Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Compromise Nothing?

I am the father of a soon-to-be-school-aged son. Like many parents in our position my wife and I have been investigating preschools. Both of us attended Christian grade schools, and the Grand Rapids Christian Schools seemed a natural for the short list. While we are still considering GRCS, I have become increasingly uneasy with the way GRCS has chosen to promote itself. Granted promotional campaigns only scrape the surface of the entity they are representing, but ideally they should capture the entity’s most unique, desirable attributes.

I was particularly disappointed to open the GRCS website and see the slogan “Compromise Nothing”—a statement that seems to be in contradiction to the Christianity I know. Jesus asked his followers to do more than compromise. He asked them to sacrifice their comfort, their safety, their families and their finances for the sake of the Kingdom. Why would I, as a Christian, want to send my child to a school that seems to advocate otherwise?

I wanted to make sure I understood this correctly so I posed this question along with my concerns to GRCS leadership. They were kind enough to reply. Basically what they said was that the Compromise Nothing message was really a call-to-action to Christian parents who might consider choosing public schools over GRCS schools. According to their research many of these Christian parents choose their local public school because the program offerings are perceived as being broader than what a private school could offer. It was explained that Compromise Nothing communicated that at GRCS you could have as strong an education as any public school and in addition have a have Christ-centered approach.

To me, this explanation of Compromise Nothing seems to present GRCS as a cake - that is just as academically good as the public school’s cake - but with the Christ-centered approach as icing. What I would have liked to hear is how faith infuses and changes the cake itself. How is a Christian education something different at GRCS, something unique—something worthy of making a compromise, or even a sacrifice for?

I also question whether GRCS’s research is reaching all potential voices. Are the majority of Christian parents in Grand Rapids sending their kids to the public schools because of better programs or extracurricular activities? More often I have heard about the burden of tuition and more notably a perception that the GRCS schools are not significantly different than the public or charter schools. My concern is that by positioning itself as just-as-academically-good-as-the-public-schools, GRCS will inadvertently play into this perception.

I am very grateful to my parents for sending me to Christian schools. They compromised their time, finances, and lifestyle to make it possible. And we did make compromises at the school too. We did not “have it all.” But these sacrifices made it possible for more people to attend. The value of Christian education was worth it. My hope is that GRCS can present itself as being equally worthy of sacrifice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Amendments to the Amendments: A Brief Update

A reminder that the full membership of the Grand Rapids Christian Schools is voting on the Amended Articles and Bylaws put forward by the Board of Trustees at the annual meeting, March 15, 7pm, in the CAW. Those who are unable to attend can submit an absentee ballot by mail, fax, or in person. Note that absentee ballots are due to the GRCS administrative offices by 4pm on Monday, March 15.

It should be noted that, in response to the sorts of concerns voiced here, the Board of Trustees actually revisited one key issue in the time between the town hall meetings and their BOT meeting before the documents were distributed to the membership. In particular, they revisited the suggested amendment that would have concentrated the power to amend the articles and bylaws exclusively to the BOT. In the final version distributed to the membership, they add the following qualification and procedural step:

"The power to initiate amendments to the Restated Bylaws, other than the doctrinal basis set forth therein, is reserved exclusively to the Board of Trustees. Any such amendment that is approved by the Board of Trustees is subject to final approval by an affirmative vote of a majority of members present in person, by proxy, or by absentee ballot at a regular or special meeting of the members."
I appreciate the responsiveness of the BOT in this way. I don't think it allays all of our concerns, particularly given how the membership has been largely disenfranchised over the past decade. But I do want to go on record in recognizing this instance of responsiveness to some of our concerns.

Other concerns (articulated earlier) remain. Whatever the outcome of this process, it's very important that a wide representation of the membership take the time to vote on or by Monday, March 15 in order to take ownership of GRCS as, in Kuyperian terms, a "parent-run" society for Christian education (or, as the GRCS Bylaws articulates it: "The authority and responsibility for educating children resides in the parents or guardians of the children and not in the state or the church.").

Thursday, February 4, 2010

FAQ: Responses to "Answers"

Let's imagine someone offering several "answers" in response to the questions I've raised here. Let me try to articulate these and provide a reply.

Why are you opposed to a unified Board of Trustees? We're moving from many schools to "one school" on multiple campuses, so it only makes sense to have "one school, one board."

I don't think anyone opposes the "one board, one school" unification. That seems wise and stewardly. Unification is not the issue. Next question.

While we believe in the "one school, one board" principle, we also believe that the entire BOT needs to serve each student and family, across the membership. Your criticism (and counter-proposal) would only contribute to increased conflict because it would turn the Board of Trustees into a group of "representatives" each fighting for their own special-interest group.

My concern is not "representation," turning the board into a conglomeration of interest groups. And I also think that each member of the Board of Trustees should "serve each student and parent" for the "entire campus." Agreed. That can sound like a rather wonderful ideal--but how do Board Members know how to serve students and parents? How do they know what those needs are? Are they going to extrapolate from their own concerns and needs?

Well, then, here's precisely the issue: Let me paint the issue very starkly, as a "limit case": in the proposed amendments to the Bylaws, there are no structures or procedures in place to prevent the configuration of a Board of Trustees being entirely drawn from, say, Ada and Forest Hills. (Keep in mind that many students at GR Christian High do not come up through our elementary and middle schools.) Now, of course that means that there are also no structures in place to prevent the entire Board of Trustees being entirely drawn from Eastown and Heritage Hill. Both--BOTH, please note--would be equally problematic.

But the latter scenario is particularly unlikely; the former scenario, I have to confess, seems very possible. Having come from Oakdale, up through the Middle School (two still there), and now with two at the High School, one steadily feels the increasing role played by families from the suburban areas of the GRCS "region." And that makes a difference in the ethos of values.

This is important precisely because of what the BOT is charged with: strategic planning, which is a value-laden enterprise. And while we might talk nicely about "serving each student," we don't know student/family needs if we don't live where they do. I can tell you that an increasing number of families who live in the core city have experienced precisely this sense of disenfranchisement, and an increasing sense that GRCS is on its way to becoming a 'baptized' rendition of Forsest Hills Central or East Grand Rapids High (which is why there has been such significant interest in the Living Stones venture). My hunch is that GRCS is betting on that "clientele" for its future, and so won't be too bothered to lose its city members. But I'd hope this school that wants to be "a light in the city" might keep ties to the city, and the churches that are located there.

But you're missing all of the role that parents can play in the new structure: they can nominate people for the Board of Trustees and serve on new "Parent Councils" to be involved at their school. And the Board of Trustees will have new Subcommittees to focus their work.

I'm not too confident that these features will actually make a difference; my worry is that they're window-dressing on centralized power. These "Parent Committees" are just vents for "input;" they have no governing power (as stipulated by the relevant documents). And I've had some glimpse at how such committees work in GRCS. My wife briefly served on a newly constituted Nutrition committee until she realized that they had absolutely no authority or power--and that all the relevant decisions about food and nutrition had already been made by the adminstration (e.g., to keep vending machines in the high school; to start a supposedly "new" nutrition program at the high school rather than at the brand new elementary school, where habits are really formed).

As for the Board Committees: they will be composed of Board Members. But of course it's precisely the composition of the Board of Trustees that's at issue here.

Well, we still think this is the best way forward.

I wish I could agree with you. But, by the way: nothing you've said here addresses the other key issue I raised, namely, that these proposed amendments--if passed--will reserve the power to change the bylaws (except for doctrinal basis) exclusively for the Board of Trustees. In other words, if the membership passes these proposed amendments, they will be democratically relinquishing their democratic voice in the future. Am I mistaken about that?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Town Hall Meeting @ Rockford Tonight

A reminder that there is a Town Hall meeting at Rockford Christian School tonight, Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 7:00pm to discuss the proposed amendments to the GRCS Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation. For those who are unable to attend, I hope between now and March 15 that the comments thread of this site could function as a "virtual town hall" to continue the discussion.

Keep in mind the two key issues highlighted in earlier posts:

1. The proposed composition of the Board of Trustees provides no "checks and balances" on homogenization.

2. In the proposed amendments, the right to change the Bylaws (with a couple of exceptions) is reserved exclusively to the Board of Trustees. This represents a significant concentration of power in the BOT.

If you attend the Town Hall meeting tonight, do not be sidetracked by talk about process. I expect those attending will hear a lot said about how many people were interviewed, how much work went into the process, etc., etc. But the issue is NOT the process. What's at issue are the documents that have been put before us--the product of the process.

Furthermore, what's at issue is not what the BOT wants. What we want and what actually happens are two different things. I'm happy to assume that the BOT does not want a homogenous board; but there's nothing in the proposed policies and procedures to prevent that from happening.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Concentration of Executive Power?

In addition to concerns about the composition and configuration of the Board of Trustees, there is another significant (and disturbing) feature of the proposed amendments to the GRCS bylaws--a change that has not been highlighted in the communications from the GRCS administration.

In particular, this concerns who has the power to amend the bylaws. We need to do a little comparative reading to see this notable change.

First, if you read the current bylaws that are in force, you will notice that Article XIII states:

That is, in the current bylaws, the power to amend the bylaws resides with GRCS members, not the Board of Trustees.

But now compare this with the "Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation" which, in Article XI--after affirming that only a majority of the membership could amend the doctrinal basis of the Corporation--then appends this little gem:
"The power to amend the Restated Bylaws, other than the doctrinal basis set forth therein, is reserved exclusively to the Board of Trustees."
(I should note that in the Town Hall meeting last Wednesday, this sentence was not noted in the taskforce presentation until I drew attention to it.)

And lest you miss the point, the final paragraph of the "Restated Bylaws" reserves the same power to the Board of Trustees:
"Unless otherwise required by law, these Restated Bylaws may be amended only by affirmative vote of a majority of the Trustees then serving..."
What we, as GRCS members, are being asked to approve are new articles and bylaws that would take from us the power to later change the bylaws! An approval of the Restated Bylaws and Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation would be a (supposedly) democratic relinquishing of the membership's democratic voice, concentrating power in the hands of the BOT. Is that what we want?

So what can you do?

1. Read all the relevant documents, analyze them for yourself, and see if you think my concerns are valid.

2. If you share my concerns, forward this information to other GRCS families who you think will share our concerns. There are easy ways to share this blog on the right-hand menu.

3. If you're able, attend the Town Hall Meeting at Rockford Christian School on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 7:00pm. (Unfortunately, only 8 people attended the Town Hall meeting last Wed. at Christian High. I think that's partly because it was scheduled on a Wednesday night, in conflict with many local church activities; partly because of a general disenfranchisement amongst GRCS members vis-a-vis the GRCS administration; and partly because the taskforce communications have downplayed the significance of what's included in the proposed amendments.)

4. Vote accordingly. Note that there are five different ways to cast your ballot for the March 15 election.

Board Representation: A "Parish" Model

In my last post, I noted one particular concern with the proposed amendments to the GRCS bylaws--the procedure for composing the Board of Trustees. As I noted, the amended procedure has no checks and balances in place to guarantee "representation" from across the "regions" where GRCS families live (and the reason why this is important is because locale and values are intertwined). The danger, then, is that there are no procedural guardrails in place to prevent the gradual homogenization of the BOT and an over-representation of a particular "sector."

Now, it seems to me that we could have a relatively simple procedure to avoid this homogenization, without invoking the memories or phantoms of the "old schools." If those GRCS families who live in Eastown embody one expression of a Christian ethos, and those families who live in Ada embody another expression of a Christian ethos, wouldn't the valuative work of strategic planning benefit from a BOT that has representation from across these locales? And couldn't we do that without trying to retain the former school "districts?"

My proposal would be something like a "parish" system: that the BOT be composed of members drawn from across the "parishes" that make up the GRCS "region," as it were. The "parishes" could be determined by zip code (we all know how much marketers can tell from our zip code). For example, we could require that three BOT members be from the "parish" constituted by the zip codes 49503, 49505 and 49506; three more members would come from the parish represented by 49507, 49508, and 49548; and three from the area covered by 49525, 49546, and 49512.

Such "parsishes" would be wider than "old" school districts, but would also recognize difference in ethos in each of these regions (none of these differences are absolute). And I'm confident that we could find people in each of these parishes with the relevant "gifts and expertise" needed to carry out the BOT's mission and task.

Unification? Or Homogenization?

Given the consolidation of GRCS elementary schools, it is necessary for GRCS to restructure its governance, particularly the Board of Trustees (BOT). The current BOT is composed of 7 representatives of schools in the GRCS association (formerly Sylvan, Oakdale, Millbrook, etc.), plus 6 at-large representatives. Given that many of these schools will no longer exist next year, and in order to eliminate bureaucratic redundancy, a task force has proposed one unified BOT which will oversee "one school" with multiple campuses. This reconfigured BOT will be tasked with strategic planning and will specifically seek members with relevant, and needed, gifts and expertise. See the New Governance Recommendations on the GRCS website for more details and links to the relevant documents. (You'll find it a bit difficult to track down the current [soon to be "former"] by-laws--indeed, the link from the menu seems to be disabled. But the current bylaws can be found here.)

Unification and administrative streamlining seems wise and stewardly. However, I think there are serious concerns about how this Board will be selected and composed. In particular, I'm concerned that in the name of unification, what we'll get is homogenization. Let me note two concerns:

1. No "checks and balances" on BOT composition

The new BOT will be charged with strategic planning and vision-casting. These are highly valuative tasks--what we consider "strategic" will be an expression of a constellation of values. Now, even if we assume that all GRCS members share the Christian doctrinal basis of the schools, clearly our faith finds different expressions. I would highlight just one tangible indicator of that (which we could easily substantiate with sociological data): GRCS families who live in the core city of Grand Rapids often value different aspects of Christian faith than GRCS families who live in Ada or Forest Hills. Or, to put it differently, our decisions about where we live are significantly expressive of what we value--not better or worse, but still significantly different. Thus one might find a different ethos at Oakdale or Creston than you might find at Millbrook or Ada Christian School. Again, I'm not making any evaluation between these, only noting the differences in what's valued for folks who make different real estate decisions.

Now, what does this have to do with a "unified" GRCS Board of Trustees? In the current confirguration (which we agree cannot be maintained) there is still a "representative" element insofar as each school--and thus each neighborhood--had a voice on the BOT. The BOT, in other words, brought together people from across the "region" of GRCS.

But in the new proposal, there are no such "checks and balances"--no constraints or requirements on the composition of the BOT. While the governance taskforce highlights the call for GRCS to be "a light in the city," in fact there is nothing in the proposed bylaws to prevent the entire BOT being composed of members from outside the city. For example, there are simply no external requirements that would prevent all of the Board members being high school parents whose children perhaps attended Ada Christian School.

Now the taskforce and BOT will counter that, of course, they would never want such homogeneity. I'm sure that's true. But what they want and what's possible are two different things. The revised bylaws require us to simply trust the goodwill of the sitting BOT and Nominating Committee to ensure that we avoid such homogenization. But it has surely been one of the marks of Calvinism--and Calvinist polity--to not trust our own good will. This is why one of the marks of Calvin's legacy on politics has been to externalize such requirements, creating procedural "checks and balances" that don't depend on the contingencies of good will.

The upshot is this: while it makes good sense to unify the BOT, the proposed amendments have no procedural checks and balances in place to prevent a resulting homogenization of the BOT. (In a follow-up post, I'll suggest just such a procedure that I think could easily correct this.)

2. "Invitation," expertise, and a new version of an "Old Boys' Club"

The governance taskforce emphasizes that the new BOT could specifically nominate and recruit BOT members with relevant and needed gifts and expertise. For example, the Board might be especially in need of members with fiscal expertise, or curricular expertise. Since the BOT would not be largely composed of "school reps" sent to the BOT, this provides a new opportunity to configure a board with relevant expertise. While the GRCS membership will be welcome to nominate people for the Nominating Committee to consider, the amended bylaws emphasize the role of the Nominating Committee in identifying and inviting potential BOT members who have needed gifts and expertise.

On the one hand, this sounds promising and wise. But if one begins to think through this just a bit, a question arises: how exactly does the BOT know, across the GRCS membership, who has the requisite gifts and expertise? Won't it be likely that BOT members will "know" those who are the most familiar to them? And won't that often be longtime GRCS "insiders?" Indeed, given the demographics of Grand Rapids and GRCS alumni, won't it often turn out that the Nominating Committee will "know" those they went to Christian High with twenty years ago?

Contrary to how it's billed by the taskforce, isn't this simply a formula for reinforcing an insider, "Old Boys'" club?

I think there are more areas of concern in the proposed amendments to the GRCS bylaws and articles of incorporation--and will note some in later posts. But here I highlight just a couple in order to prompt GRCS members to see something at stake in the upcoming GRCS membership election.

So what can you do?

1. Read all the relevant documents, analyze them for yourself, and see if you think my concerns are valid.

2. If you share my concerns, forward this information to other GRCS families who you think will share our concerns. There are easy ways to share this blog on the right-hand menu.

3. If you're able, attend the Town Hall Meeting at Rockford Christian School on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 7:00pm. (Unfortunately, only 8 people attended the Town Hall meeting last Wed. at Christian High. I think that's partly because it was scheduled on a Wednesday night, in conflict with many local church activities; partly because of a general disenfranchisement amongst GRCS members vis-a-vis the GRCS administration; and partly because the taskforce communications have downplayed the significance of what's included in the proposed amendments.)

4. Vote accordingly. Note that there are five different ways to cast your ballot for the March 15 election.