PETOSKEY — The Public Schools of Petoskey Board of Education conducted a special board meeting last week to hear from Dr. Michael Washburn, a former superintendent and now consultant with the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District, who was hired by the board to get a sense of what the district was doing well and where they needed improvement.
According to board president Mary Ling, the report — which involved Washburn interviewing or talking with 165 different staff members within the school district — was not meant to serve as an evaluation of the board or of superintendent Chris Parker or any leadership, but was designed to hear different points of views from staff regarding district culture.
While Washburn deliberately left out percentages of those believing the culture was fine and those telling him the opposite, in double counting responses from interviews and other direct contacts, just 10 percent of the participants believed the culture is “healthy,” and 90 percent believe it is “broken.”
“I received a call from Mary (Ling) on Feb. 24,” Washburn said. “She asked if I knew what was going on and I said all I knew was what was going on with the band issue and an administrator on leave, I said I really don’t know anything else.”
After reaching out to Jeff Crouse, superintendent of the Char-Em ISD, it was decided Washburn would be used as a third party to help the board get input from staff regarding the school district.
“There were 165 people that I interviewed, normally what I’m used to is around 30 or something like that,” Washburn said. “What I thought would be a day or maybe two days took five days.”
Washburn said his job wasn’t to come in and place judgement on things that he had heard, and on Tuesday he presented a written report to the board and Parker. Members of the board were not interviewed as Ling did want board members to inflict any biases on Washburn.
“As the design was to interview staff members but not parents or the community, comments made by staff members who also had children in the district; only their statements as staff members were reflected,” Washburn said.
Washburn shared his findings on Tuesday to the board, superintendent Parker and audience members at the Petoskey High School auditorium and said none of the statements should be taken as facts, rather opinions shared by staff members.
Washburn said regardless of next steps taken by the board, it will be imperative to all parties to “take time to review staff opinions of the culture — good and bad — and do everything possible to get back on track with a collaborative team including all employers, regardless of their jobs.”
Washburn said as in all things, it will take time to change perceptions, especially when trust is involved.
“I learned a long time ago, that trust takes a long time to build, but can be lost in an instant,” Washburn said. “After meeting with so many great staff members and the leadership team, I know you and they all want the same thing: for Petoskey kids to get the best education possible and learn to become outstanding citizens.”
He broke down his staff interviews into three groups, including the high school, middle school and four elementary schools.
The following are excerpts from Washburn’s reports for each of the three groups:
Petoskey High School
“Staff members I interviewed were divided into two groups in their perceptions of the culture in both the district and high school. The principal, her administrative team, and office personnel place great value and support in both the superintendent and executive team. They believe the culture in both the district and high school is very positive, but noted some members of the staff will likely disagree.
The superintendent was described as smart, highly organized, having high expectations with a ‘no-nonsense’ approach at problem solving. They, and some teachers and sup-port staff, believe Chris (Parker) has tackled tough issues, as well as dealing with unprecedented concerns like COVID, a band/personnel situation in their school and an administrator placed on leave.
They worry that the board of education will not continue to support the leadership team, as they witness changes at board meetings and some board members now going directly to staff members with questions about the culture.
These staff members believe there were too few structures in place when the new superintendent arrived, especially in the curriculum. The director of teaching and learning has brought both consistent structure and higher expectations for staff in an effort to improve student growth. They also think these new standards had support from the board after the superintendent was hired.
Supporters shared positive examples of the superintendent and executive team filling in at the high school when the principal and one of the assistant principals were on leave. Staff members got to know them well and were very impressed with the ‘hands on’ work they did. They believe the principal has great access to the superintendent and central office and high school needs are considered quickly.
However, a larger percentage of those interviewed, told me the culture in the district is very broken and some of that group see the same at the high school. They list a top-down decision-making process, little involvement with teacher input and training and that many individuals fear asking questions and, especially, challenging decisions made by the administration. While often second hand, there is a strong belief that staff members who ask difficult questions or challenge the new rules are treated poorly: yelled at, reassigned, forced out, etc.
In particular, the long process for reinstating two band teachers was cited as very disruptive. Because the matter involved attorneys and legal issues, I have not described the fallout mentioned but most interviewed felt badly the timelines were, in their words, very excessive.
While a majority of the staff values and supports their principal, some members of this group feel their principal is using a similar leadership style, resulting in a divided culture within the high school.
A common theme for those believing the district culture is very low, was the implementation of ‘too many new programs, too fast.’ Some veteran staff members, in particular, have seen an abrupt change in the last 2 1/2 years from long standing traditions. They understand that COVID protocols were disruptive, too, but believe the change in central office leadership has created the low morale and broken culture.”
Additionally at the high school level, Washburn noted many interviewed stated a signification number of staff who were or are retiring early or leaving the district for other positions are because of the culture becoming negative. Most staff members also blame major problems on the superintendent and they see his leadership style as “unpredictable and believe those who don’t agree with his decisions get targeted for some form of punishment, like being berated or involuntarily transferred.”
Student behavior was also an issue addressed by high school staff, where some staff members feel caught in the middle with their peers as some teachers try to enforce behavior standards while others do not.
Petoskey Middle School
“Universally, the principal, teachers and support staff love the culture in the middle school. They consider themselves as a family and on an island compared to how they perceive the district’s culture. They are proud of how they all pulled together during the pandemic and believe the superintendent did a good job in managing so many uncertain-ties.
Staff members who participated are very torn on district culture. A few are great supporters of the superintendent and executive team and believe more structure has been needed for a long time. As they characterize low morale, they cite veteran staff members as being resistant to changes and admire Chris (Parker) for taking on tough issues that were largely ignored before he became superintendent. They perceive and worry that the board of education, who selected the superintendent and supported his vision, are now turning against him because of criticisms from the public and ‘loud’ staff members.
A large majority of participants believe low morale and a declining district culture have resulted in the past 2 1/2 years with a change in administration. They were excited when superintendent Parker was hired, especially because his credentials made them believe that a ‘whole child’ philosophy would more emerge. They expected a greater balance between academic rigor and emotional and physical health needs of children.
Most staff members liked the beginning of the new leadership. They saw a likable and dynamic superintendent in his first year. He was highly visible, often a cheerleader for all schools in the district, very smart, driven and passionate about instruction and wanted to put more structures in place. However, once he and the new executive team were established, during the last part of the first year and continuing to the present day, many have lost confidence in the leadership of the superintendent and executive team.”
Much like concerns at the high school level, many middle school staff who talked to Washburn believed too many changes were made too rapidly, and without the knowledge and support of the people who had to perform these expectations.
Elementary schools (Central, Lincoln, Ottawa, Sheridan)
“There were few divisions among the four elementary school participants in how they viewed the culture. As a result, rather than singling out particular schools and repeating many of the same examples, the four schools will be lumped together for this reporting.
All of the elementary schools perceive their building cultures to be healthy but the district culture very broken. Participants shared many of the same concerns as listed by the high school and middle school participants. There are some differences, though, that I will highlight.
Each staff places great value in their respective principals. While one staff currently has an interim principal, they all feel each building culture is family-like. Principals, teachers and support staff members value each other and do everything they can to help one another. When challenges emerge, they circle the wagons and do everything possible to support unity. They all love their kids, believe their own school is the best in the district and rave about parent support.
Many were very excited when the board hired the current superintendent. As they see themselves as nurturing the younger students, they believed they had a great ally in new superintendent Parker because of his background. In the beginning they observed him as a high visibility, high energy leader. He was frequently in buildings and approachable.
Soon, the COVID pandemic struck and a new reality emerged. Chris took immediate control of the uncharted way schools had to be run. Unlike some neighboring districts, staff members felt valued, supported and their safety, along with their students, was at the top of the pinnacle. Communication was outstanding about COVID decisions and they felt safe in an unsafe world.
However, as the first year wore on and the second year began, they saw less and less of the superintendent they had imagined. Many told me the central office was dismantled and a totally new administrative team emerged along with new support staff members in central office, losing those they had relied upon in the past.”
Wasburn also described an example in the elementary level of the addition of the director of special education, who brought in a total change in philosophy, moving the schools to full inclusion. Many staff felt blindsided and not equipped to deal with the high needs special education students now “immersed” in their classrooms.
Elementary school staff also shared examples of various problems, including single students daily hitting staff members, throwing chairs in classrooms, yelling and loud profanity. Some teachers and aides, Washburn noted, were afraid and believe students in other classrooms become fearful when they witness this behavior. Clearing entire classrooms has happened a number of times.
Another major concern amongst the elementary staff was curriculum changes, which many shared examples of new instructional programs being forced upon them with little knowledge, no input and haphazard training. A significant perception by those interviewed expressed their beliefs that science and social studies can no longer be taught by classroom teachers.
A third major concern from participants who believe the district’s culture has been greatly damaged is a no retention directive aimed at kindergarten students. Staff members shared examples where the teachers and parents wanted to hold a child back for solid reasons, but the requests were always denied.
Washburn said based upon staff summaries, the board and superintendent need to meet, “sooner than later,” and discuss in details the staff reactions from the report.
Specifically, Washburn said areas that need to be addressed included the following:
Expectations for treatment of staff members
Following the chain of command in decision-making
Staff hiring procedures
Special education inclusion and the impact of staff/student safety
Special education and Title programs case loads and reporting
Student behavior concerns at all levels
Understanding of kindergarten retention policy
Working conditions and salary structure of aides and paraprofessionals
Processing of sensitive issues: Use band program decisions as road map
Board of education role in school operations
Board of education/superintendent governance
Developing and sharing results with staff members
“I think it’s really concerning,” Parker said in a board work session on Friday as the board talked more with Washburn via Zoom. “I think there were perceptions that were mentioned repeatedly which were definitely an indication of we have a lot of work to do, so I think how we go about that and how we communicate and how we go about addressing those perceptions is going to be really important.”
Parker said he believes there are some limits as to what can be done regarding the report with “anonymous things,” adding the overall perception of what Washburn’s report portrayed will require the district “to really take a look at how we are doing and how we are going to move ahead and move forward, and that’s going to take — as Mike said — some time and will require a joint approach as we continue to improve.
“There’s a lot here and continuing to move ahead with that will make a difference with the staff.”
Washburn noted to the board and Parker during Friday’s work session he would recommend the board and Parker have an open dialogue regarding communication and what is expected of each, and secondly he would prioritize student and staff issues at the elementary school level.
“I heard over and over about student discipline and how to deal with that,” Washburn said. “I do feel there are staff members who are afraid and I think there are students, according to reports, who are afraid as a result of disruptive behavior.”
Ling said during Tuesday’s meeting when she reached out to Washburn in February, she had no idea of what would transpire.
“I thank every one of you who spoke up and had the courage to talk to Mike and that’s exactly what happened and was initiated,” Ling said. “The board was just hearing a bunch of different things and did not know what was true and wanted to know what was the pulse out there.
“The intent of these interviews was to get a pulse of the district and what is going well, what needs improvement and what’s the culture of the district,” Ling said. “Obviously there’s a lot of information here in this report, we have to absorb it and a lot of different things we’ll need to do within the board, with leadership and with staff and I can tell you we’re going to take it seriously.
“I think Mike said several times, everyone has the same goal,” Ling added. “That goal is to do what is best for the district and to keep kids in the forefront. It’s clear we have a wonderful staff that includes all members of the staff, our leadership and board members.
“We have a lot of good people here, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Another work session regarding the report is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, April 15, at the Spitler Building in Petoskey.
The next regularly scheduled board of education meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at the Petoskey High School auditorium.
This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Consultant’s report reveals 90% of Public Schools of Petoskey staff find culture ‘broken’