On Tuesday, November 27th, about 300 Upper Darby parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers attended a presentation by Dr. Harris Sokoloff from the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. During the next five months, the Upper Darby School District will be partnering with the Penn Project to create a community-based advisory board that will be responsible for identifying our District’s values in terms of public education. These values will be shared with the Upper Darby School Board and should be used to guide their final budget decisions for the upcoming school year.
It’s no secret that many parents in Upper Darby felt blindsided by last year’s budget shortfalls and the academic realignment plan. In fact, it wasn’t until after the proposal was delivered that many parents, myself included, started to take notice, speak out against the cuts, sign petitions, and question what was happening in our schools. Of course, by then, it was too late to fix the damage that was done. Battle lines were drawn: us versus them; parents versus administration; right versus wrong.
This new collaboration with the Penn Project is certainly a step in the right direction for Upper Darby public eduction. If implemented as promised, it gives parents and residents an opportunity to share their voices with the School Board before the School Board makes any bold decisions about the future of public education in the District. Based on the number of questions asked during Dr. Sokoloff’s presentation, the public seems eager to share feedback and get involved. Personally, I think a lot of us are vested in this community and are willing to work hard to ensure that next year’s budget is not a repeat of this year’s fiasco.
About halfway through his presentation, Dr. Sokoloff discussed the many challenges associated with the traditional top-down hierarchy of decision-making. This is the power structure that is frequently found in companies, organizations, and apparently school districts. The top-down hierarchy consolidates decision-maker power among an elite minority who typically do not ask for feedback from the majority. But Dr. Sokoloff encouraged the crowd to imagine a different way of making decisions — the “public learning model” that fosters community involvement. The public learning model has been shown to be an effective method of decision-making for various reasons:
- The community is talking about key issues before the decision-making process starts.
- The community members learn how to identify shared values and manage conflicts in an organized, productive manner.
- The decision-making process fosters a sense of trust between the community and the decision-makers: the decision-makers hear what is important to the community; and the community helps create solutions instead of merely reacting to decisions made by leaders.
- Communication is critical at all phases of the decision-making process.
Dr. Sokoloff described how the Penn Project used the public learning model when they worked with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in successfully handling a budget crisis early in his administration. He explained that when faced with hard (and potentially unpopular) decisions, people on both sides worked together to understand what was important to the community at large. This collaboration allowed people to share their values, experiences, and expertise, which created a “common ground” from where decisions were made. It should be noted that creating a common ground didn’t make the Mayor’s decisions any easier. But it gave all interested parties a voice, and a sense of ownership in the decision-making processes that affected them.
It is this sense of ownership and involvement that the Penn Project wants to encourage within our community. By engaging parents, residents, and leaders, this advisory board will identify the educational programs and services that are vital to all of us. Armed with this knowledge, the School Board will be able to “see all sides” when evaluating how to allocate their budget for the upcoming school year.
Of course, not everything will be easy. Budget decisions are notoriously stressful, and parents are particularly passionate when it comes to protecting their children’s education. Based on the questions asked at Dr. Sokoloff’s presentation, some community members are unsure if this can work. They are understandably leery of trusting the School Board and Administration. But the fact is that this mistrust must be overcome if the advisory board is to be successful and, more importantly, if we are to move beyond academic realignment and the 2012 budget crisis. Dr. Sokoloff admitted that although the School Board is not required to implement any of the advisory board’s suggestions, reluctance to follow any of their suggestions would be viewed by Penn as completely contradictory to the spirit and design of how this project is supposed to work.
Personally, I have confidence that the representatives from the Penn Project will work vigorously to provide expert guidance to make this advisory board a success for the Upper Darby community, so I am eager to endorse this unique opportunity. During so many School Board meetings this past year, parents said over and over, “We want to be heard.” Well, the School Board listened, and now here’s your chance to speak up.
If you are interested in joining the advisory board, the first step is to take the brief survey at: http://tinyurl.com/UD-BudgetAdvisoryBoard
If selected, you will participate in four advisory board sessions between December 2012 and March 2013.