After almost three years on the OUSD Board of Directors, I believe that one of our biggest challenges as a district is that we don't have a strong culture of accountability.
What I mean by this is that we don't have a culture or regular practice of:
1) Acknowledging our mistakes as a district,
2) Learning from them in any systematic way, and
3) Deliberating publicly about how to avoid making similar errors in the future.
I have seen this happen repeatedly during my time on the board, in the adoption of major (costly) software programs that did not work, in ill-advised board decisions that led to wasteful and unnecessary spending, such as the move to City Hall last year, in construction project delays and cost overruns (one example is the years of inaction on the administration building which has led to us paying rent at 1000 Broadway for years longer than was necessary), and most recently, the lack of accountability for key staff involved in the 16-17 budget crisis.
I have also seen our previous Superintendent make promises to families about a new academic program without first ensuring that the teachers and staff responsible for making good on the promise were consulted and bought in, that we could sustainably resource the program that was promised, and ensuring that the board was supportive of his idea. In Oakland, Superintendents come and go, and so it's critical that the board believes in an initiative if we are truly committed to it over the long term.
This lack of a culture of accountability has several consequences. The first is that we send a message to both community and staff (whether intentional or not) that there are no consequences for costly mistakes that waste staff and community time and the precious resources that students need. Whether we intend it or not, that can leave OUSD families, staff and community members with the impression that we don't care about the impact that our decisions have on them.
If our families and other stakeholders get the impression that we don't care about them, it is hard to build trust and attract and retain staff and students. In Oakland, potential and current families and employees have lots of choices. If we want to stabilize staffing and enrollment in OUSD, a necessary first step is to create a culture of accountability.
Secondly, without consequences, irresponsible practices that lead to waste do not change. If there are no consequences for poor decisions and wasting student money, what is the incentive for anyone to change their behavior?
I truly believe that one of our biggest challenges is staff turnover. It's really hard to run a good school if the staff changes every year, and an obstacle to retention is teachers and staff feeling that there is no accountability at higher levels of the organization, even as they experience accountability for their decisions at their schools.
Third, we are not modeling the kind of integrity that we should expect every OUSD board member, staff member and student to demonstrate. The culture of organizations starts at the very top, in this case the Board and the Superintendent. If we in leadership roles do not demonstrate a willingness to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, it is unlikely that those behaviors will flourish in the district, and we need them to, in order for students to learn about taking responsibility, growth mindset and willingness to engage with others about the impact of their decisions.
We need to talk about our mistakes not to embarrass anyone, but because that is how we create a culture that encourages risk-taking, but critically, learning from our mistakes, and demonstrating that we are committed to doing better for students in the future.
Finally, the lack of accountability leads to a chaotic environment where mistakes are repeated, morale is low and turnover is high, all of which is bad for our students.
Part of the challenge is that there is not agreement on the board about who we are accountable to. My belief is that we are accountable to our students, and by extension, our families, but I have experienced conflict since I have been on the board with board members who often seem more focused on what our staff or vendors want.
Reasonable people can disagree about what it means to focus on student needs. But what is best for students does not usually mean avoiding discomfort, conflict or change, and that is the culture that has been allowed to persist in OUSD for far too long.
I am interested in changing this, but it is a major undertaking to change the culture of an organization. I hope I can count on community and staff support.
We all have a responsibility to act in the best interest of students, no matter our position in the organization or who we report to. I will be bringing a resolution soon to underscore this, and would welcome input and comments as I draft it.
I am also interested in ideas about additional steps we can take as a district to create a culture of accountability. Please share them with me via email (shanthi.gonzales (@) ousd.org) or at monthly office hours.