Communication and truth: An evaluation of an evaluation

December 21, 2020 6:30 am

Recently fired Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara, in simpler times. (CCSD photo).

Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara had a performance evaluation on Tuesday. The next day, he ignored it.

Headlines after last week’s meeting conveyed the Board of Trustees gave Jara a lukewarm evaluation. That’s true. The average score on the 28 suggestions for growth and improvement was 2.5 out of 4. That’s a C+.

But average, as any fifth grader knows, is subjective. All seven board members did not think that Jara was doing a C+ job. Some thought he was doing an A+ job. And some gave him Fs.

The biggest issue Trustees had was communication, or lack thereof. “Communication checks off the boxes, but is not clear and effective,” wrote one trustee on the draft evaluation of Jara’s current work, which grouped various trustee suggestions to be whittled down for a final review. 

“Develop a strategy of collecting meaningful feedback from the public,” wrote another.

“I feel that communication is an essential part of both the trustees and the superintendent being able to achieve the goals that we are looking at for our students,” said Trustee Linda Cavazos in the meeting. She was seconded by Trustee Irene Cepeda.

Many in the group expressed frustration with surprise policy or personnel announcements, surveys that don’t convey enough information or context for respondents to answer accurately, or “document dumps,” as Trustee Linda Cavazos called them, that trustees are supposed to study just hours before an important meeting.

Which is why it was so baffling when, less than 12 hours after the evaluation was over, Jara announced a press conference with the Clark County Education Association. A press conference to present a 4-page memorandum of agreement for bringing teachers back into schools. A press conference that some trustees did not know was happening until late Tuesday night, after the meeting. And that some didn’t know was happening at all. Even those who did know about “a” press conference didn’t know what the presser was about until an hour before it happened on Wednesday morning.

Trustee Irene Cepeda said she wishes she had been told about the CCEA press conference. She knew the two sides were talking, but had no idea an agreement had been reached.

In fact, Cepeda, Cavazos and Trustee Danielle Ford said the first time they saw the final MOA was Wednesday afternoon — about five hours after the agreement was announced.

To be fair, not all trustees thought Jara’s communication skills were an issue during the evaluation.

Board president Lola Brooks — presiding over what may be her last meeting in that role — has said often that communication isn’t a priority for her. In a Twitter thread on Nov. 28, Brooks said that she has “received criticism from multiple employees” for being a bad communicator, “while performing above and beyond my job duties.”

In the meeting on Tuesday, Trustee Chris Garvey, who will be replaced by Katie Williams in January, said she disagreed with the focus on communication for the superintendent. 

“For me, still, if I was continuing on, I would be looking at how can we actually get more of this evaluation on student achievement. So much of this evaluation is focused on communication and other non-student achievement items.”

Members of the board clearly have two different views of what successful leadership looks like. And what successful communication looks like. 

As Cepeda sees it, some trustees focus on the empathetic part of hearing what people are saying, making people feel valued. Others focus on creating systems so everyone is on the record.

Cavazos puts herself in the first category. Because just having systems of communication doesn’t ensure there’s follow-through.

“I’m puzzled by how many times we can receive feedback from the community, from our teachers and support professionals, and we don’t see any tangible evidence of that feedback being implemented,” Cavazos told me. Since those people are vital to student achievement, she argues, their input is important.

Besides, she pointed out, there really aren’t any communication systems that have been set up. Thus the surprise press conference for a major announcement predicated on an idea – bringing students back to school buildings – that the board has yet to approve.

At this point I should note that the trustees were not the only group surprised by the agreement with CCEA. The Education Support Employees Association was also surprised by the memorandum that would bring people back into schools – including support staff. And they were surprised by statements at the press conference that CCSD was negotiating with ESEA.

“I can’t speak for the other unions, but they haven’t been negotiating with us,” said Jan Giles, ESEA president.

In fact, Giles said the press conference engendered more confusion. The last her organization heard, via email to all support staff, they should be ready to go back into buildings on Jan. 4. But Jara announced on Wednesday morning that no one would be back in buildings before Jan. 15.

“There has been no notice going out to support staff” about that date, said Giles. “We’re not quite sure where the breakdown is, but there is obviously a breakdown somewhere.”

School leadership experts argue making sure everybody is on the same page is hard, but key to moving an institution forward.

“’The more we can be consistent in our communication, the more we can get buy-in,” said Joe SanFilippo, a Wisconsin superintendent who presents leadership strategies across the country. “It doesn’t even mean you have to be finished with the decision. It just means that you have to take them through the process with you.”

As to Cavazos’ point, leaders say that tangible evidence of implementation is not the real goal when trying to affect change. The real goal is to be clear and consistent and transparent.

“When you look at organization change theory and you look at moving a system, the first thing you have to do is establish that sense of urgency,” said Leslie Boozer, a former superintendent who is now a professor at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences.

“That’s where the communication piece really comes into play.”

Boozer said the board are the “vision-makers” and need to establish protocols on how communication works in a realistic fashion.

“Obviously the superintendent can’t communicate everything to the board of trustees,” Boozer said. But he should be communicating the big decisions. And there should be expectations about how that happens.

The superintendent and the board should “work on building a coalition, a vision, [and] communicating that vision,” Boozer said. “It’s not just ‘because ‘I said so’. “Authoritative leadership doesn’t take you very far.”

Which gets us back to Jara’s evaluation. His tendency to create policy by fiat rather than build coalitions of agreement underlies the worries at least half the board has about him — and the worries principals and teachers and support staff have about him.

When we talk about communication, we tend to think of it as people saying something. In fact, good communication is more about listening. And that’s what people who criticize Jara’s style want him to do — listen to the concerns of all of the district’s constituents. See parents and teachers and staff as partners, rather than pawns. Communicate his vision, and then ask the people who are tasked with implementing it to find the holes, to make it better.

Oh, and don’t tell people you’re negotiating with a union when you are not. Truth is key to a good communication strategy. That is a breakdown that will not move things forward.

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Carrie Kaufman
Carrie Kaufman

Broadcast, digital and print journalist Carrie Kaufman writes the You're Overthinking It newsletter on Substack. She has covered the Clark County School District for public radio and The Nevada Voice since 2015. Follow Carrie on Twitter: @CarrieKaufman