Texas has this obscure education rule that all 1,100-plus school boards in the state must undergo “Team of Eight” training for three hours each year.

The teams consist of seven board members and the superintendent.

The goal is to get everyone on the same page.

Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful and worthy concept?

Kumbaya, baby!

The result across the state, though, is to stifle individual school trustees from rebelling and embarrassing a school board publicly in front of voters and taxpayers by asking tough questions.

The result is what one state senator called an indoctrination of school board members into a groupthink mentality.

It’s ironic that school districts have the word “independent” in their ISD name.

Richardson ISD had a team training session the day before Halloween. The Watchdog attended the public meeting.

No ISD in the state can out-team Richardson ISD.

RISD team

Richardson ISD board members and their superintendent take a required team building session on Oct. 30.

For one thing, the state requires three hours, but RISD is going for a lot more this year — 12 hours of training spread out over four sessions. If a district does eight hours or more, it’s eligible for a commendation.

Go, team!

The trainer RISD hired is a staffer at the Texas Association of School Boards, known as TASB. His name is Dave Koempel, and I gotta tell you that with RISD, he has it easy.

RISD is already quite the team of eight.

A study last year by a board candidate found that 443 out of the most recent 444 board votes were unanimous.

Think about that. No one on the board dissented in more than 400 votes. OK, one did.

This year? More of the same — except for one rebel. Trustee Eron Linn has voted “no” at least four times. Twice on a tax election vote, once on budget approval and once on an agenda item.

He’s the one who should get the commendation.

His “no” votes don’t appear to be hurting the district. Last week, voters approved a tax increase of 13 cents for each $100 of a property’s value. That will increase taxes on the typical home about $350 a year.

Go, team!

Open meetings violation?

Here’s another example of how the RISD team is so tight. This year, former trustee David Tyson Jr. filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming that the board violated the state open meetings law by holding secret communications outside of public meetings.

He charges that trustees “choreographed behind the scenes” using electronic communications that were deleted and also by meeting in small groups — mini-sessions — that are not big enough to be a quorum.

His lawsuit states, “After coordinating a background consensus and destroying documents to cover their tracks, the board in each instance convenes a perfunctory public meeting and casts unanimous votes.”

District officials declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

If current and former board members have to testify under oath, we’ll see if any one of them breaks from the pack, or if they stick together as a team.

Dealing with dissent

That’s why, last month, the trainer’s assignment at RISD was so easy. Koempel is an expert on dissidents who violate the team-of-eight concept.

In 2014, I attended Koempel’s training session at TASB’s annual convention, held that year in Dallas. The room was packed with board members and superintendents from across the state.

His session was titled “Dealing with Mavericks, Malcontents and Mutineers.”

In the 2014 session, Koempel used code words to describe troublemakers.

He called them “beep-holes,” “jerks,” “difficult,” “special” and “interesting.”

I remember talking to Koempel after the session, and he reminded me that he wasn’t talking only about board members but about everyone in any life situation that causes difficulties.

Malcontents, he told me, “have some benefit. You do have to learn how to work with them. But we also have to remember what the purpose of the board is. If somebody is doing something counterproductive ...” He never finished the thought.

Agree on everything

How’s it working? Here are some of the comments I heard at the Richardson board’s pre-Halloween training session.

Trustee Karen Clardy on the previous training session: “It was real eye-opening that most of us agreed on everything — as far as what our weaknesses were and our strengths were.”

Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum (who attended with Superintendent Jeannie Stone): “In the past two years, there has been a real concerted collaborative effort to have a shared set of beliefs and what we value about the work we do.”

TASB trainer Phil Gore, who worked with Koempel: “There has to be a focus on team in order to move the district forward. And we see that in other research across the country. If there is dysfunction, confusion, uncertainty and tension, the systems don’t do well, and the students don’t do as well.”

Koempel: “That is not to say we can’t have disagreements on the team and still get along. I think disagreement and dealing with that is a good thing. One of the signs of a healthy system is we have disagreements. It’s OK to have disagreement. But the big distinction is we do that in a civil way.”

Board President Justin Bono: “We’re all on the same page, generally, about what we believe and what we’re about and what we want for our kids.”

Sometime-rebel trustee Linn: “I would like to solve problems more together. So often we rely on the administration to provide us with a solution as opposed to discussing what our hopes and dreams might be, where we want to go.”

If we’re ever going to improve the Texas education system, we need less groupthink and more rebellious ideas to take hold. But that’s difficult with continued indoctrination baked into state education rules.

Mavericks, malcontents and mutineers are not always the enemy. Sometimes, they’re the savior.

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