Friday, May 27, 2005

The wrong “shared mindset,” of many school administrators and their board members.

If you have skipped the posting immediately below this one because you don't live in Winnetka, the North Shore, or even in Illinois, think again.

To borrow some recent wording from that famous phrasemaker, State Senate President Emil Jones, there is a "shared mindset," at work here. The below post is about the common mindset that is "shared," by a great many senior administrators and school board members across a great many suburban schools in this great land of ours.

Yes, the post is about the Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent [CEO] and her board, but I would bet, dollars to donuts, there are similar actions and events that could be written about a great many of the suburban school boards and school administrators in and out of Illinois. I think this is most likely to be the case for affluent and middle class suburbs, but not exclusively so. Moreover, although the challenges to educators, administrators and board members are quite different in the inner city areas of the country than they are in the suburbs, one finds, even in the inner city areas, common strands to the “shared mindset,” to which I refer.

It is a mindset of arrogance-- a mindset that pays lip service to democracy and parental involvement, if not control, of their children's education. It is a mindset that thinks it is acceptable for administrators to hide information from board members and certainly from residents, parents and the public at large, even when there is no rational basis for classifying the information as "executive session" material. And, here, I note that the failure to disclose relevant information to her board by Superintendent van der Bogert, discussed in the post below, based on "confidentiality," as she put it, could only make sense to a Schools Superintendent and school board members with that "shared mindset."

The primary statutory reason for having School Board Executive Sessions is precisely so that certain "personnel" information can be withheld from disclosure to the public. Thus, the option that Winnetka Public School superintendent van der Bogert had to discuss the truly confidential information with her board in executive session behind closed doors was truly a viable one, and one the Winnetka School Board uses monthly [and perhaps over-uses monthly]. An appropriate use of executive session, for example, would be to discuss reference check information assessing prospective personnel.

However, information such as the fact that a prospective employee of the School District is named in a public, civil lawsuit is not what any reasonable person would call "confidential" or "executive session" material. That type of information should have been disclosed not only to van der Bogert’s Board, but to all residents of the Winnetka community—the so-called Community of Learners.

Only those who have that peculiar "shared mindset" of Dr. van der Bogert, her Board and the others I am talking about would have withheld such information from everyone, as did the Winnetka Public Schools [District 36] superintendent.

Think about it, Winnetkans are reading in the Chicago newspapers during the last week what their Schools Superintendent, van der Bogert, chose to withhold—the fact that the prospective Winnetka Greeley school principal, Kevin Dorken, was named as a defendant five years ago in a lawsuit that is being tried this week in a public courtroom in the Circuit Court of Cook County-- from her Board, from the Greeley School Principal Search team and from all the residents of Winnetka prior to the School Board voting in public session on December 14, 2004 [at least I hope it was in public session] to hire Mr. Dorken as the next Principal for the Greeley School.

Moreover, when the Winnetka community learned about the the Dorken lawsuit and related information last week, the Winnetka School Board, based on its public statements, at least, seems to have responded by saying it has no problem with its Superintendent's failure to disclose relevant information to it or to the community at large, information that I have noted clearly should not have been withheld from either the Board or the community at large.

The Winnetka School Board response to Superintendent van der Bogert's failure to disclose is a good example of that shared mindset at work. The mindset of one Winnetka School Board Member, for example, as reported by Lisa Black [without characterization by the reporter] in her May 25, 2005 Chicago Tribune article. Ms. Black wrote that Winnetka School board member Robert Linn, when contacted before the meeting Tuesday, defended van der Bogert's handling of the situation:

"The superintendent's job is to hire her staff," he said. "The board's responsibility is to hire the superintendent. I think my job is to listen to what the parents have to say and evaluate that based on the facts that come out."

Linn, a board member for six years, said: "I trust her and I trust her judgment."

The wrongful-death lawsuit alleges that Casey [a sixth grader in the Glenview school district] was left unsupervised with her class June 4, 1999, at Hoffman Elementary School, shortly after [Kevin] Dorken introduced the class to Chubby Bunny.

The lawsuit filed by Casey's parents, John and Therese Fish, alleges that Dorken [the next Winnetka Greeley School Principal] left the room to talk to a janitor, and that when Casey began to choke and turn blue, classmates had to run into the hallway to seek help, said Francis Patrick Murphy [of Corboy & Demetrio], the family's attorney.

But, wait a second-- School Board Member Linn, why is it that the School Board is required to vote on the hiring by District 36 of school principals? to rubber stamp the recommendation of your Superintendent? Or, to be presented with all relevant, factual information relating to the hiring recommendation of your superintendent, so you can exercise your fiduciary and oversight duties as a board member. That is, Mr. Linn, so you can question your superintendent, respectfully, but vigorously-- in short—so that you, Mr. Linn, can exercise due diligence.

If Supt. van der Bogert was not concerned about the fact that her recommended Greeley School Principal was named as a defendant in a lawsuit that raises issues of whether the Glenview School District and the next Greeley School Principal were "exercising ordinary care" relating to an activity that ended in the death of a 6th grade student, why was van der Bogert not concerned? Dr. van der Bogert, more than five months after the school board voted to hire the next Greeley School Principal, sent a document to me that stated, "I believe I had sufficient facts that assured me there was no negligence on Kevin's [the next Winnetka Greeley School's principal] part."

That statement of "belief" by Supt. [Becky] van der Bogert was written two days before the trial of her new Greeley Principal began. Perhaps Dorken's wife, who I understand was also a teacher at the Glenview Hoffman Elementary School the day sixth grader Casey Fish died, might have marital confidence in her husband's story, but what would account for what appears to be blind faith on the part of Supt. van der Bogert? And, why couldn't Supt. van der Bogert share the basis for her "faith" or "belief" with her Board? And, if the facts were so strong for her future employee, why did Dr. Rebecca [Becky] van der Bogert fail to disclose even the existence of the lawsuit to her Board and the Winnetka Community?

Talking about blind faith, let's ask some questions of School Board Member Bob Linn. Mr. Linn, did you ask your Superintendent about "her facts." Did you question her vigorously, intelligently and armed with all appropriate information. Did your colleagues on the board do so? But, how could they or you have done so? She hadn't told you about the lawsuit. Did you do your own research to discover the existence of the lawsuit. Did you talk to the lawyer for the family of the deceased sixth grader-- the plaintiff in the lawsuit filed against the next Greeley School principal? Did you in any way probe or question your superintendent or others as to the viability or credibility of the point of view taken by the plaintiff in the lawsuit against your next Greeley School Principal.

If so, did the family’s lawyer have a different opinion of the facts than your Superintendent? If so, how did you resolve those differences? Did you know that those different opinions would be the subject of a jury trial, being conducted as I write this, before Judge Dooling in Room 2609 of the Daley Center-- a trial that is expected to continue through next week.

Perhaps, school board member Linn, you will want to inform yourself further by attending portions of the trial of your next Winnetka Greeley School Principal, Kevin Dorken. Indeed, you might want to find out from Dr. van der Bogert if Mr. Dorken will be taking the stand to testify next week and maybe you will want to stop by, to see what he has to say about the death of 6th grader Catherine "Casey" Fish, who suffocated to death on marshmallows playing a game called "Chubby Bunny," and about what he did or didn’t do related to the “incident” as your superintendent calls it.

The plaintiff, in the lawsuit which was not disclosed to you by your superintendent, contends that the Glenview School District and your next Greeley School Principal did not exercise "ordinary care" while supervising students, including the deceased, despite knowledge that there could be impending danger.

What does Mr. Linn have to say about this? I don’t know, Mr. Linn, along with four other board members, did not return my phone call messages, in which I identified myself both as a constituent of his and as a member of the media.

Indeed, perhaps not just school board member Linn, but maybe the other Winnetka School Board members, that is Board President Anne Kelly and her colleagues, who "remain unanimous in their support of the Superintendent’s hiring process of Kevin Dorken as the next principal for the Greeley school,” will want to take a peak at the trial of the next Greeley School principal.

Do those folks on the Winnetka School Board, who say their motto is Winnetka: A Community of Learners, have any intellectual curiosity? Do they have any sense of their due diligence obligations to the community who elected them? Hard to know, Board President Kelly and her school board colleagues have not returned my phone calls to ask about such issues, other than Kelly’s reading of her prepared statement to me, followed with “Goodbye.”

And, more importantly for my gentle readers or viewers who may live outside the North Shore, from the Gold Coast to the Soul Coast [in the words of my previous show guests], from Zion to Springfield, from Ravenswood Manor to Cicero, from Lake View to Moline, from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York, I ask you-- does any of the above sound familiar? A “shared mindset,” among public school administrators and their school boards: arrogance, indifference and failure to exercise due diligence.

Of course, I am not saying that the above applies to all public school administrators and school board members. How could I- I once was one. Obviously, there are many school superintendents and board members who would not act, as those described above, and would not tolerate, for one second, such behavior. But, the above is common enough to identify it as a "shared mindset" among many education administrators, and their school boards, who simply don't take the notion of due diligence seriously-- at least seriously enough to act on it, as opposed to mouth the words.

And, of course, that failure to exercise due diligence by school board members reflects the mistaken idea that the role of a school board member is simply to rubber stamp and approve whatever her school superintendent tells her. Never question. Never probe. Always accept. Those are ideas, but they are the wrong ideas.

That is especially true for a school district that prides itself in calling its village “a community of learners.” And, as the Winnetka School Board will learn, and as was used as a title of former University of Chicago Professor Richard Weaver’s book, “Ideas [like actions or failure to act] Have Consequences." And, so will their [The Winnetka School Board's] ideas. Have consequences, that is. But, I don’t think they will be good for our community— the broader community of true learners.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at