Saturday, August 30, 2008


I wrote earlier about Olentangy School Board member Jennifer Smith's crusade to change the way their Board does business. Her latest battle occurred during their August 26 regular Board meeting, which you can listen to here.

It's a little like watching the first Rocky movie. Rocky was all heart and not much style. Apollo Creed was the reigning World Heavyweight Champion. He was highly skilled as a boxer, and to see him in the ring was like watching a great artist. When Rocky would step in to make a punch, Creed would counter and land two or three on Rocky. But Rocky never gave up. He took a lot of punches, and landed a few good ones of his own. The two fighters pummeled each other to exhaustion and great injury.

Ms. Smith is continuing to slug away as well, with more heart than style. To make this analogy work, she needs to have an opponent. While her opponent is obviously the rest of the Board as well as the Superintendent, the style leader is clearly Dimon McFerson, the retired CEO of Nationwide Insurance. Mr. McFerson has spent a good deal of his career in the politics at the top of a major corporation, and along the way would have needed to develop the ability to win fights by controlling the ring, and doing so with style. Whether you're talking about a corporate Board, the governing Board of a charitable organization, or a School Board, half the battle is won by controlling the agenda.

In the case of the Olentangy Board, the agenda is set by the Superintendent and the Board President, although one comment during the meeting suggests that Mr. McFerson, as Vice-President of the Board, is involved as well via a Friday breakfast he attends with the Superintendent and President. Their Board's policy seems to be that if any of the other three Board members want something on the agenda, that Board member needs to have a conversation with at least one other Board member and gain concurrence. Not agreement on the point, just agreement to discuss it.

Their standing agenda also has, as one of the first items, the approval of the agenda. At that time, any Board member can make a motion to add, change or delete agenda items. By Roberts Rules of Order, that motion requires a second to place it into discussion, followed by a majority vote in favor in order to enact the motion. Ms. Smith's motion to change the agenda died for the lack of a second. She's countered this in the past by stepping down from the Board table and addressing the Board as a private citizen. It's an unorthodox solution, but she seems to have a cheering section, although I'm sure it annoys the other Board members no end.

She continued to slug away during the rest of the meeting. It wasn't always pretty. She has a habit of interrupting others when they're talking, often with little jabs, and the consequence is to raise the level of tension and frustration even further. Mr. McFerson often steps in as referee and puts a stop to this (something the President should be doing), and in doing so reclaims the high ground. But Ms. Smith's perseverance is paying off. Although the other Board members aren't yet agreeing with Ms. Smith, you can hear that Mr. McFerson has begun to sense that the public is less concerned about decorum and more concerned about whether their School Board is hiding things.

Many folks remember that Rocky prevailed and pulled it out in the end, becoming the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Except he didn't – Creed won by a decision and retained his title. It wasn't until Rocky II that Creed was defeated and Rocky became champion.

Rocky and his advisors modified their mode of attack, but kept their heart. The combination was a winner.

Our movement is starting to affect the way our school leadership works as well. Have you noticed that they enter Executive Session much less frequently these days? They still aren't having discussions in public to the degree I believe they should - and that the law requires. They clearly come to meetings having already reached a consensus on pretty much everything, as the comments they make are more justifications for the audience and the media than they are an exchange and discussion of ideas.

If we want to change this, it is critical that members of the community show up at Board meetings, otherwise the Board has some justification (illegal as it may be) for not bothering to hold discussions in front of an empty room.


  1. That was certainly an interesting (albeit incredibly long) board meeting. I admire Ms. Smith for having the dedication (or maybe just plain gumption) to hang in there during the meetings. I'm not sure I could have participated in that endless budget discussion without throwing up my hands in frustration and giving up.

    It was interesting, though, that by the end of the meeting, as you pointed out, Mr. McFerson admitted that the public perception seems to be that the School Board is afraid to talk about things. It probably helped to have one public comment that spoke specifically to the issue of a board member being able to independently add an item to the agenda. I thought it was very disrespectful of whichever board member it was who then questioned the gentleman as to the identity of the board member with whom he had discussed this issue in advance. What difference did that make???

    At the same time that I was irritated with what seemed to be the ganging up on Ms. Smith, I was also impressed that there was even interesting dialogue occurring at the meeting. I don't know if prior to Ms. Smith being elected to the board, the meetings were similar in nature to the rubber stamping that is going on at Hilliard board meetings, but at least there was information being distributed and issues being discussed (although not voluntarily it seemed). I now know more about the fiscal operations of the Olentangy School District than I have yet to learn from several of our school board meetings.

    I don't know if our board isn't having relevant discussions in public, or if they are just simply rubber stamping the decisions of Mr. McVey. At this point, from what I've seen, they seem to be just a very compassionate group of people who feel very bad that our district has run out of money and feel really bad about all the budget cuts that will have to take place and they all want everyone to talk to their neighbors and friends about doing all they can to get a new levy passed. That's not exactly the role I expect the managing body of an organization of 1,600+ employees with a $190 million budget to play.

    I will continue to attend the board meetings, if you think it will help. I'm going to start speaking at the meetings too. I don't have much confidence that doing so will help, but I guess it can't hurt anything.

    4 Things I Admire About Olentangy School Board Meetings:

    1. They are recorded and then made available to the public.

    2. The public is allowed 5 minutes to speak (instead of our 3 minute rule)

    3. There are 2 opportunities for public participation, one at the beginning of the meeting for general comments and one prior to the discussion of Action Items for comments regarding action items.

    4. The members of the board actually responded to the public comments, offered basic information when it was pertinant to the comment, and explained that one question would be referred to the Superintendent for follow up.

  2. KK:

    Thanks for your comment.

    My experience is that when they get thoughtful feedback from a new face, it gets their attention - just ask KJ.

    But you also need to be prepared to have one or both of the reporters from the weekly newspapers want to ask you follow-up questions. You can refuse of course, but if you want to amplify your voice - it's worth talking to them.


  3. Paul: Be careful of a heckler's veto type response to your interpretation of Olentangy school board meetings.

    Politics is a game -- a nefarious game, but a game nonetheless. Those supporting the status quo can stop any challenge by appealing to decorum.

    This then forces the challenger to ask questions that are hard-driving, questions that make folks at the board table very uncomfortable. The rest of the board, along with the administration, then acts shocked that such questions are being asked publicly.

    But a board meeting is simply the end result of the many one-on-one conversations between board members and administrators leading up to the meeting.

    Can you imagine my frustration over having to wait 6 months for data that the board had already reported to ODE? In addition, I am still waiting for promised data and reports.

    Certainly, these actions by the administration raises the level of frustration.

    So I ended up a very contentious board member. Administrators would meet with me asking what my issues were. They were simple and straight forward: provide the data I request in a timely manner; and, don't lie about stuff where I will find the truth in the end.

    The administration never changed its tactics. But, and this is a big but, they would appeal to decorum with the other board members. McFerson would buy that line time and time again.

    My favorite tale is one where I invited a resident/parent to speak at a board meeting about his concerns with a district sports program. Soon after, the coach exacted minor revenge on the resident's daughter. I asked for justice for the resident and his daughter. Nothing.

    So I had the resident come to the next board meeting and speak again. He did. I used this opportunity to express my disgust with the coach's actions (confirmed by others). The superintendent said that no school employee would do such thing -- "How dare I make such statements in public about dedicated school employees!" But the coach's actions were according to human nature and were well within the actions of other employees (things I cannot speak about but would make you ill).

    The superintendent's appeal to decorum worked. The other board members -- also subject to, and knowledgeable of, human nature -- sided with the superintendent. "School employees only serve to help kids." Amazing stuff.

    KK: After I resigned from the Olentangy school board due to conflicts with my employment, I was asked to remain a member of the board's Finance and Audit Committee.

    I only lasted two meetings before quitting out of frustration with a treasurer (the current treasurer) who had (has?) no working knowledge of state school funding.

    Paul: Ms. Smith has more patience than I could muster -- and, I suspect, more than you could muster. So be careful when observing board meetings. The meetings are only the tip of the iceberg of board member interactions with the administration and between themselves.

  4. Jim:

    Thanks for your comment. My use of the Rocky analogy was to put Ms. Smith in the heroic role, fighting against the entrenched powers. I support her in her struggle, and have told her so personally. My only coaching is that she find a way to adjust her tactics in order to become the victor of Rocky II and not the bloody, heroic, but defeated Rocky of the first movie.


  5. Jim:
    When you mention having to wait 6 months for data that the board had already reported to ODE? Don't those documents fall under the Public Records Act?

    I know this is off topic, but since I was already responding to Jim...I was looking in the Financial Reports section of the HCS website and read the 5 yr. forecast, revised May 2008 document. On page 6 it reads:

    For fiscal year 2008 all wages are projected to increase 3.0% with an average step increase of 2.40%.

    The 2.4% number sounded off, so I looked at the 5 yr. forecast assumptions document. On page 6 it reads:

    For fiscal year 2008 all wages are projected to increase 2.0% with an average step increase of 2.99%.

    OK. That didn't clarify anything, except maybe that the board had hoped to negotiate a 2% cost of living increase instead of 3%? Wonder why they caved?

    I'm assuming the 2.4% figure is the percentage of total salary that the sum of all steps HEA & OAPSE earn? I guess when you throw into the pot the administrators salaries and the OAPSE salaries and their substantially lower step increases, and the higher salaries of longer term teachers who've already had the benefit of years of 4.15 step increases in addition to pay increases, the HEA's increases don't sound so high (2.4 vs. 4.15)...

    Finally, when I was looking back to verify numbers, I noticed that there are some new postings to older threads that I've missed. I like staying current with what folks are writing, but using a reader only updates me when you've added a new topic and ignores comments. Any suggestions on how to recognize new comments?

  6. kk:

    Don't those documents fall under the Public Records Act?

    Yes they do. And that's the point.

    When a board member has to resort to public records requests, the rest of the board raises the decorum flag. To legally challenge your own district is considered an offense to the standard operating model. A board member may ask, but to demand is a different matter. And to use the law is beyond the pale.

    Oh, and don't bet the horse on public records law. I am three weeks into a public records request from ODE. Their response: they will fullfill my request in a timely manner.

    I even copied an editor at the Dispatch to no avail.

    Yes, I will get the info in the end -- if I have to appeal to the courts, but I will likely get it after the associated decision is made at the State Board of Education.

    The original point: Once a board member is forced to make public records requests of his own district, he has broken the standards of decorum and is branded a contentious outsider -- someone looking to cause trouble.

    But the real issue is the fact that the vast majority of board members do no research on their own. They simply take administrative reports and numbers as truth.

    The question to those board members is: Who do you represent if you simply vote the party line?

  7. KK:

    What you were looking at was two different versions of the 5 Year Forecast.

    "For fiscal year 2008 all wages are projected to increase 3.0% with an average step increase of 2.40%." came from the May 08 version, while "For fiscal year 2008 all wages are projected to increase 2.0% with an average step increase of 2.99%." came from Oct 08 version.

    It would be reasonable to assume that in Oct 07, it was the intention of the Board and Administration to drive for new HEA/OAPSE contracts which would have lower base pay raises, and higher (or different) steps. By the time of the May 08 reforecast, the actual terms of the contracts were known.

    The facts are that 70% of the HEA members are on step years, meaning they will get both the 3% base pay increase (not a Cost of Living Increase) and the 4.15% step increase. The lowest paid teacher who gets a base pay raise only is typically one with at least a Master's degree and 15 years of experience. Such a teacher is paid $74,533 in 2008.

    As for finding new comments on old posts, there is a link under RSS Feed in the left margin on the top of page of the blog labeled "Comments" Click this and you will be given a choice of RSS feed formats, one of which your readers should accept.


  8. Jim:

    The question to those board members is: Who do you represent if you simply vote the party line?



  9. Smith was branded a trouble maker from the get-go when she had the audacity to ask the Treasurer for actual expense data. It was a perfunctory ask, borne from curiosity and not from antagonism. When the Treasurer pushed back Smith then demanded to see the data, and the Treasurer's subsequent refusal raised red flags. A tug-of-war then ensued with the Treasurer appealing to the board administrato-maternal inclinations to shield her from "micromanagement" -though it was a simple request by a board member for simple data that the Treasurer is required by policy and by law to keep current and make available to anyone who wishes to obtain it. Smith then decided to no longer play their game and she filed a public records request.

    I liken Smith v. Olentangy School Board to the first Frazier-Ali fight, in 1971. Ali was arrogant and, supremely sure of his own place of superiority, didn't prepare much for the relatively unknown Joe Frazier. Ali battered Frazier until the six round when Smokin' Joe got into his groove and began to get traction. He found the combination that worked (left hook to the head/ right to the body) that, punch-by-punch, wore Ali down in the later rounds. Ali then hit the mat in the 15th round.

    The 15th round of the Smith-OLSD BoE fight is November 4th 2009.

  10. What happens Nov 4th? I didn't see an Olentangy issue on the ballot, or any Board seats?