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Q & A: Mary Jo Hudson Reflects on Columbus School Board Resignation

Grant Walters Grant Walters Q & A: Mary Jo Hudson Reflects on Columbus School Board Resignation
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After ending her five-year tenure with the Board last week, Hudson talks more about her decision and her future hopes for city schools and stakeholders

On Dec. 6, Columbus Board of Education member Mary Jo Hudson submitted her letter of resignation, which will end her five-year tenure on Dec. 31, 2018.

The letter chiefly cites Hudson’s contention with the board’s governance model, among other philosophical and functional gaps that she believes it will need to address to serve the city’s schools, students, families, staff, and community members.

On Friday morning, Hudson and I connected via telephone to discuss her decision in more depth, including her hopes for the board and district in the future, and her urging for Columbus residents, social service organizations, and businesses to be meaningfully engaged in student success.

Thanks for speaking with me today, as I’m sure you’ve been inundated with requests to discuss your letter. I’m sure this was a very difficult decision to make. Can you share a little about what was going through your mind in the last few days before you resigned?

“Well, Grant…first, yes, it was a very difficult decision. There have been ups and downs through the entire five years I’ve been there. I am not one to run from a problem, so I really was trying to do a number of things to resolve issues. It had just gotten to the point where we were making decisions, and I was kind of compromising to get to consensus. I was no longer comfortable doing that, and I felt like I no longer wanted to be part of that decision-making structure.”

You were very clear about the board’s governance structure as a pivotal issue that led to your decision. What do you believe the board needs to do, or how do you believe the board should be different moving forward, to address the deficiencies in its operation?

“It will all depend. The board will be different in 2019, because they’ll have at least two new members with James Ragland just joining and whoever is voted in to replace me. And, first, I don’t know what will change. I hope…I hope that there isn’t a view that the board is enough. Whenever there’s a big decision, I think it’s important to go in and…instead of both sides going in and digging in and hanging on and trying to get to ‘well, can we get anyone to budge?’ I personally do not like to operate that way. But it got the point that that’s what I had to do, often.

I think it’s important that everyone has a mindset of ‘what can we do that’s in the best interest of our district and our students?’ And then what can [they] do to make sure all of our stakeholders — the families and their children, certainly, but also the taxpayers and residents of Columbus — understand their decisions. It’s important that the Board has its finger on the pulse of the entire community to move that decision. What I’ve found is that their bare majority…there are many stakeholders and parts of the community that don’t count for them, and in my mind that is one of the biggest barriers is getting to that ‘our duty is to everyone‘ mentality.”

You credited your colleagues with caring greatly about their work, but pointed out that they must mobilize to tackle a series of imminent problems that exist among Columbus’ schools. If you had to name one or two issues you believe the board should make its first priority in the coming months, what would those be?

“Wow. Well, you know, addressing the grade card issue is significant, and the board doesn’t do that, certainly — that’s the administration and our teachers, et cetera. I think it would be to form an academic committee. Not to dictate that, but to do appropriate oversight and reporting out of how we’re doing. And not just for the board…that’s additional public information that can be generated for the community, as well.

For several years, I was part of a minority on the board that urged that we form an academic committee to do just that. The detail work for any board can’t be done at the full board table. I mean, it can — it bogs down everything. But then the board stays more nimble and moves through those issues through committee work. And what I think is an issue for this board is there is a reluctance to do that committee work, and also kind of a distrust of that: ‘if they’re doing work in a committee, we don’t have control of it, and then that committee has ‘too much power.’ I think that would be a very high priority.

The other would be that all of the board engages with all of the committees. You know, it might sound boring to be a part of the finance committee or the audit committee, but I tell you those are the eyes and ears of the board. It’s also to have the mentality that the committees don’t run the district — it’s oversight. And then you look for where the variance is, where performance seems to be down, or where performance is really up and how we scale with that. And also, you work on developing tools to identify needs and address them. The finance area has come lightyears. When I joined the board, we had a one-page budget for our general fund. Nothing else for anything else. So, we have much more detail in the general fund.

The administration had to work very hard. At no time had the district ever done a building-by-building analysis of expenses. Ever. So, that’s been done. At no time had the district done a detailed analysis of personnel. In school fund and accounting, those personnel expenses are done separately. Those are areas to continue to work on, because it will add transparency to the operation. And also it’s a management tool to help plan and to help identify needs and concerns and be used to rate performance.

Those aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities. And there’s been a reluctance to do that and to do more, and I think a lack of interest in that from many of the board members. I think it’s [about] engaging, it’s not about running around to conferences and ‘what’s the latest gimmick to get students to succeed?’ That’s for the administration. [They} should be charged with finding those creative solutions. The board can listen, but [they] should be digging into those day-to-day operations.”

You briefly mentioned the importance of the board engaging the public, and even as I’ve watched Columbus Underground’s online forums, there is some tangible frustration among the community that people are finding it tough to be involved or informed on educational matters by the board and district. How would you recommend that the public assert their position and ask for access?

“The public needs to insist on the district and the board opening its doors to the entire community. So, what I mean by that is that the stakeholders demand [they] be recognized…which includes individuals and corporations. It’s a fact of life: anyone who owns real estate is a stakeholder. The district needs everyone in this region to advocate for it and support it. There are two different buckets — the first thing, it can’t be that parts of the city don’t count for the district and the board. They can’t be discounted, and that’s the case right now. Likewise, the business community can’t be disregarded…it’s about making the table bigger. It doesn’t mean that folks lose their seats, it means there are more seats. I think we have to insist on that mentality.

The second is that there is recognition, as the largest urban district in the state serving over 50,000 students — many of whom are in need and deal with housing and food insecurity and trauma, and many other challenges — we as a community can help students bridge that gap and be part of the success for our future. The district must be open to community partnerships like Nationwide Children’s Hospital. How do we really be open to that and partner well with other organizations like the Community Shelter Board and the Mid-Ohio Food Bank and many others very collaboratively. I think the creativity of the people in this region along with the very collaborative social services models we have, we could be far and away one of the most cutting edge districts in the nation. And we could help people in every corner of this city.

But instead, we have a bunker mentality that starts with the bare majority of the board because of the distrust of folks that are involved in the press and the business community…and as a result, they get shut out and it hurts the kids. It’s time to say ‘enough’ and get over your hurt feelings from the past and move on. And if you don’t want to do that, step aside and let someone else do it.”

And Columbus has become such a different city from a civic engagement perspective over the past few years, and its institutions need to change with it. 

“Oh, yes! The model here…I travel a fair amount for my job. I was just in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and in addition to the smoke from the Camp Fire, which was…I’d never seen anything like that, there are so many people on the streets everywhere. So many. It’s not that we don’t have people who are homeless and living by the river, I’m not trying to be Pollyanna. Thirty years ago plus, there were folks who said ‘we have to do better,’ and they created the Community Shelter Board. And it’s a collaborative model that’s helped so many people. And we still have great need — great need — but we keep up a lot better than most urbans because there are more folks who are used to working together.

I think the district is always on the outside, and it’s an ‘us against the world,’ or they’re not thought of as a partner because they’re not a very good partner. As a community, we have to demand that of the new superintendent and every single board member: ‘we want you to be a good member, we don’t care how you feel about it, you come in willingly and stay there willingly, and don’t push away.’ It’s not going to lose jobs for folks, it’s going to help students. And that should be the litmus test for all of this: it’s going to help students. And then we can figure the rest out.”

In the opening statement in your letter, you said that you believe you can influence change better from outside of the board’s proceedings. What does that look like?

“The discussion that has already started since yesterday has been overwhelming, and it’s been exactly what I’d hoped. I don’t have all the answers. I have suggestions based on my own personal experience. What I’ve found and learned because I’m old and I’ve done board and community work for years…what I think is important is opening up each other to new ideas, and also considering, as we do that, educating folks that there are ways to operate the district that don’t take away from others, but that will help grow and serve using some of the more current board governance practices that several large, successful non-profits do, as well as for-profit organizations.

There are very few large organizations out there that manage over $1 billion in assets a year, plus over 100 facilities, and has the lives of 50,000 children in their hands with a volunteer board. Most for-profit and non-profit boards all target to say, ‘here are the skill sets we really want to see.’ And if we do have the same board [that says] ‘we’re not going to worry about skill sets’ as a means of getting on [it], we need to figure out how we’re going to get those skills to the board — an understanding of finance, and education and operations. We’ve done that on the finance committee and the audit committee, somewhat, but we have to expand that to every aspect of what the district does. I felt like I could be a better voice for that away from the board table because it’s just been more of the same at the board table.”

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know as they digest this information?

“Well, Grant, I do hope to get some more ideas out next year, you know, I don’t have a magic bullet to fix everything. But, I think it’s going to take folks paying attention. Of all local elections and offices, folks vote the least for school boards. And that’s everywhere, not just limited to Columbus. But, I would just ask folks — I think we owe it…if you love this city — if you care about kids, and care about the future, we’ve got to pay attention to how we do this. And there’s not just one way. We can figure [it] out. Because that’s what Columbus does; we figure out and do things differently all the time, and we make it work well for everyone. And I think we have got to do that here yet again.”

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