Below is the statement given by John Dimit, President, Urbana School District #116 Board of Education at the USD #116 BOE Study Session on Tuesday, October 2, 2018.
Personal statement for school board, October 2.
One of the primary jobs of a member of the Board of Education is to build up a school system and making critical comments does not aide in that effort. However, I make this statement in reflection of another responsibility of a school Board member – to provide an interface between the community and the managers of the District. I make this statement to assure our community that Board members have listened, have deliberated, are deeply concerned, and have worked diligently to discern the best way forward to serve all students.
I want to begin by re-iterating our commitment to restorative practices and the positive outcomes that we hope will come from engaging in those practices. In the winter of last school year, my understanding of those practices involved restorative circles, a de-emphasis on exclusionary discipline policies, and a continuation of our discipline practices (which were compliant with SB 100 well before the bill became law). In the spring of last school year, specifically March, the Board learned – at the same time that the entire community learned – that the administrative structures of UMS and UHS weren’t just being tweaked, but massively changed, headlined by the elimination of the dean positions, replaced with something else. The superintendent’s statement at the time was the deans were dropped, but the administration wasn’t sure exactly what would replace the deans.
I and most other Board members voiced strong objections, not to the idea of instituting something more in line with restorative practices, but to the process in which this decision was reached. I have been on this Board through several evolutions of our secondary administrative structure. In all previous instances, changes were preceded by a lot of building level discussion regarding at least 6 facets of any decision of this magnitude: 1) analyze the exact problems/issues that needed to be addressed, 2) identify alternative solutions, 3) determine the impacts of each alternative solution, 4) design and deliver in-house professional development necessary to insure that any change is successful, 5) engender staff, student, and parent understanding and enthusiasm for the change, and 6) determine how this would be communicated to the community at large. In April, subsequent to the Superintendent’s announcement, a Board directive was given to the Superintendent to slow this process down and give serious attention to the omitted steps in the normal “Urbana Way” of reaching such major decisions. The Board warned the administration of the disruptions and difficulties that would occur should these steps not be taken. We were not subtle, we were very direct.
Yet the process went on almost as if the Board had not spoken. As a sign of our displeasure, at the next meeting, we found ourselves having to refuse to approve some related personnel decisions on our normally uncontroversial consent agendas, unheard of in my tenure of 30 plus years. And yet, in a short few weeks at one school and even fewer weeks at another, building principals — neither of which are here today – prepared plans with the assumption that the deans were history and change needed to occur immediately. In May, the Board reluctantly approved both plans only after strong assurances that there was appropriate time to hire the needed new staff, train existing staff, and maintain order in the schools — three of the major concerns originally raised by the Board in April. Sadly, as I go into further detail, many our fears have been realized.
Regarding staffing, today, we do have the staff hired, many more staff than expected because of an unusual exodus of not just building administrators, but also of many front-line teachers and aides–– caused in no small part by the manner in which this initiative has come about. It is too early to pass judgement on whether the new staff maintains the quality we expect in this community. However, my initial impression is that we have hired some very impressive and capable individuals. They are working very hard to establish the needed relationships and credibility required anytime you make a massive change in structure. The problem here is that under the best of circumstances, this takes time, time – which due to many factors – we didn’t give ourselves. Hence, the administration, despite outstanding effort, is beset by significant student and family doubts and concerns from all sectors of our community. This has created a crisis mentality throughout the District with all the rumors, fear, and misinformation that comes along with a crisis.
Turning to the concern expressed about training. For several months, we have had rooms full of faculty, staff, and students expressing grave concerns, basically evidencing a lack of knowledge about how this whole thing is to work. During recent board meetings and briefings, we heard about several Professional Development sessions since the start of the school year where the new administrators, new support staff, and central office have devoted unending hours to training, training which the Board was assured by central office last spring would occur prior to the start of the school year. In the meantime, employees and students are justifiably confused and troubled. Last Tuesday night I attended the UHS forum where the current administrative team indicated that they were in the process of amending and clarifying procedures and policies, and indeed they are making much needed improvements. Unfortunately, many of these amendments and clarifications could have been handled much better as part of a proper planning process prior to implementation. Better late than never, but reactionary instead of proactive, with damages already incurred.
Regarding order in the schools, the loss of institutional memory that has occurred due to the many administrative and staff departures has created a vacuum of predictability as all the new players settle into their roles and learn building cultures. This lack of predictability will eventually be resolved, but in the meantime, it has resulted in disorder, much more disorder than in the past. A few of our students have used this opportunity to challenge and try to extend or even erase old limits. Even students not causing the problems are confused about what our real expectations are for behavior, and more importantly, what the real consequences are for misbehavior, creating fear and uncertainty. This has led to the perception that the maintenance of order in our schools has been lost. Despite issues of violence in our larger community, our schools have long been a refuge of safety for those involved in that violence. But with previously trusted adults no longer present, that community violence apparently is attempting to gain a small foothold in our buildings. Board members and the public have been given statistics that show similar numbers of suspensions assigned to misdeeds that violate our long standing and unchanged code of conduct. But let’s be fully transparent, the misbehavior leading to the consequences is more serious than in the past. I have full confidence that this onslaught of negative behaviors – albeit by just a tiny portion of our student body — will be erased when our new staff is able to fully implement — as they state – “the proper blending of our unchanged code of conduct with the new system of behavior management.” To be fully effective, the District needs the time for appropriate informing and implementation of this system. Despite the current community narrative, the District’s high expectations for each student’s behavior has not changed and will not change. Restoration of order is happening quickly, with significant progress made daily by some very hard working and extremely capable staff. I have no doubt that our schools will quickly again become sanctuaries of safety and centers of amazing education. That small foothold of community violence trying to enter our schools will be turned away. My issue is that with proper planning and roll out of this initiative, the pain of the past few weeks/months — and the serious damage to the District’s reputation — could have been minimized or even completely avoided. The substantial time and energy expended to restore the District back to our baseline of acceptable behavior could have been better utilized to advance the cause of restorative justice, to advance all aspects of our school improvement plans, to build upon our reputation of academic excellence.
The Board’s concerns with how this change has unfolded is not ours alone. Those concerns are shared by many staff and certainly by many in our community… the volume of input at our meetings, via written communications, conversations at school events, at workplaces, at houses of worship on Sabbath mornings indicates that this has been about as far from a smooth transition as you can get. I have outlined 3 major areas of concern, both the school and general communities have expressed even more, leaving confusion, fear, uncertainty, and anger in its wake. Trust in our school system has been diminished, respect for leaders, including school board members, has eroded.
With proper roll out and proper use, the new system has the potential to transform the District into a model of good behavior. I hope that we can soon get back to talking about the strong academics, the achievements of each student, the paths our educators open to allow each and every student to achieve personal greatness. In the next few weeks, once order and equilibrium have been restored in our schools — of which the new leadership has already made substantial progress – we can move from this crisis mentality to ensuring that all aspects of operating an outstanding school system receive proper attention. But we also need to reflect on this situation and how and why we got here and how, in a collaborative and collegial manner, we prevent this from happening again. This begins with District management joining the Board in admitting that procedural mistakes were made, that some judgements were faulty, that opposing viewpoints raised valid concerns that demanded a different process. It continues with work to re-establish teamwork in a diverse environment where all viewpoints are welcomed, respected, and included. I hope with this, we can re-stablish trust, respect, and confidence.
I and every other Board member at this table are all 100% committed to preserve and build upon the academic excellence of District 116, to champion our core principle that every student is a valuable individual and every student can achieve their personal greatness. This Board continues to be fully invested in the success of this school system, to build up and increase the excellence of all aspects of the system, while continuing our history of openness to try something new. While we currently are experiencing some very troublesome consequences of our own making, and admittedly deep in the midst of damage control, I feel very confident that within a very short time, we will once again be on an upward and positive trajectory. Thank you.