Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools board members said they’re working through communication and trust issues during a three-hour workshop Monday.
“Sometimes it’s hard to decide how much I need to know about an issue in the community and then also dealing with what the community expects me to know,” Chairwoman Lee Shimek said.
The Minnesota School Board Association led the “Mutual Expectations” exercise, which is meant to “develop ground rules or clear the air concerning the unwritten norms, behaviors, responsibilities” and concerns board members have about working as a team, according to the association website.
The group charges $975 for the exercise, association Director of Board Development Katie Klanderud said.
“Mutual Expectations isn’t intended for boards that are struggling,” she added. “All school boards can benefit from conversations that focus on building a high-performing board.”
Klanderud and Associate Director Paula O’Loughlin spoke with the five board members present — directors Melissa Enger and Enrique Velazquez were absent.
The pair said boards have five stages of development: forming; storming, or when members learn the group’s dynamic; norming, or when members open up with one another; performing, when members work as a team; and deforming ahead of new membership or other changes.
Board members said they felt like they’re mostly storming.
“I’m in my fourth year, and I’m not sure that we ever got past forming,” Director Mary Frantz said. “There was a tremendous amount of distrust, innuendo, assumption, things like that that were never really allowed to mature.”
Tension on the board came into the public eye in early 2018, when the Prior Lake American reported that Frantz and Director Melissa Enger had been told in the previous year that they violated board policy in questioning the district’s relationship with contractor Nexus Solutions.
Richard Wolf, the board’s former chairman told Enger and Frantz that their comments on Nexus violated the board’s code of ethics, which directs the board to “criticize privately, praise publicly.”
Frantz and other members said the dynamic has started to change in the last several months with more open and respectful discussions during meetings.
“I don’t think we’re at the storming phase yet or past it, but I think that we can get there,” Frantz said.
Several members asked for greater clarity about how they should be engaging with the public on social media and in person. They said parents have made it clear they believe board members are deeply involved in the day-to-day management of staff and students at each school, which isn’t the case.
The superintendent is responsible for the management of schools and administration of district policies, according to board policy.
“The community does see you as the one with positional power, but really we all know that as board members the only time we have collective power or any power at all is together at the board table as a whole,” O’Loughlin said.
The delineated roles are backed by the board’s communication policy which says that when a board member receives a question or concern from the public they are to be directed to the “appropriate administrator” or superintendent. The superintendent serves as the spokesperson for the school district and school board chair serves as the board spokesperson.
Frantz voiced concern that communications between the board members and Superintendent Dr. Teri Staloch sometimes kept the larger board out of the loop on important issues, such as when several local homes flooded with sewage after maintenance workers drained the Hidden Oaks Middle School pool.
“I don’t want to find out after it’s been in the paper or just because the news channels show up because everyone else knows about it,” Frantz said.
Staloch said her promise to the board has always been to keep them updated and avoid surprises.
“The way I have tried to operate for five years, and I’m not perfect, is to make sure you know information,” Staloch said.
Several other board members said they were confident that Staloch was living up to that promise.