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DPS “therapy” forges progress

DPS board members Theresa Pena and Andrea Merida at Thursday's retreat
DPS board members Theresa Pena and Andrea Merida at Thursday's retreat

COLORADO SPRINGS – A daylong meeting of Denver Public Schools’ board members and a therapist appeared to forge closer ties on a board divided by a recent election and a tumultuous Monday meeting.

“It was a valuable day,” board member Arturo Jimenez said afterward. “It did really ease a lot of tension and set me much more at ease.”

The session at the Broadmoor Hotel here, where the Colorado Association of School Boards is hosting its annual conference, included coaching board members and Superintendent Tom Boasberg through some difficult conversations about their role vs. his – and his job security.

Denver therapist Susan Heitler said she focused on “how to make decisions in a group consensus-building way” and on teaching “radically stronger listening skills” after meeting with individual board members and reading media accounts of Monday’s meeting.

That’s when newly elected board member Andrea Merida chose to take her seat earlier than expected, forcing the tearful exit of veteran board member Michelle Moss, so that Merida could vote on a controversial reform proposal.

Heitler suggested – and board members agreed upon – setting new ground rules for board conversations that focus on the positive, not the negative, and on issues, rather than personalities.

“As long as we have ground rules and everyone buys in, I am a Spartan about adhering to the rules,” said Merida, who at one point near the meeting’s end offered, only half-jokingly, to hug Boasberg.

Board members worked with Heitler while TV cameras and other media watched. The meeting was originally advertised as closed to the public but was opened after a legal challenge by The Denver Post.

Playing by new ground rules

Though Heitler is a therapist who specializes in marriage counseling, the $2,400 session for seven board members and three district leaders involved coaching rather than couch-lying.

“I am a therapist but that doesn’t mean what we’re doing here is quote, therapy,” Heitler said as some board members fumed over media descriptions of the day. “This is skill-building …

“Now as soon as I say that, I realize, wait, the way I do therapy is primarily skill-building,” she added. “So the fact is there is a lot of overlap.”

Heitler used exercises and examples to help board members use questions to get at each other’s underlying concerns and to illustrate the power of collaboration.

Trust – or the lack thereof – quickly emerged as a key issue.

“It’s good to start with thinking we can all trust each other and we can all build these relationships,” said board member Jeanne Kaplan. “But personally, how do I believe that can happen given history?”

Because in the past, Heitler told her, the board didn’t have ground rules.

“If everybody is committed to playing the game by the rules, which so far we’ve heard,” she said. “Then we can all relax, that’s how we play.”

And if a board member or two strays off track, she told them, it’s their responsibility to bring them back.

The ground rules include the assumptions that every board member is acting in the best interests of students and that every board member’s concerns are valid.

“This is not rocket science, this is not out of anybody’s reach,” Heitler said, citing an example with her young grandchildren. “If a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old can learn to say, what are you underlying concerns, you all can certainly learn to say that to each other and to yourselves …

“And as you hear the underlying concerns, you take them seriously,” she said. “If you don’t understand them, you ask how and what questions. And then you create a … multifaceted solution that’s responsive to all of those concerns.”

What board members must give up, however, is remaining attached to any one particular solution, she said.

“Everybody has to get crystal clear that power is the ability to get a response to your concerns, power is not the ability to make the particular solution be the one you had in mind,” Heitler said. “The outcome will be responsive to your concerns, it may not be the shape that you thought.”

Board members received some real-life practice when Merida, presumably targeted because of the media spotlight from Monday’s meeting, received an email with a racist slur as they sat around the table.

“The point is, there are different ways of responding,” Heitler told them.

“I enlisted in the Army so that guy would have a right to say this,” Merida said, shaking her head.

Applying new skills to tricky issues

Skills learned in the morning were put to the test in the afternoon when board members and Boasberg talked about their roles.

Boasberg prefers board members initially contact him or his three top aides with concerns. But some board members said they wanted to deal directly with the Office of School Reform and Innovation or OSRI, which handles hot-button issues such as school-sharing.

When Merida suggested the office be placed under the supervision of the district’s chief academic officer, Boasberg seemed to bristle.

“This is a good example of where I think you’re crossing the line,” he said. “You can certainly give me your thoughts but the structure of how I organize the district has got to be something that is a management decision.”

Then Jimenez began asking questions about OSRI’s interaction with the chief academic officer and Boasberg. As they talked back and forth, with Heitler’s help, they got to the root of Jimenez’s concern.

“You’re awesome at what you do but if your training is not teaching and learning, why would you do the ultimate decision-making on that?” Jimenez asked.

Boasberg’s response: “I hear the concern that I may lack experience in academic matters so why am I making decisions? As the leader of the school system, those are the decisions I have to make very day.

“If you think my decisions are not good ones … then as a board, you should find a new leader who can do that. I don’t mean that in a passive-aggressive or negative sense, it is a clear accountability question. You need to hold me accountable for the quality of my decisions.”

That prompted dismay from both Merida and Jimenez.

“I hear sometimes from you … either you fire me or keep me or you crossed the line,” Jimenez said. “Those two things kind of say, we’re done talking.”

With Heitler’s help and input from other board members, they talked it through.

“I interpret that as an unwillingness to be flexible,” Merida said. “And I can see what I need to do different is, to reaffirm my support for your position as the superintendent.”

Boasberg thanked them both for the feedback.

“What I hear you saying is that I need to respond in ways to try and address your specific concerns,” he said, “instead of putting up a response that you may feel is a wall and a shutdown of further conversation.”

Merida smiled. “I want to hug you,” she told Boasberg.

Added Jimenez: “This is a Kumbaya moment.”

Click here to learn more about Susan Heitler’s work.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

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