ETHICAL EDUCATOR

The End-Around Faculty Play

 

School Administrator, May 2015
 
 Ethical Educator
     Illustration by David Clark

Scenario: The teachers' union president sets up a meeting involving several school board members, including the board chair, and a group of faculty from one school ostensibly to hear about changes unfolding at the school. The board members are confronted at the meeting by a small group of disgruntled teachers complaining about recent actions of the principal. By statute and board policy, the board is not to engage in personnel matters, so when the principal learns of the meeting, he complains to the superintendent about board interference and inappropriate actions of the union. What should the superintendent do?

 

Roy Dexheimer: The superintendent has some fence-mending and policy adjustments to pursue. The teachers need to be formally admonished for violating a norm, including a summary of how such matters can be brought to the school board.
    The board needs an even stronger scolding for allowing itself to be ambushed and abandoning its own policies. The scolding ought to be candid and perhaps in executive session. But an assignment to the policy committee ought to be quite public, so everyone knows what need fixing. There also is the matter of communication that needs to be resolved. Why didn’t the superintendent know what was up, especially if the school board chair was involved? Might be time to review a resume.

Sarah Mackenzie:
It’s possible both the union president and board members were blindsided at the meeting. It’s unclear if all the teacher attendees were unhappy or if the disgruntled teachers represented only a portion of those present. It’s also unclear if the principal’s complaints are justified. Perhaps the meeting was stopped as soon as the board chair realized that topics outside the board’s purview arose.
    Nevertheless, the superintendent needs to find out how the meeting was planned and convened and then what actually occurred. The superintendent must speak with the board chair to ensure he or she knows personnel matters should not be discussed in venues such as this. Board members should tell anyone who brings up such complaints to speak with the superintendent. The superintendent also must speak to the teachers’ union president and perhaps notify all teachers to emphasize that concerns about building leadership and climate should be addressed to the superintendent, not board members.

Shelley Berman:
This incident represents a serious breach of trust and operating guidelines with far- reaching consequences.
    It was inappropriate for the union president to misrepresent the purpose of the meeting and to put board members in a position that violated their role and responsibility. It was also inappropriate for the board members to attend a meeting without notice to the principal and superintendent, even if it was initially perceived as innocuous.  The principal has a right to be professionally and personally concerned.
    The entire incident places the superintendent in the very challenging position of admonishing a significant group on the board and the union president while addressing a potential personnel situation between teachers and the principal.
Underlying this incident is an even deeper issue of the concern expressed by the faculty and why that concern was not presented first to the principal and to the superintendent. There is an implied lack of confidence that either the principal or the superintendent will deal effectively with the concerns of these faculty members. Staging the meeting could have been an effort to call attention to a problem that was not being adequately addressed.
    The superintendent has a lot of listening to do, along with clarifying operating procedures. First, the superintendent needs to talk with the board members to better understand why they engaged in the meeting, what they did when they realized it was a personnel issue, and how they perceived what happened at the meeting. In the end, the superintendent and board members need to clarify and reaffirm their operating guidelines regarding communication between the board and administration and the board’s discretion to meet with staff so that something like this doesn’t happen again.
    Second, the superintendent needs to talk with the union president to better understand how this meeting took place without her first being notified, what the teachers’ concerns are and why they surfaced in such an inappropriate way.  After making it clear that such a meeting compromises and complicates her ability to effectively address the concerns, she needs to discuss with the union president what might be some appropriate steps for addressing them. She also needs to be willing to hear the teachers’ or union’s perception that matters related to the principal won’t be addressed fairly and to set up a separate process for investigating and resolving trust-related issues.
    Third, she must listen to the principal, who is rightfully concerned about the incident. The principal may believe that he was slandered in front of board members and that his reputation has been seriously damaged in their eyes. While affirming that the meeting was inappropriate and that the board will not be involved in any personnel considerations, the superintendent has to make it clear that the meeting may have arisen because of unaddressed concerns. She has to listen to the principal’s perspective about those concerns and set in motion a process for resolving them.
    Trust is hard to reestablish in situations like this because all parties to the incident feel hurt and diminished by it.  However, it is the responsibility of the superintendent to believe in the best of intentions among all the participants and to find a way to rebuild communication while simultaneously addressing the real concerns that surfaced.

Mark Hyatt:
Superintendents and teacher unions have the mutual interests of teachers as one of their top priorities. The principal involved here has the right to deal with his personnel issues in accordance with agreed-upon processes described in the member-ratified union agreement.
    I recommend an immediate meeting between the superintendent and the union president to appeal for proper handling of this issue in accordance with statute and policy.  I also would ask the board president to review her rules of engagement for school boards and the best practices and norms that all board members agree to when they assume their duties.
    It seems the union and board president let this situation get out in front of them.  It's time to dial back and adhere to the agreed- upon practices for healthy conflict resolution following personnel policies and procedures. 

 

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to: magazine@aasa.org

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Eugene, Ore.; Roy Dexheimer, retired BOCES super-intendent and former college vice president, Ithaca, N.Y.; Mark Hyatt, former president, Character Education Partnership, Washington, D.C.; and Sarah V. MacKenzie, associate professor at University of Maine, Orono, Maine, and co-author of Now What? Confronting and Resolving Ethical Issues. Expanded answers are published in School Administrator magazine’s online edition.