Newly elected school board chairwoman Sharon El-Amin planned a Saturday workshop for members of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education aimed at improving board governance. The session was facilitated by Dr. Betty Jo Webb, a North High School graduate who worked as a social worker, principal and associate superintendent in Minneapolis Public Schools before retiring in 1999. In attendance were Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox, Assistant to the Superintendent and Board, Ryan Strack, and all board members except Ira Jourdain, who represents District 6 in southwest Minneapolis.

Compass Points Exercise

One objective of the day-long meeting was to strengthen the working relationship between board members. Attendees began the session with an exercise called Compass Points to identify their working style. Directors Sonya Emerick, Abdullah Abdi and El-Amin joined Cox in the group identifying itself as “west” with the primary characteristic of “paying attention to details.” Directors Collin Beachy, Kim Ellison and Adriana Cerrillo identified themselves as “north”, primarily focused on taking action. Director Lori Norvell was the lone board member to select “east”, described as “looking at the big picture and possibilities before acting.” Director Fathia Feerayarre was the only director to choose “south” that prefers to know how everyone is feeling before acting.

Board members identified their working styles at the retreat Jan. 28. Photo by Melissa Whitler. 

Effectively Using Board Meeting Time

Throughout the session, board members and the facilitator came back to the theme of how to more effectively use their time in board meetings and work together more collaboratively. Abdi, Beachy and Emerick, at different points in the workshop, expressed how challenging it is for board members to collaborate because of the restrictions imposed by Minnesota’s open meeting laws. In practice, no more than three of the nine school board members can meet in-person or virtually, without being in violation of open meeting laws.

The current schedule and format of the committee of the whole meetings, where the board does not take votes, was discussed at length. The schedule and format of these meetings were planned before the start of the current school year, and before five of the nine board members took their oath of office in January. 

Working in a small group, Cox, Strack, El-Amin, Norvell and Cerillo discussed changing the format of the committee of the whole meetings starting with the Feb. 28 meeting. Their proposal, agreed to by the others when the groups came back together, includes moving to a discussion-based format rather than the current presentation-based format. 

The board discussed changing the topic for the upcoming February meeting to allow board members time in that meeting to discuss topics related to the board’s functions, including its values and vision, and meeting topics and formats for the rest of this school year. They discussed moving the academic update, originally planned for February, to the March Committee of the Whole meeting.

Principals would no longer be invited to present to the Committee of the Whole meetings as part of the proposed changes. While the consensus was that the presentations were at times celebratory and fun, the information had not been helpful for board members in setting policy and monitoring progress on the strategic plan.

Under the proposal, Strack will investigate the possibility of board members moving off of the dais and onto the floor of the meeting room. Strack was unsure if the technology used for simultaneous translation and streaming of the meetings can accommodate this change to the physical location of members within the room.

El-Amin and Beachy, who serve as chair and vice chair, encouraged board members to reach out to them with questions and concerns, noting that they meet weekly with Cox. They pledged to use these meetings with Cox in order to plan meeting agendas, as well as the specific types of information and questions board members would like for Cox and her cabinet members to be prepared to answer.

No Surprises

The facilitator stressed to board members that neither board members, nor administrators presenting information or answering questions, should be surprised during board meetings. Beachy, Abdi and Norvell, at different points during the day, pointed to the recent vote to delay the superintendent search as a surprise. 

At that Jan. 17 meeting, the board was expected to hire an executive search firm. But after hours of presentations, El-Amin introduced an amendment to the resolution to hire the search firm that delayed the search start until September. The amendment to delay was approved by a majority, including El-Amin, Cerrillo, Feerayarre, Emerick and Abdi. The board will take up a resolution on Feb. 14 to extend the contract for Cox for an additional year as a result of the delayed search for a permanent superintendent.

Unfinished Agenda Items

While the board made progress in its discussions about working styles and effective use of its meeting time, there were several items on the workshop agenda that were left unaddressed. The participants expressed universal support for bringing back the facilitator, possibly in another workshop, to continue to work on their unfinished business. 

One topic not discussed in any detail was the state of the district’s finances and the budget for the upcoming school year. Typically, the board would have presented the superintendent with a resolution detailing the board’s priorities for the upcoming budget by now. The facilitator was surprised to learn that this step had not been taken yet. She was also surprised to hear that there is no regular meeting where all board members discuss budget and finance. Currently, these conversations happen with the subset of the board members on the finance committee only. 

As the administration begins the process of implementing priority based budgeting, Cox noted that it would be helpful to have a list of board priorities as these funding decisions are made.