Nearly everyone involved with Chicago schools has heard about “bad” local school councils. They may be apathetic, they may be embattled or they may lack information and resources. Whatever they are, their problems aren’t unique to local school councils, experts in organizational behavior say.
“Individuals in groups [charged with making decisions] operate in pretty much the same way,” says Jasmine Martirossian, author of “Decision Making in Communities: Why groups of smart people sometimes make bad decisions.” Condominium boards, juries, blue ribbon panels and school boards can also go astray and fail to fulfill their missions. Voices are raised, dissent is muffled and in extreme cases, threats are made. Decisions, however, are not made effectively.
Often, such groups fail to pay enough attention to powerful individual and group dynamics—such as ego and class—that affect the decision-making process, says Martirossian. Each individual’s beliefs about autonomy, working with others and the value of compromise play a strong, often unrecognized role in determining whether a group is effective at making decisions.
“We are all brought up to think that we’re absolute individuals who make our decisions totally on our own,” she says. “We really are not paying attention to what are the influences of the group.”
Martirossian and others say these situations are far from hopeless, and that there are fairly simple procedures any group can follow to overcome them. Below, they identify the most common problems and suggest remedies.
LSC detractors most often cite name-calling and outright warfare as a problem, but experts agree that it is also the least common. When it does happen, sometimes the dispute is about a contentious school issue; other times it is influenced by outside factors such as culture, class or race. Either way, not much gets done.
Set procedures are key to solving such problems, say the experts. Their suggestions include:
• Set time limits. Limiting the amount of time allowed to debate a particular issue could help prevent flare-ups and promote reflective thinking.
• Switch sides. To develop a working relationship, LSC members must be able to distinguish between an idea and its proponents. One strategy is for opposing sides to switch positions and argue an issue from the other perspective. “People get married to their ideas and try to defend that idea at all costs,” Martirossian says.
• Look in the mirror. Self-evaluations and performance assessments are often used by outside groups, such as the Illinois Association of School Boards, that help fine-tune decision-making groups.
• Agree to disagree. Find a way to make a decision and move on, says consultant Rick Shapiro of the Congressional Management Foundation, which helps politicians and legislative committee staffs work with each other and constituents. A formal disagreement allows a contentious issue to be dropped and puts a stop to endless debate.
• Get a mediator or other outside help. Several local school improvement groups, including Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), Chicago School Leadership Cooperative and Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law can assist councils or help them locate mediators. Several CPS departments, including budget, accountability and high school development, provide LSCs with “team-building” activities, says James Deanes, director of School and Community Relations.
LSCs are charged with hiring and evaluating principals, who are also voting members of the council. A natural tension exists, but in some cases it becomes adversarial. A principal fails to provide council members with timely information or bypasses council decisions. Councils interrogate principals and put them on the spot. “Often council chairs see their role as keeping administrators’ feet to the fire,” says education consultant Bill Weary, who works with boards, councils and other school-based decision-making groups.
This is among the most common problems in decision-making bodies, says Weary, and a number of strategies have proven successful.
• Clarify roles and responsibilities. Tension between boards and superintendents often occurs when neither side understands or respects the other’s role, according to Linda Dawson, an organizational consultant who works with school boards. “Councils need to have their purpose and their authority defined so that there’s clarity about the importance of their role,” she says.
• Seek community input. “Ignoring the wisdom of lay people” is one of the most common mistakes administrators make, says Dawson. Principals can use the LSC to learn about and address community concerns.
“It’s more work not to cooperate with your LSC than to cooperate with them,” says one Chicago insider.
• Agree on the key deliverables. Councils need information to complete principal evaluations, track spending and participate in school improvement plans. Principals should provide them with usable reports, says Weary, who suggests that councils and principals agree on what data to gather to prevent either side from surprising or ambushing the other.
• Do more together, not less. Council members and principals may want to limit their contact during stressful times, but doing just the opposite can help. Weekly meetings can open up dialogue. Principals can also participate with council members in training.
Personality clashes, maverick behavior
Some councils have a member who consistently tries to bend or break the rules, or offends other members. Often such problems are personal, such as a misplaced belief that his or her individual opinion should always prevail. “[Council] members should have no power as individuals,” reminds Weary.
Whatever the case, conflict that stems from an individual is uncomfortable and distracting, and needs to be isolated to protect the council.
• Learn more about each other. While the urge to avoid an unpleasant person is understandable, personality assessments such as Meyers-Briggs can help council members learn more about the values and experiences that shape each other’s personalities.
“If you can get them to sit down and say, ‘What is your agenda,’ then you have a better chance,” says Dawson. “When you try to squelch a minority opinion, it comes back to bite you.”
• Focus on results. It’s better to focus the council’s attention and energy on business, rather than confronting personality conflicts directly, Dawson says. “If we can all agree what we’re there to accomplish for whom, then that should become the substance of our focus.”
• Rotate roles. Giving each council member rotating responsibility for running meetings, writing memos or other tasks can smooth things out, says Martirossian. Repressed ideas have a better chance of being aired, and council members think about how they want to be treated when they are placed in new roles. “A lot of conflicts are resolved when parties feel that they have been heard,” she says.
The sound of silence
It can be difficult to distinguish between well-functioning councils and an ineffective rubber stamp. On the surface, a consistently unanimous group appears to be doing the job. But it can also be a sign that healthy debate is dismissed and opposition has gone underground. “People think that because the group is making a decision it’s bound to be a wise decision,” says Martirossian, whose research shows group decisions often reflect a dominant view rather than consensus. She offers these “wake-up” strategies.
• Always consider alternatives. Councils can avoid rubber-stamp decisions by making sure there are always two or more options to consider, Martirossian says. “It is amazing how many times major expenditures are made without looking at alternatives.”
In particular, she warns against verbal brainstorming sessions that appear to welcome new ideas but often limit discussions. Research shows that individuals generate more reflective and varied ideas when asked to write them down and submit a list, Martirossian says.
• Assign someone to be devil’s advocate. Members of groups often let down their guard if someone appears confident of a certain course. “Nobody likes to be the spoiler,” Martirossian says. “But if [devil’s advocate] is a rotating role, they know it’s not equated with that person.”
• Another pair of eyes. It can be useful to call in outsiders to verify that things are proceeding as they should, says PURE Executive Director Julie Woestehoff. Otherwise, “anyone who raises questions seems like a troublemaker.” PURE offers LSCs such support; for instance, it helps them get advance copies of school improvement plans from principals, and shows them proper procedures to follow to vote on transferring funds.
Low attendance, persistent vacancies
Poor attendance—often with the result that council doesn’t have a quorum—and low parent and community interest in serving on a council are frustrating LSC problems.
“Low engagement is a bigger issue than conflict,” says Andy Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative. Apathy is a sign that people do not believe they can make a difference, say the experts. There are ways to revive a listless LSC.
• Make connections. Creating subcommittees to work on special projects and forming relationships with other groups that work with the school—such as bilingual or IASA parent councils—can revive lagging interest and funnel talent towards the LSC, Wade explains. Regular work with outside groups will increase an LSC’s “bench strength,” he adds.
• Have some fun. Outreach activities such as family night and movie night can help spark casual relationships that lead to greater engagement in the school. “The LSC meeting is probably the least interesting thing an LSC does,” says Wade.
• Set timetables and keep a log of completed projects. LSCs need to have a sense of accomplishment, Martirossian says. “For some people, the meeting in itself becomes the goal.”
Alexander Russo is a Chicago education writer and can be reached at AlexanderRusso@aol.com