MAKING THE GRADE: Working together works for education

By Daily News • Last Updated 10:26 am on Thursday, May 16, 2013

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

Working together is what creates good school systems — and other systems.

I have intended to have these columns be about public education and not about Greenville Public Schools. But comments in a recent Daily News editorial have prompted me to deviate in this column.

On Monday, May 6, the editorial board included some very generous comments about my role on the Board of Education in Greenville. I appreciated them greatly, but I want to make sure readers understand that I know that no one person is responsible for successes in a school district or anywhere else. I have loved the opportunities and the challenges of being a board member because I have worked with many dedicated and talented board members, professional staff and other employees. The community needs to know the caliber of the individuals who make this school district what it is.

Once again this seems like an opportunity to go back and study history.

It is a fact that when I was first elected in 1974, boards and administrators in general were typically more isolated from both the community and the employees. Decisions were usually handed down from the top. It was the way things were done. Burl Glendenning, a superintendent I admired greatly, had a plaque on his desk that read, “Be reasonable. Do it my way.”

By the time I became involved, that was beginning to change. Unions made that necessary, but across the spectrum parents and other community members, including business leaders, were becoming more interested in being involved. By the time Thomas Pridgeon was hired in 1990, the board recognized the need to choose a superintendent with a different vision of leadership. Mr. Pridgeon met that standard and immediately introduced the practice of planning and setting priorities by involving a broad cross section of the community in the process. The first Strategic Planning Session was held in the fall of 1990.

It was not without angst and some controversy. There were those who felt the board was relinquishing too much of its power. And it was hard work. The five year plan and 18 action plans required many hours of effort. But the benefits quickly became clear and a new day was born. A second session was held in late 1996. The results of these effort are too numerous to recount here but they included changes in curriculum and improvement to facilities. The new auditorium was welcomed and, following the 1996 session, the new Central Services Facility was built.

Significant changes occurred because the community came together to identify needs and wishes. Strategic Planning was ingrained in the processes used by Greenville Public Schools and this led to another significant development.

In the mid-1990s, there were rumblings in other school districts of strikes. Several members of the professional staff stepped up and told board members that they did not want a strike. Since neither board nor the administration was interested in a strike either, a search was started to find a different method of bargaining. Then Superintendent Tom Pridgeon returned from a meeting with information about a style called collaborative bargaining. Representatives from the Board, administration and Greenville Education Association (GEA) met with representatives from the Saline School District to learn more. After investigating the process, they agreed to try it in Greenville and the use of this style of bargaining continues to this day.

The process has evolved and it is now called Interest Based Bargaining (IBB). It is very time consuming and requires trust on all sides. An over simplified explanation is that we begin by identifying the problem or issue. Then the interests of the parties are determined, followed by brainstorming options. Finally, possible solutions are explored. It is amazing how often this process leads to a solution on which all parties can agree. It isn’t always perfect and everyone is not always happy, but we move forward together. And we now use it for problem solving issues other than bargaining.

Working together is the way school districts and communities get things done and the more people who are involved the better. That is what a democracy is about.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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