Friday, August 10, 2007

C-J dreams a little dream in today's editorial

Today's C-J editorial on the Kentucky school board correctly sees the Travis ouster as atonement for past failures, but not full accountability.

Accountability is a dream of things not to come.

But, somebody had to pay.

And all evidence suggests that Travis deserved what he got.

When information about Commissioner candidate Barbara Erwin came out, and piled up, Travis did his best to ignore it and wish it away. His leadership was to tell the rest of the board to believe the search firm's "sales job" and it would all be OK. As Joe Brothers correctly points out - they all bought it; they all own it.

The whole bunch, with the possible exception of Doug Hubbard, ought to have resigned - or been fired by any governor who valued integrity, competence in public office, and accountability when that competence was proven to be lacking.

Travis lost his leadership spot because somebody had to pay.

All things considered, the board's 10-1 vote probably takes some heat off the rest of the board members. By ousting Travis, maybe folks will quit calling for the rest of the board to quit as the Herald-Leader did recently.

The thing about Ray & Associates

When things go badly, it's good to keep ones head. I can fully understand the board's current notion of running as far away from Ray & Associates as possible. Once burned; twice shy.

But any search requires a lot of grunt work. Advertising. Correspondence. Compiling. Scheduling. Ray & Associates says they have a no refund policy on the botched search - but they guarantee two-years of continued assistance for boards that are unhappy with the results and promise to help "in any way we can to help them find the best candidate for the job."

The board of education needs many of the services a search firm can provide right now, and maybe that's one way Ray & Associates can repay Kentucky.

I think we should use them. I just don't think we should trust them.

Once candidates have been organized, paperwork collected and interviews scheduled...Ray & Associates should be thanked and sent away - while the board conducts a real investigation.

You don't outsource judgment.

A new Commissioner

I love the fact that the Chairman Brothers held discussions of the process and timeline the board would follow in hiring a new commissioner in open session yesterday. That's good leadership and a big step in the right direction. I hope it signals a return to the required public openness on the part of the board.

I'm much less thrilled by the timeline itself.

In the school business there is a hiring season - and this isn't it.

We don't need a commissioner quickly so much as we need a commissioner who is excellent. All of the top folks who were considering moves this past year are presently geared up for the start of the new school year wherever they are. The folks who are ready to change positions in October are largely leftovers. Any superstars who were willing to move have already done so.

In January, the political picture in Kentucky will be a settled issue and there will be a whole new crop of potential candidates who are looking ahead to the next year. To the extent Kentucky's leaders, including the board of education, can convince candidates that Kentucky is still a great place to be, that crop will be improved. That's the time to start anew.

Evidence suggests that the governor will use all of this term to do what he started out doing - placing Republicans in state positions. The thought that his appointees will resign in January - if the polls hold true and Beshear is elected governor - may be what C-J wants, but that's a dream that won't come true. Public accountability is for school folks - not the board of education.

I've got an alternative idea. If board members are not going to hold themselves accountable, can the members of the search committee at least give back the plaques they were awarded by Travis in June for the outstanding job they did in selecting Erwin?

The Board of Education at 30,000 feet

A few years ago, every school leadership conversation began with someone saying we had to get the right people "on the bus." This was a theme from Jim Collins' bestselling book, Good to Great. Unfortunately the idea was being used by some folks that weren't even good yet. Too frequently it was the leader that needed to be thrown under the bus. But, I digress.

I was amused by the conversation at the June board of education meeting when one member asserted to the group that he was operating at 30,000 feet. Not having been in required pubic school professional development sessions for a few years, I hadn't heard this one used quite this way before.

But, I get it. State board of education members should look at the big picture. Babysit the process, not the projects (As Harvard Business Review was reporting in 2003). Leave the details to the professionals (in other words, don't bug the staff). It caught my attention because the board chair in St Charles, Illinois (Barbara Erwin's prior school district) was using the same language at the same time. It made me wonder if Barbara Erwin imported this reconstruction.

I chuckled again as the next speaker said she was operating at 35,000 feet.

Uh oh. The competition was on. She talked about big picture issues and assured the group that she was on-board.

A few minutes later a third member came in at 40,000 feet and I laughed out loud.

But the competition ended when a vendor told the board that his view was from 100,000 feet. Smiles faded as members began to realize the newest cliche had just run its course.

Look. The idea of maintaining a leadership perspective that focuses more on process than projects is the right way to go. And if thinking one is in an airplane while doing it helps - fine. But let's not forget the little dots on the ground...the ones we can't quite make out. Those are the students who must be cared for, and that means they must be seen. The mile high club notwithstanding, I don't think love works very well when one loses sight of their beloved.

And the particular sin in the failed commissioner search was the board's steadfast refusal to look into the detailed evidence presented them. That's where the devil was. The business literature argues that management needs to be attentive and flexible, ready to swoop in at the first sign of real trouble.

Somebody forgot that part of the equation.

This from the Courier-Journal:

Old faces, new seats

Two things come to mind in the aftermath of the Kentucky Board of Education's vote to sack its chairman, Keith Travis.

First, given that Mr. Travis cast the only vote for his retention in a 10-1 rout, he may not have been any better at assessing his political strength with his colleagues than he was in conducting a search for a new state education commissioner.

That exercise was a debacle from start to finish.

The Iowa search firm retained to screen and recommend candidates, Ray and Associates, failed to examine the record of Illinois educator Barbara Erwin carefully enough to illuminate her troubling and controversial professional background.

That fumble was compounded by the board's unwillingness simply to cut bait.

Instead, it forged ahead and hired Ms. Erwin despite false claims in her résumé and allegations that she ran roughshod over teachers and administrators in three states where she served. The appointment unraveled just three days before she was to start work, after her personnel file mysteriously went missing.

Second, however, the board's decision to put itself under new leadership and to acknowledge how badly it botched the search is better than what might reasonably have been expected.

In other places and at other times, the board's vote could be dismissed as a case of very little, very late. But this is the Frankfort of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, and the board members are his appointees. Gov. Fletcher's administration was investigated for criminal acts in the merit-system scandal, and only a blanket gubernatorial pardon averted multiple prosecutions. Yet, the Governor sees himself as an innocent victim.

Given that context, the school board's action seems a vigorous act of accountability.

That said, Mr. Travis' replacement should make Kentuckians feel slightly better only about the past -- not about what lies ahead.

The board and its new chairman, Joe Brothers of Elizabethtown, are still committed to hiring a new education commissioner.

The Erwin debacle cannot be blamed entirely on Mr. Travis. Other board members could have asserted themselves and reopened the search for a better candidate. Mr. Brothers properly acknowledges that the entire board must take responsibility for voting to bring Ms. Erwin to Kentucky.

It's hard to feel confident that this same group can do a better job the second time around.

A better course would be to recognize that a gubernatorial election looms.

If the voters decide to give Gov. Fletcher a second term, then there can't be serious quarrel with allowing his appointees to choose a new education commissioner. But if his Democratic rival, Steve Beshear, is elected, the new governor should have a major role in filling such a key position.

Such an outcome would require more than just Mr. Beshear's victory. It would also take the resignations of at least a majority of the board, so that Mr. Beshear could replace them.

That would not be Kentucky politics as usual, to be sure. But it would be real accountability -- and it would be an act for the common good.

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