School Board Debates Staff Morale
Board members Jeff Ebel, Lisa Totten and Trish Baker. (City-Times photo)
Erler Points to Improper Involvement by the Board, Cites Chain of Command Already in Place to Handle Morale
By Sara Marls
School Board Member Lisa Totten says the board needs to move on the district’s staff morale plan- and soon.
The staff morale plan was first discussed by the district in 2011 as a means to help improve the relationship between worker groups and administrators amid the fallout of Act 10- a law which effectively ended collective bargaining for public workers, including teacher unions.
“We can’t keep putting this on the agenda and not doing anything about it,” Totten told the board. “We have concluded this is not the sole responsibility of the superintendent and that we as a board agree this is also our issue. That being said, we either need to do it, or we need to tell our staff we’re not doing it and stop leading them on and pretending we are.”
Totten said the board needed to “step up and let the staff know we’re concerned” by finally acting on the plan, which has been included on the board’s discussion agenda for over a year.
Superintendent Attila Weninger was initially charged with creating and implementing the morale plan last year. Last August Weninger presented the board a list of 16 items which he said both the administration and employees should agree and compromise on in order to boost morale.
“More often, low or negative morale stems from personal attitudes that little if anything is ‘good enough’, or an overwhelming set of circumstances prevents positive morale from beginning, forming or continuing,” Weninger said last year, adding while Act 10 was a major factor, staff morale was not the shaped by a single event alone.
“The basic premise I’ve outlined is we can do a lot of things but it’s not going to automatically raise morale,” Weninger said when he presented the plan. “Everyone has to be willing to be a part of that. (This list) by no means complete or exhausted. You asked me for a plan- here’s what I’ve put together.”
Weninger’s plan included asking each staff member to be accountable for helping create a friendly work environment as well as steps appropriate for conflict resolution. The plan also included using the appropriate chain of command regarding complaints and various work-related requests. Many of items on Weninger’s list already existed in state statutes or school board policy.
Board Member Meg Erler said she wasn’t familiar with the plan, having just be appointed to the board in mid-July, but said her background in employment law told her micromanaging by the board could do more harm than good.
“My understanding is that the board hired a superintendent. The superintendent is responsible for the hiring, the firing, and the discipline, everything having to do with the people working for our district,” Erler said. “We should allow that superintendent to be able to move forward in creating a staff that he or she believes in- that’s what we’re hiring them for.”
Board President Angel Faxon said the board agreed to take on a more active role with the morale plan because even after the plan was presented, the board continued to hear complaints from district employees. Whatever the final plan looks like, she said, it needs to have a better-defined element of communication.
“Even if it’s just having them feel like they’ve been listened to, I think, sometimes is enough to boost morale,” Faxon said, adding some Board Members also wanted a more direct role in the plan because they felt Weninger wouldn’t actively participate in the plan during his last year as superintendent. Weninger announced in May he was resigning from the district effective at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Erler said if the board wasn’t happy with the superintendent’s attention to the details of staff morale, taking over the reins of his job wasn’t appropriate.
“We as a board should not be the conduit with our staff. Our staff should be working through chain of command with the schools,” she said. “We have incredible staff. We have incredible managers. We have incredible principals. We should be figuring out how we can work through them and support and empower them to help the morale of the staff, because that’s how morale grows in any organization. The best way to lose morale is if you have people coming in doors that isn’t appropriate in the chain of command.”
Erler also told the board it should consider its job description as laid out under state law.
“The board is just here to oversee the district- set the budget, hire the superintendent and set overall policy,” she said. “I’d be very, very reluctant to start talking about a staff morale plan unless I know all our administrators and principals are on board. And I think just having this discussion right now sends a mixed message of what the role of the board is.”
But some board members were unmoved by Erler’s remarks. Alex Kochanowski said he felt it was the board’s responsibility to fill in the “divots and cracks” left by a superintendent who was either unwilling or unable to perform.
“If I recall correctly, Dr. Weninger said he would focus only on student achievement in his last year,” Kochanowski said. “That means no progress will be made on this plan. This is very dangerous. A year is a long time to wait for another superintendent to address this issue, and I feel it’s our duty as board members to step up. We can’t wait another year- that’s a long time during which we could lose a lot of employees.”
Chris Scott was the sole board member to reference the plan Weninger created last year, and pointed out when progress wasn’t immediate, some members asked for a more direct role in the plan’s implementation. That request, she said, stalled progress of the plan, and instead forced a series of discussions on morale but no real direction from concerned board members.
“It’s not the responsibility of only one person- it is something we can all work on, but this is a plan we implemented and were working on,” Scott said. “But I don’t know you can make anyone feel better on certain things regarding Act 10.”
Totten was the first on the board to champion the idea of a morale plan, but when asked for specific ideas for implementation by Board Member Trish Baker, Totten only offered the suggestion of holding public listening sessions.
The morale plan has been an element of closed session talks for several weeks, limiting some of what board members could publicly discuss on the matter. The morale plan could be up for further discussion again during the Human Resources (HR) Committee meeting on August 18. That date marks the first HR Committee meeting since April of 2013, when members of the board eliminated committees citing poor communication and lack of full board involvement on committee issues. The board reinstated committees this past June.
The Human Resources Committee will meet at 6:30 PM on Monday, August 18 at Bliss Educational Service Center, 1900 Polk Street. The meeting is open to the public.