The Year of the School: A Madera Tribune editorial project
Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune A photo of the new Matilda Torres High School under construction in late September.
What do Madera Unified schools do right?
MUSD board of governors finally works as such a board is supposed to work
Part 1 of a Series
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Any attempt to assess what is right in a school district must begin at the top — the school’s governing board, made up of trustees who have been elected by the people to see to the education of the community’s children.
The story of Madera Unified’s school board reads like a tale of two cities. It is the story of transformation in which trustees, once wracked with animosity and dissension, have come together to heal divisions and develop effective governance for 22,000 students and 3,000 employees.
In the election of 2014, the people placed three new trustees on the seven-person board. Initially there was a period of sparing, as the board grappled with division that had plagued it for several years. One might even have called that division chaotic.
Antagonistic alignments had characterized the board; debate had been rude and sometimes crude. Incivility even led to the censure of one trustee, and a political vendetta had been launched against the superintendent and his assistant superintendent. The atmosphere was toxic. Then came the election of 2014.
Three new trustees were elected that year, and within a few months observers sensed a subtle shift in the performance of the board that developed into a dramatic, transformational change. Looking back on those pivotal months in 2015, board president Ed McIntyre told The Tribune, “It seems like light years ago.” Board Clerk Ray Seibert wholeheartedly agreed.
The two board leaders agreed that the change was set into motion when trustees began to seriously question their roles as governing board members. This led to the decision to engage the services of Alan Rasmussen and Mike Crass of Education Support Services Group to provide governance workshops for the board.
Rasmussen and Crass led the trustees in the process of examining their own roles and the roles of the district’s administration, and before long, common agreement was reached and “everyone was running in their proper lane,” said McIntyre.
This defining of roles then promoted further self-evaluation among trustees. First, they recognized the need to identify and come to grips with the massive deficit (one might even call them massive defects) that existed in Madera Unified’s educational system. Second, they recognized the need for administrative continuity.
Evidence of this came when the board voted to give Al Galvez the president’s gavel three years in a row. This was reinforced when the board appointed life-long Maderan Todd Lile as superintendent.
Galvez provided a steadiness to the board, and the factions disappeared. Trustees moved with harmony of thought, and that reduced the uncertainty that had been felt throughout the district.
At the same time, Lile, recognizing the difference between the role of a school superintendent and the school board, assembled an executive cabinet that set out to implement the policies and regulations established by the board and create a “culture of excellence” within the district.
Today it is a transformed school board that meets to conduct the people’s business. Although there are honest disagreements, they are handled with civility. Trustees are no longer violating the Brown Act by divulging information from executive sessions. There appears to be open and honest communication at school board meetings.
Likewise, today the board appears to be operating with transparency; trustees are not hesitant to discuss what have heretofore been hidden agendas. In public discussions, board members listen to one another and appear to value input from one another.
It is obvious to anyone who attends MUSD board meetings today that trustees are devoting large amounts of time in preparation. At times the discussions deal with technical issues such that, only someone who has spent time studying them could engage in the conversation.
As a result, Madera Unified has successfully embraced a ground-breaking Dual Language Instruction program, and plans are under way to expand it. The district’s CTE program has drawn the attention of educational leaders from throughout the state and beyond. Its after school program is second to none.
Madera Unified has a prudent financial operation, and it is aggressively addressing the district’s burgeoning student population.
Madera Unified’s school board members are headed in the right direction by taking advantage of each other’s strengths and areas of expertise.
At the same time, they don’t deny their differences, but they put them aside. How else could a staunch Republican and determined Democrat sit next to each other and work together as president and clerk of the board?