On Trust between School Committees and District Administrators

Emily Dexter

During the school committee’s moderated retreat with the administration last week, the word “trust” came up several times: trust between the administration and the school committee.  Since I wasn’t present for the whole discussion, I can’t comment on the substance of their comments about trust, but here’s my view on SC-administration trust in general:

A school committee is responsible for setting policy and directing and evaluating their district superintendent. They should expect that the superintendent will do that job competently and will carry out their policies, and a superintendent should expect that a committee will govern responsibly and for the good of the students. Trusting each other has nothing to do with the roles and responsibilities of either party, and to spend time discussing trust or other aspects of their personal feelings toward each other is a waste of official time, the public’s time. Their time, when they are doing their job, is the public’s time. Communities don’t elect school committees to spend time talking about how much they trust the superintendent, they elect them to spend time, which is scarce, discussing and setting policy, determining the budget, and directing and evaluating the superintendent. (Unfortunately, our school committee spent little time discussing the budget this year and didn’t spend any time evaluating the superintendent.)  If some or all members of a school committee trust some or all members of an administration and vice versa, that’s fine. That’s a personal matter that’s irrelevant to how well any of them do their job. If there is wariness or suspicion, that’s personal too. They can work it out over private lunches at the S&S. There are objective standards for professional, civil, and civic conversation that must be adhered to in public meetings–no yelling, no insults, don’t throw anything unless it’s soft, etc., but how people feel about each other and whether they trust each other is not of public importance unless mistrust becomes so severe that the organization can’t function.  In that case, lack of trust is not the problem.  The problem is the behaviors and actions that are causing trust to break down: people not acting responsibly, not meeting their obligations, or not doing what they agreed to do. At the end of the day, though, if elected officials feel severe mistrust of an administrator, they need to hire someone else. If an administrator doesn’t trust the judgment of the elected officials that direct his or her work, he or she is working in the wrong community and should go elsewhere.

Why is trust irrelevant? First, trust is earned, must be continually renewed, and exists on a continuum, not on an either/or basis.  People don’t start trusting each other just because they have said in a retreat that they need to feel more trust.  That’s a waste of time that could be better spent discussing the budget. If there is trust between two parties, it is because each party has gained the trust of the other through their actions.  It is a by-product of a good working relationship, not an end-goal.  Trust can’t be legislated, required, measured, or documented, but responsible behavior can be.

Second, trust is a relevant issue in intimate, personal relationships, not in public relationships which, by definition, are not based on intimacy and familiarity but rather on policy, oversight, documentation, evidence, established procedures, and laws. If the elected officials or the public “trusted” the administration, they wouldn’t need any meetings, reports, or data.  In fact, we wouldn’t need elected officials because we would trust the administration to “do the right thing” when managing the schools. When Ronald Reagan said “trust but verify” in terms of the Soviet Union, that was a clever paradox, not an achievable stance. If you trust your spouse, you don’t call their office to confirm that they actually are working late. You don’t need evidence to verify where they are unless you don’t trust them.

Historian and writer Jill Lepore (also a CPS parent as I understand) has an article in the March 16th New Yorker on income inequality.  Speaking about quantification of inequality, she quotes a historian of science named Theodore Porter as having said, “Quantification is a technology of distance….Reliance on numbers and quantitative manipulation minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust.”  There are other forms of reliable evidence other than numbers, and numbers are not always reliable evidence, but the point is the same.  The school committee and public need reliable evidence of what is happening in the schools because their relationship with the administration and the public’s relationship with the administration are not, primarily, personal relationships based on trust. The school committee’s job and responsibility is to request and evaluate evidence and to share that evidence with the public: they are the go-between. In fact, I would say that the primary responsibility of the school committee is to ask for and review data reports, evaluations, surveys, audits, interviews, and other forms of evidence of what is happening in the schools, which we fund with our tax dollars. How else can the committee make policy or evaluate the administration in an ongoing way? Consequently, one of the main responsibilities of public administrators is to produce, on a continuous basis, reliable, sound evidence for the public to review. They are paid by and work for the public.  Asking public administrators for evidence is not a sign of mistrust. It is a sign that people are doing their jobs and being responsive to the public’s need for evidence. Evidence that their tax dollars are being well spent and that their institutions are fulfilling the needs of the community. (I’m so sick of the word “accountable” that I’m trying not to use it any more. I prefer “responsive to the need for evidence.”)

I wish our school committee would ask for much more evidence and data than they do, and rely much less on their personal relationships with the administration.  I.e. they can trust CPS administrators all they want, but for the sake of the public, their job is to verify.

Comments welcome, feel free to forward to interested others or listserves.  Please don’t forward to CPSparents@yahoogroups.com because I will post a link there.

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