Friday, November 02, 2007

Rich DeColibus to STRS Board: Some words of advice

From Rich DeColibus, October 25, 2007
Subject: The Responsibility of Authority
Dear STRS Board Members,
I have been given to understand there is some confusion over the lines of authority between yourself, as an STRS Board Member, and the administration. If you will bear with me for a short while, I have some thoughts on the issue.
You are bestowed authority by virtue of being elected by the constituency which STRS serves (both retired and active). As a former teacher and Past President of the Cleveland Teachers Union, I can understand this is a difficult and tricky responsibility. The administrators of STRS have zero authority because they are not elected and, in America at least, have no legitimacy outside of that conferred on them by elected officials (you). STRS also has appointed members, but they are all appointed by elected officials and serve as watchdogs for the various state agencies which have interests and concerns with respect to STRS issues.
Having dealt over the years with many Superintendents, no one has more respect for them individually or collectively than I do. President of the CTU was a miserable job, but it was a heckuva lot better than what they had to go through. They frequently had to deal with unreasonable Boards of Education, unhappy parents, unsatisfied communities, and a whole lot of other aggravations I watched from the sidelines (and was very glad to leave to them). My experience as part of Ohio Federation of Teachers also led me to conclude whether it was a 72,000 pupil district or a 3,000 pupil district didn't matter all that much.
More to the point, though, almost all of them recognized their ultimate subservience to the Boards they served. Their Board members were elected, they were not, and the legitimacy that comes from being elected superceded in all cases the desire of the administrators to run things in a way they felt was most correct. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong, but it really doesn't matter. The responsibility for all the decisions any Superintendent (and other administrators down the line) makes still falls on the Board members. As a matter of responsible policy, then, so does ALL the authority for those decisions. In short, no matter how badly your administrators screw up, the buck stops on your desk. You also get credit when they do great things (but, then, nobody seems to notice that!).
In fundamental terms, and like most government agencies, you are not there to run the operation. You are there to watch the people who run the operation. Administrators are there to administer, which amounts to the nuts and bolts of ensuring the organization fulfills the reason it exists. Having had experience with Board of Education members who micromanage, and the experience of Board members who are strictly "hands-off", all I can say is Aristotle's golden mean is a concept with great value. STRS is a little different, though, because you're working with billions (with a "B") of dollars and have over a hundred thousand individuals who depend almost entirely on your good judgment for their quality of life (and another hundred thousand who eventually hope to). I would encourage you to error on the side of over-supervision, if for no other reason than the recent embarrassing history of under-supervision. It is your primary responsibility and the number of people who depend on you getting it right is staggering.
As a general rule I followed when I was CTU President negotiating contracts with my own staff (small, but very competent and very vocal!), I believed the staff members could not, and should not, do better than the members they served. If teachers didn't get those benefits, then neither did my staff members. By the same token, you need to be careful STRS employees do not enjoy benefits and monetary rewards considerably better than the teachers who are paying into the system. Of course you should recognize excellence and reward diligence, but in the background there's always the question: "Will Mary Smith, the third-grade teacher in rural Ohio making $21,000/year with five years experience, consider this reasonable?" That may not be much of a gold standard, but it's the most valid one you have to balance on the scale of fairness.
It is terribly easy to justify any decision you make, however good or bad it may be. The capacity of humans to explain away bad choices is, in my experience, close to infinite, and a testimony to the inherent intelligence of the human race. You need never worry about having to justify your decisions. What you do need to consider is the Mary Smith standard because, when push comes to shove, that's how everyone else will judge your judgment. I understand clearly the election dynamics of how STRS Board members are elected, and I know a few of you personally, and I am not standing on a soap box preaching "You won't get elected if you make bad decisions." The reality is you probably will be elected, depending on election dynamics, no matter how good or bad your judgment is. What is more important, though, is what legacy you will leave behind. I had the insight of knowing almost all of the old Cleveland Board of Education members, and practically to a person, they were caring, intelligent, and of good character. Despite that, as a Board of Education, they were, frankly, just horrible. The few of you I do know are outstanding individuals, and what I am hoping is you will walk that fine line between over-management and under-management. As I iterated before, your responsibility is not to run the show, but keep a careful eye on those who do. Given STRS's reputation is at stake, it is not a task for the fainthearted, nor have I much interest in giving the Ohio General Assembly ANY excuse to muddle in our waters.
I wish you all well, both individually and collectively, and there is no need for you to respond to this. I said my piece and you may decide for yourself if it has merit.
Rich DeColibus

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