Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dear Burbank School Board

Dear Burbank School Board:

I have no dog in your particular superintendent hunt, but as a blogger, unsolicited advice is my (non-paying) bread and butter. You've taken a lot of heat for your hiring choice. I just watched the video short form of your very contentious meeting for the approval of Matt Hill as your new superintendent. Clearly many people on all sides of the table were extremely agitated and emotional. (If you haven't seen the edit yet, I've included it below so you can see what I saw.)

What I saw was brutal. And frankly, though I am a teacher and former union president, some of the attacks on Mr. Hill were unnecessary and not helpful. I keep trying to imagine his wife going home later to try to explain to their children why all the angry people hate Daddy so much. Add to that the emotional, angry resignation of a board member, and the apparent twenty minutes of angry interlude, and there's no question that many people came together to create an ugly mess.

However, at the risk of being one more person who seems to be piling on you, I have to tell you-- that ugly mess was entirely your fault.

I'm in Pennsylvania. I have no idea what the historic relationship between board and teachers in Burbank has been, but I presume, given Burbank's reported excellence, that it has been pretty good. That makes it all the sadder that you messed it up.

I have no idea if Matt Hill was the best man for the job (I rather doubt it, but I wasn't the one looking at those eighteen candidates, so there's no way I can know). But if he was, you did him a huge disservice by botching the hiring process.

There's a basic principle involved in running any organization-- people want to be heard. If they don't think they're being heard when they speak, they will keep raising their voices until they believe they are being heard. If I'm in a leadership role and someone is screaming at me, I first check the possibility that they don't believe I've heard them. And really, you already know this-- why were you so angry with the teachers at the meeting? Because you felt they were not hearing what you had to say.

You had to know that the selection of Hill as superintendent would be contentious, that many people would have legitimate and heartfelt concerns about the choice. As Mr. Hill's future employers, you owed it to him to make sure those concerns were heard so that he could enter the office without having to face employees who were pre-disposed not to want him there.

That means that your obligation as his future bosses and the leaders of Burbank schools was to make sure those concerns were heard and addressed, even if it lengthened your timeline. But when you you announced a meeting to allow teacher discussion and questioning of the candidate with barely twenty-four hours notice, you sent a clear signal that you were interested in looking as if you'd listened to people, not in actually listening. Of course that meeting was contentious-- by your actions, you told them before they even showed up that you weren't really going to listen. And so they showed up ready to scream. Your ranty ex-member complained that everybody was just assuming how he'd vote, but of course the actual vote showed that what everybody assumed was correct-- the hiring was a done deal on a fast tracked railroad. This type of behavior does not build trust.

I could see the hurt and disappointment in board members, and I recognize it because I've seen it in leadership amateurs before-- we went through so much, thought so hard, went through so many steps to make this decision, and it hurts that people are reacting as if we pulled it all casually out of our butt, as if we don't really care.

So you went through a long, hard process. Ask yourself one question-- how much of that process occurred out in plain sight for any and all to see? So many school boards seem to have trouble grasping a simple idea-- what you do in secret and private is effectively invisible. If you want people to see what you've been through, you have to show them every step of the way.

Matt Hill comes with huge, huge issues attached. You say that you were satisfied that he had addressed those properly. How many of those answers did you share? How many did he provide to your teachers?

Matt Hill comes with no classroom background at all. That is not a hopeless obstacle, but it is an obstacle. How will he evaluate the performance of a job that he knows nothing about? How will he decide what resources teachers do or do not need if he does not understand what they need the resources for? These are not un-answerable questions, but if you are the only people who have heard the answers, do not be surprised that other folks are doubtful.

Matt Hill comes attached to John Deasy, whose tenure at LAUSD was a disaster, rife with massive screw-ups that were in turn connected to what could at best be called shady behavior. And Hill was attached directly to two of the largest disasters. It's fine to say, "Well, he assured us that he learned some important lessons," but that's not really an answer.

Matt Hill comes attached to the Broad empire, which is a giant red flag for anybody working in education. It's like handing management of your steak house over to a life long vegetarian. It's like putting a Democrat in charge of the Republican primary. It's like hiring a fox to watch your henhouse. It might very well work out, but not if there's no real plan, and you certainly can't expect people to just shrug and say, "Sounds legit."

Matt Hill comes believing that schools can be run by a business guy (which is expected from a good Broadie), but not only has he not ever run a classroom, but he has also never successfully run a business. The biggest business decisions he has ever been associated with would be the oft-mentioned disasters at LAUSD.

Hill has never run a classroom, a school district, or a business. His most recent relevant experience was a highly public failure. His whole adult life has been spent working for and with people who are devoted to shutting down public schools and replacing them with charters.

There may very well be reasons to believe that none of this matters going forward and that he will be a great superintendent-- but if you guys didn't know there would be enormous pushback then you must be partially brain dead. As a business guy, he should have been able to tell you-- if his installation in the job was going to run smoothly at all, the massive baggage that comes with him would have to be addressed, publicly, openly, honestly, and with an understanding that people's first reaction was going to be negative.

I don't know how you imagined it would work. People would just take your words for it? You would just run this through quickly before any kind of bad stink could be raised? The other seventeen were so bad and you had lived with this for so long that you just couldn't see anything else to do?

Like I said. I'm in Pennsylvania and for all I know you didn't botch the selection process at all. All the evidence I can see says, frankly, you did-- but all the evidence I can see isn't very much. But whether or not you botched the selection process, you completely botched the hiring process.

Is there a way forward? Sure. If I were your school board management consultant, here's what I would advise you to do.

Have the meetings now that you should have had in the runup to this decision. Put on your big boy and girl pants, because the first hours of meetings will consist of people yelling at you. Suck it up and take it, because you earned every bit of it. Listen honestly and reflectively. Show that you hear what they're saying. Show that you understand their concerns. Earn back some trust.

Be honest. Don't be defensive, don't try to save face, and don't try to make up reasons for anything. Don't try to manage the situation. Be honest. Be open.

Assume good intent. Teachers and public folks are not being a pain your ass because they're big meanies-- they're doing because they think a terrible scary thing has happened that they have had absolutely no say in. If they did not give a rat's rear about Burbank schools, they would laugh, shrug, call you names in the faculty lounge and get a comfy seat for the expected disaster. They are upset because they care what happens to your schools. Remember that.

Do not say things like "We'll talk to you when you grow up." Say things like "We know this decision looks like a terrible mistake, but we really do want the best for these schools, and we will tell you everything we know that helped us feel good about this choice." They will yell some more, because right now they don't trust you, and that's not going to fix itself overnight. Some of them will keep yelling forever and will never be okay with this; if your choice was good and your motives pure, then slowly but surely the angry voices will become a minority.

Finally, and perhaps most painfully, consider the possibility that you have screwed the pooch on this one. The absolute worst next chapter for Burbank would be if Hill does turn out to be awful but the board backs him because you'll be damned if you admit that you were wrong.

As much as I think you've made a bad choice, one bad choice doesn't have to turn into the kind of management dysfunction fiasco portrayed by the video. Your mishandling of the hiring has multiplied your problems a thousand-fold. You need to get your act together. If you want people to act like grownups, start by modeling the behavior yourselves.


  1. This guy Hill actually said that the fact that he has ZERO experience as a teacher, ZERO training or education in teaching, and ZERO experience as an administrator... all of that is actually "an asset" in running a school district... as, unlike the other candidates with whom he was competing for the job---those with decades of experience as both teachers and administrators---his total lack of training and experience provides a unique benefit the others lack, because his inexperience and lack of ed. traning "will force me to listen more" as he will need to as, he knows nothing, or next to nothing about education.

    That's just nuts. The "asset" quote is in this article:,0,1240353.story

    Can you imagine an appointee to Supreme Court with ZERO experience---never went to law school, never worked as a lawyer, let alone a judge, etc.---getting up and telling everyone, "Hey, that actually makes me a better candidate for the Supreme Court than all those other possible candidates with law degrees, and decades working as lawyers, prosecutors, judges, etc... I'll be forced to work harder and listen more, as my cluelessness forces me to learn everything as I go."

    Could you imagine a candidate for Surgeon General who never went to med school, or worked as a doctor, or worked at a hospital... then claiming that all that makes him a better candidate to serve as surgeon general?

    In the video, those on the board are claiming to be victims, and that Hill is also a victim of mean adults saying mean things.

    Has those board members lost their minds? Is there something that we're all missing here?

    (half-joking) Did the folks from the Gates/Broad/Walton organizaitons deliver suitcases full of money to all of them to do and say what they did on the video?

    Kidding aside, is there some other explanation for what the-hell is going on here? The education of thousands of children is on the line here, for God's sake!

  2. Hill's final comments, where he talks about how he truly believes he can get the school to a 100% graduation rate clearly illustrates just how clueless he is, not even the most prestigious private schools are able to achieve that lofty goal consistently.

    The fact that the Burbank BOE choose Hill, with his lack of experience and poor track record proves they are very gullible or very corrupt.

  3. Have the meetings now that you should have had in the runup to this decision. Put on your big boy and girl pants, because the first hours of meetings will consist of people yelling at you. Suck it up and take it, because you earned every bit of it. Listen honestly and reflectively. Show that you hear what they're saying. Show that you understand their concerns. Earn back some trust.

    Result 2015 of 9 Class

  4. This is Jason-meets-Freddy Kreuger scary for Burbank. No transparency from the board. No dialog or reflection of the community sentiment. Sad. And no more love from fellow board member- teacher.
    And Matt Hill: whose connections brought public school accountability measures in the form of teacher merit pay and evidence-based (subjective) formative (summative) tortuous rubrics. His professional linkages have threatened public school with charter schools (bringing back the caste to society) so that the brightest (wealthiest) can migrate to technologically greener pastures while lower socioeconomic students and special education strata remain behind to prove the self-fulfilling prophecy of lower test scores to clog the over- burdened bureaucracy. His platform: 100% graduation rate. Easily done if he sends all at risk students to a cyber-charter school before senior year. Mission accomplished.