under Policy Governance, Lovinsky said, it’s the board’s responsibility to develop policy and the superintendent’s duty to interpret that policy.
“My concern,” Jones said, “was that there was a lot of the budget that wasn’t presented.”
Therefore, he said, “my inability to even know where the money is being spent made it very difficult for me to wrap my head around the whole picture.”
“If you’re not getting what you need,” Lovinsky said, “you need to change the policy to make sure you get what you need.”
Aldrich said the particular problem of not getting the budget details has been resolved, that it was a misinterpretation of the board’s policy and that it won’t happen again.
But it wasn’t just the budget that has some board members concerned. Jones also said he wants more information about what’s happening academically.
For example, in subject areas such as art and music that can be more difficult to quantify, Jones said he would like to see at least some anecdotal data and perhaps numbers on the level of student participation.
“We need supplemental data,” he said.
Aldrich recommended that Ricca include a report along with the school board’s meeting agenda highlighting things that are happening in the schools.
“I think if we can get a little more information,” she said, “that might be helpful.”
And Dale cautioned the board and the superintendent not to become slaves to any particular process or governing model. His message was that good governance has to include common sense, effective communication and good relationships.
At the next board meeting, scheduled for April 18, Lovinsky is expected to give a more detailed presentation specifically about how to best implement the Policy Governance model.
Also, Ricca said that the last day of school will be June 15.
According to the district’s published school calendar the last day was supposed to be June 19. However, Ricca said he didn’t use up all of the snow days, and even with ending early, students will have attended more than the 175 days required by law.