Published DateTo the editor,
"Diverse" and "nuance." You, editor Ed Engler, co-chair of Lakes Region Listens, are reported to have used those words in praise of Wednesday's "community conversation" about whether or not to implement all-day kindergarten in the Winnisquam Regional School District.
I would use these words: diversion and nonsensical. How else to describe the misapplication of Delphi-style group facilitation to a yes/no question? The agenda we were given at the beginning of the meeting clearly stated the topic for the evening: "Should the Winnisquam Regional School District begin offering 5-year-olds a full day kindergarten program?" This question is instantly recognizable as a warrant article voted down at last year's annual school district meeting. Yet here it was again, up for discussion at the behest of the school board. It wouldn't take a cynic to see this retreaded idea as an effort to divert attention away from the many real problems we face in this district.
The board and administration may have been pleased to read that we had a "healthy conversation," and "how nuanced the positions are, in terms of it not being a black or white issue." But this is utter nonsense. Diverse and nuanced opinions only matter when groups discuss open-ended questions, exploring a range of possible solutions to address a specific problem. But we had no problem statement; neither the board nor the administration had bothered to create one. At my table — with four public school employees and three "civilians," plus the facilitator — we began to create our own. But we couldn't know on what issue or issues we should focus. Without leadership providing guidance on the biggest challenges facing the district, we could only guess. All we knew for certain was that someone in a leadership position didn't like the answer on kindergarten we gave them last year.
An informal poll of Wednesday's participants revealed that no minds were changed. A vote on the issue before the meeting would have yielded the same result as a vote held after our diverse and nuanced conversations. Why should anyone have expected a different outcome? No relevant learning materials on the topic were available at the meeting, just a "fact sheet" that provided unhelpful nuggets such as the fact that 84 percent of public schools in southern states offer full day kindergarten. A fact, yes, but hardly relevant to whether we should do so in Winnisquam. It's no surprise that we came and went with our opinions intact.
We had been told that our school board would decide whether or not to bring this issue for another vote based on the Lakes Region Listens report of this meeting. Except — the board blinked. Less than 24 hours before the long-planned "community discussion," the board voted unanimously to withdraw support for the proposed warrant article. The reason given was apparently "economic." But what had really changed?
We can't know what was going on in the minds of board members (the meeting minutes dedicate far more space to the all-consuming chocolate milk crisis than to this $300,000 warrant article), but it is not difficult to believe that, after raising the issue publicly, some on the board didn't want to be put in the position of voting "no" after receiving the Lakes Region Listens report. Even a true believer in the cause of all-day kindergarten should see that this group facilitation approach was useful only as a shield, buffering the board from the direct voice of the people. The board could be reasonably certain that the report would favor all-day kindergarten, giving them an excuse for revisiting a decision we had made just 10 months before. That's what Delphi does.
And that's why we should not accept further Delphi-style facilitation in the Winnisquam district. We should expect our district leaders to assess and prioritize the challenges we face. We should demand that they create problem statements addressing our challenges, and then ask for direct community input in open meetings. At last year's district meeting I suggested a couple such problem statements, and I did so again in print and in e-mails to the board. If they don't believe, as I do, that low proficiency in reading by too many of our middle school children is an issue we should discuss, or that having our high school ranked 63 out of 82 schools in math is a problem we could brainstorm, they could just look to the recent survey of high school students, teachers, and parents (posted on the high school web site) to find plenty of other challenges that we must address if we hope to improve our schools.
The road to solutions starts with creating a problem statement that focuses on a definable issue. It must be unambiguous and devoid of assumptions. It can't be a simple yes / no question about a specific program. That first step is the responsibility of the leadership team we've hired or voted into office. Then, if they want diverse and nuanced opinions that matter, they need to take the next step down that road: they need to listen — directly, in open session — to a variety of opinions. We don't need outside facilitation. We need leadership.