Friday, September 14, 2007
New facilitator visits the Carlisle School
Facilitator John Littleford held a series of private meetings on August 31 with Carlisle School Committee (CSC) members, school administrators and faculty representatives to address teacher complaints (see "Carlisle teachers vote no confidence in Superintendent Marie Doyle," Mosquito, June 15). At the CSC meeting on September 5, members spoke favorably of their impressions of Littleford and agreed on the need to proceed.
Reaction from the teachers was very positive. Contacted by e-mail, Mike Miller, President of the Carlisle Teachers Association (CTA), wrote: "After being briefed by CTA leaders on the session with John Littleford, the teachers in the association were nearly unanimous in approving Mr. Littleford as a consultant for the Carlisle schools." He added, "The teachers who have met with Mr. Littleford were very impressed with his impartiality and ability to analyze the dynamics of a school system. As a staff, we were not interested in mediation, but in a thorough analysis of the problems in the school system. We feel that Mr. Littleford will ask tough questions and will be able to give all of us who are involved in the schools, including most importantly the parents of Carlisle, a clear picture of the problems we face and the steps we all need to take. We welcome the scrutiny and look forward to cooperating with the consultant."
His $4,900 fee will be paid from the School Committee's budgeted funds, explained School Business Manager Heidi Zimmerman.
Littleford has expressed an interest in further work with the school, and details are being negotiated. On September 10, CSC member Dale Ryder said that a bid of $28,000 for future work had been received from him, and Ryder is drafting a letter to the community, "explaining why we're doing this and how much it is going to cost." All CSC members have looked at Littleford's proposal, she said, adding. "We have to vote on this officially" at the September 19 CSC meeting.
Over the summer, the CSC reviewed a short list of facilitators. They interviewed one candidate in person and interviewed others by phone. While no formal vote was taken, School Committee Chair Nicole Burkel said that after phone conversations with the CSC and Carlisle Teachers Association, "We ended up agreeing we would hire him for a day."
Based in Louisiana and Cape Cod, the facilitator's firm, Littleford and Associates, is described on his web site (www.jlittleford.com) as a "management consulting firm for independent and international schools, colleges, and foundations." Littleford was headmaster of a private school for 18 years, and a teacher for 25 years. He has a B.A. degree from Dickinson College, Critical Language Degree from Princeton University, M.A. from Harvard University and a Certificate of Advanced Study from Harvard University. Courses he has offered include: "Managing Change in School Cultures: The Risks and Opportunities Abound" and "The Sacred Cows of Financial Management: The Tradeoffs in the Budgeting Decisions of Independent Schools."
On August 31, Littleford met at the Gleason Public Library separately with Superintendent Marie Doyle, the CSC, a small group of teachers, and four members of the administration (Principal Patrice Hurley, Director of Student Services Karen Slack, Zimmerman, and Buildings and Grounds Supervisor David Flannery). He then met with everyone and ran a "90-minute feedback" session, explained Burkel. Littleford described the final session in a note read by Burkel at the School Committee meeting. He said that in his remarks to the August 31 group he "provided an independent assessment of what I had heard from all parties."
Littleford then asked participants two core questions:
• "How did we get to this place?"
• "Where do we go from here?"
Discussions were organized first among pairs, and then participants were divided into three groups, and finally, feedback from these converstations was shared with the entire group. He said, "The reports represented fair-minded and thoughtful attempts to assess how certain political issues and key stress points within the [Carlisle School] district developed." He asked the group to give suggestions to move forward, focusing on "serving the best interests of the District and its students."
He laid out the goals of future work with the school:
• Assess the quality and health of board governance at the School Committee level and suggest recommendations for improvement.
• Assist the management team in managing transition issues and team building as part of leading the District and teaching staff as effectively as possible.
• Involve a cross section of teachers, the School Committee and management team in a process of individual and confidential interviews followed by participation in a workshop. In the workshop, I would outline for each constituent group recommendations and a process.
Ryder later said the proposal would have Littleford work in separate sessions with first the School Committee and Superintendent Doyle, then the administration and Doyle, next a subset of teachers, and finally run a parent focus group.
Two-year time frame
Littleford, saying he would "start small and build from there," explained that after the workshop phase, he would form small task force committees, "whose tasks would be to address and implement over time recommendations from the workshop and to enlist an ever- widening circle." He added, "This process will take at least two years. It does not happen all at once.
Desire for confidentiality
In his report, Littleford listed his requirements for future work: "No press would be allowed to be present at the workshop and no note-taking or recording would be allowed in order to create an atmosphere of openness and trust." This follows the format of the August 31 meetings, which were held in private.
Public access is not required for school staff meetings according to the state's Open Meeting Law; however, public access is normal unless an executive session is called. In August the CSC met with the facilitator in executive session, stating the reason as:"To consider the discipline or dismissal of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual."
While the law requires the CSC take minutes of executive sessions, the public release of these minutes may be delayed when there is a need for confidentiality.
Littleford added, "If the press must be included for legal reasons or for protocol, then I must decline respectfully to be involved further."
Impressions of facilitator
Committee member Dale Ryder said Littleford, who she felt came with an open mind, is "very qualified" and "will take a very systematic approach."
Burkel said she checked with all participants from the August 31 meeting and they gave her "very positive feedback."
Committee member Wendell Sykes said Littleford was "very blunt," but he was "in favor" of him. "We've earned a certain amount of bluntness from our consultants," he added.
Sykes said the lesson he took away from the day was they shouldn't focus on "what happened but what will happen." Doyle said Littleford is "a straight-shooter." Flannery agreed. "If he is hired you will get your money's worth," he said.
Committee member Michael Fitzgerald said he enjoyed Littleford's direct approach, saying "it is what we need. It remains to be seen how we pay for it," he added. Ryder said they must be clear on how they will pay for the facilitator. Burkel answered that she has been working with the Selectmen and Finance Committee about the cost. At the September 11 meeting of the town Financial Team, School Business Manager Heidi Zimmerman said she expected that most of the cost could be absorbed within the school budget, "assuming we have no legal fees for the School Committee."
How to measure progress?
The CSC opened the meeting to the public for discussion and Mary Storrs asked how the town will know if "things are fixed?" No specific benchmarks were discussed to measure progress. Fitzgerald replied that they would not "reap benefits immediately," but explained that progress will be seen through "constructive dialogue."
At the end of Littleford's note to Burkel he explained, "I found more hope in the room than I had anticipated at the outset, but the depth of disagreement and core misunderstandings were very evident. Most important was the apparent willingness of all present to attempt to address the issues noted in a healthy and supportive way."
Burkel asked, "Do you repair or do you rebuild?" She said there would be "significant potential damage if they made severe changes."
Ryder said she felt "the district probably needs to go through this no matter what."
Fitzgerald agreed, saying they all played a part in creating the current situation. He hopes the work with the facilitator "stems the tide with respect to staff leaving." Fitzgerald added, "You are seeing a board that is committed to resolving this issue." He said the board is "taking the first step to putting our house back into order."
© 2007 The