Smells like team spirit

Gail Gilman. Photo credit: John Ramos
Gail Gilman. Photo credit: John Ramos

On April 26, 2018, the Duluth School Board held their annual retreat in a conference room in the Great Lakes Aquarium. The retreat was facilitated by Gail Gilman, associate director of board development for the Minnesota School Boards Association. The MSBA is a private nonprofit group that “supports, promotes and strengthens the work of public school boards” in Minnesota. According to Gilman, all 332 school boards in the state (with the possible exception of one “tiny, tiny, tiny community” that she wasn’t sure about) are members of the MSBA.

During her three-hour presentation, Gilman touched on many topics and distributed several trees’ worth of handouts (see “What a treat, this retreat,” Loren Martell’s coverage in the May 11 Reader), but the thing that struck me most was how often she referred to the School Board as a “team.” This was a central point of her message, and maybe even the reason she had been hired. Over and over, Gilman emphasized that the “board team” or “team of seven” needed to present a united front to the public and not question the superintendent’s decisions too much.

“Elected board members, you govern,” Gilman lectured. “You are responsible for hiring a superintendent.  You are responsible for the budget and for policies. And once that happens … you hand it off to your superintendent, and then the superintendent takes that information … and he develops plans … You really need to show support as a team, and you really need to support your superintendent and administrators, however he decides to handle [things].”

This was my first experience with the MSBA, and I took issue with their premise. Elected bodies aren’t “teams.” Elected bodies are made up of individuals who are selected by voters to look out for the interests of their districts. They don’t have any games to win or finish lines to cross. There is only public business to transact, however they manage to do that. Thinking of them as teams assumes that everybody’s goals are the same. They aren’t always.

By forcing everyone into a fan club (“You need to be a cheerleader for your school district. If you can’t be a cheerleader, who else will be?” Gilman said at one point), the “team” model of governance marginalizes dissenters. Members of a “team” don’t ask questions or criticize; they’re endlessly supportive boosters who carry out the coach’s orders without question. The MSBA seems to believe that members who show independence or curiosity will threaten the happy team-spirit image that everybody else is working so hard to maintain. 

It’s interesting to consider that the MSBA is exporting this deeply anti-democratic view statewide. Their blanket recommendation, waved in the name of the children, seeks to silence dissent at all 332 school districts in Minnesota. The message is: Don’t ask questions. Don’t work too hard. Put your trust in the superintendent, and soothe your constituents with upbeat platitudes. That’s what’s best for the team.

Of course, when people are reluctant to publicly criticize anything, important issues can slip by completely unnoticed by the public. Free speech serves the public interest. Why shouldn’t School Board members ask questions? They should sing show tunes if that’s what they want to do. For the MSBA to suggest otherwise speaks to a horrifying conformity at the heart of their message. What kind of educators would discourage questions?

Hypothetical Josh and the elevator speech

Gilman also suggested that school board members not do too much to help citizens who came to them with concerns. 
“You are responsible to the community, but can you answer all their questions? Do you have enough time in the day to answer all their questions? Are you the expert that should be answering their questions?” she asked rhetorically, obviously believing the answer was No. “What I would say is that you need to be gracious to the community and you need to thank them for approaching you … Listen [to them], be appreciative, be polite and PASS IT ON to the superintendent … It is so important for you to do that. You just don’t have enough time in the day.”

To deal with the public while not actually helping them, Gilman advised board members to develop an “elevator speech,” a set statement that they could use to politely blow off citizens when necessary. “This could be a takeaway from today. Get your elevator speech in order, so … when [somebody] approaches [you] in the grocery store [and says], ‘I am so disappointed in that Social Studies curriculum, and I want you to figure [it] out,’ instead of [you] saying, ‘Yep, I’m gonna get right on that’ … a better answer … is to say, ‘Thank you so much for sharing that information. I really appreciate it … I want you to know that I am a board member and I’m glad you approached me, [but] I have no power to do anything … That is not my responsibility. I am one person … We have a process in place … What I would like you to do is share that information with [the superintendent].’”

Though the school board was generally thrilled with Ms. Gilman, the elevator speech idea made some members nervous. “I get it,” said Member Jill Lofald. “I want to do it. I’m going to, I’m sure. But yet I find that some of my [constituents] find that offensive. They find that non-responsive. They find that…I don’t know, just not sincere. So how do you [deal with] that?”

“I don’t know if you really have a choice,” Gilman said understandingly. “Put it in your own words, so that they know you’re sincere about it, but you’re following a process. You’re a team.” 
Gilman added that if anyone had trouble coming up with an elevator speech, the MSBA would soon be able to help. “We have heard this request enough times that I think we are going to come up with some sample elevator speeches for you.” She didn’t say how much the samples would cost.
To further explain why board members should avoid helping citizens, Gilman described a hypothetical situation where one member got deeply involved with citizens’ concerns, while the other members didn’t. “If you all use the same elevator speech, but Josh chooses to fix [the problem instead], figure it out, and hold their hand, who’s everybody gonna start going to? The community’s gonna say, ‘Well, Josh is the one!’ And then Josh is not gonna be sleeping at night, and Josh is not gonna have time to get everything done. So just have that same elevator speech.”

Listening to that story, I thought about what a great guy Josh was, helping everybody out like that. He sounded like a go-getter who really cared about his constituents. He probably didn’t need the extra sleep anyway. Not everybody does. I’d have been proud to call him my representative.
The MSBA, alas, does not approve of rebels. “Cut it out, Josh!” they holler from their lounge chairs by the pool whenever they hear him solving another problem. “Just give it to the superintendent!” 
Perhaps it is time for the Duluth school district to ask how much value they really get from their membership in the MSBA. If the answer is “None”, Duluth could become the first school district in the state to cancel their membership. It would be no great loss. If we needed bad advice, we could do that in-house and save a few dollars.

Disaster town

In looking at Duluth’s recent history, one cannot help but notice the number of extreme weather-related events we have experienced. The Great Flood of 2012 was the big one, a mind-boggling deluge which did an incredible amount of damage, much of which is still visible today. This was followed in 2014 by a polar vortex, which put us in a deep freeze and cracked water mains all over the city. Next, in 2016, a great windstorm slammed into town, uprooting trees, destroying homes and knocking out power to the eastern neighborhoods for days. Next, in 2017, Lake Superior’s waves devoured the shoreline and tore up the Lakewalk. Next, in 2018, more giant waves swept in and added to the destruction. That’s five major, unexpected weather events in six years. At this rate, the city should start budgeting for them.

At least our disasters look impressive. The waves last October might have destroyed thousands of acres of prime city waterfront, but that only made the show sweeter for the happy sightseers who turned out with their smartphones to capture the moment. When the Great Flood swept away highways and bridges, the first life to emerge from the wreckage was people snapping pictures. Destruction is a real crowd-pleaser. Especially fresh destruction. It brings us all together.

Another nice thing about Duluth’s disasters is their variety—of the five recent events, only the waves were repeats. It’s pretty clear Mother Nature is experimenting on us. We should probably expect to see an avalanche or waterspout next. Just a head’s-up.