Tuesday, September 09, 2003

St Mary's 2000 Homecoming

Claus W. G. Nabert
Fri May 19, 2000

I want to share the issues as they stand and what's been accomplished in the two days we spent together. And this is mostly for those who couldn't come though perhaps it's also a useful reminder for the rest of us too.

As you are all aware, we care about St Mary's and have a keen interest and desire to help the school to survive. It was with this intent that we eagerly travelled there to sit together with the school's management, specifically the principal, to learn what has transpired and how we can continue to be of assistance. That was our first surprise.

The principal was not present and, upon making inquiries, I was told the principal had no intention of being present. So much for the administration's interest in working with us or even appreciating our commitment to the school. When this became apparent, the point was made publicly that the entire alumni is insulted by the principal's absence and it was demanded that she come forward which she eventually did.

At this point questions were raised. There were two specifically which I had raised namely: "Where is the long range plan we were promised?" and "Why have we not been informed as promised on an ongoing basis in terms of what's happening with the school?". Her response referred us to the current issue of the Post Boy in which was a very brief summary of some of the programs she intended to undertake. This not being a long range plan I again demanded to know why it was not given to us. Her response was only to say that she would have a copy to us the next morning. There was no such copy ever furnished to anyone. Whether a plan actually exists or whether this was a deliberate attempt to keep us in the dark I cannot say though I suspect both situations to be true.

And the reason for that suspicion is simple. My other question, why we have not been kept informed about the school was responded to simply by saying the same thing she said in 1997, there was a little communication problem. When I continued to press she said that she had sent status to Frank, our president, but Frank denies ever having received anything. I tend to believe Frank first ahead of her. Basically the principal has deliberately refused to allow us any information concerning the school and this was certainly borne out over the rest of the sessions.

On examining what little we had in terms of directions we were gratified to learn that "sustainability" was the priority, so this was indeed a good management direction. However, part of that priority was not staff development. I queried this immediately pointing out that any first year Administration student learns that the success of any institution is entirely dependent upon the quality of its staff. I received no answer to this challenge. She simply stated that her present priorities are all that are necessary.

We were also not provided the budget of the school so that we could scrutinize the finances. Fortunately a helpful staff member did provide us a copy of the figures. Superficially it seemed fine, the deficit presented in that budget would be something we could easily cover and still have money in the bank. However there were two problems. We had no idea what assumptions the budget was based upon so we couldn't say whether it was realistic or not. More disconcerting however, some identified blocks of funding had run out. The school had managed to receive a variety of grants for the past three years to help it survive while it restructures and gets itself sustainable. Those blocks of funding, though still in the budget as income, had run out. Consequently the school potentially may face a deficit far greater than we could possibly cover from our donations.

When we queried this the principal acknowledged the issue and finished by saying that she has put forward a proposal to keep that funding but won't know for another month whether it would be granted. She refused to share the proposals with us to help us assess their effectiveness. So, financially come June, the school may still be in operation with our help, or it might be forced to close its doors, we have no way of knowing at this stage which will happen or even the odds of either happening.

Recognizing this issue, the next logical question was to ask what had been accomplished in the past three years in terms of the many good suggestions we had put forward in 1997. There was no substantive answer to this, however the answer was very clear, nothing had been done, in actual fact (and this is only my feeling based on what has transpired) she has deliberately refused to even consider working with us, she never had any intention of allowing us to be participants in the management and the saving of the school even though she clearly also couldn't do it herself.

A question was raised regarding why the school had not yet been accredited. The principal's response was that it could not be accredited until it was painted. One of our members who happened to intimately know the accreditation process in turn pointed out that it is not necessary to have the school painted at all. In fact the principal had done nothing about accreditation at all.

By the time all of these things came to the floor it as very clear to the participants that the school had been totally mismanaged over the past three years and that nothing had been done to foster its long term survival.

Getting nowhere with the principal who was not co-operative at all either in giving us needed information or even honest forthright answers, there was the question of what to do next. The body generally accepted the need to develop a clear mission for the school and it was patently clear that we needed to understand exactly what was going on. To that end we undertook a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis to assess where we were. This was done in five categories namely: Organization and Management; Facilities; Student Recruitment; Personnel Management and Curriculum. We were divided into five groups according to our areas of expertise, and each group to the extent possible included a faculty member. We also ensured that one or two students from the last two graduating classes were included too. The results were not encouraging.

On the Organization and Management question there were numerous issues.

There has been absolutely no attempt to measure the school's effectiveness in a competitive manner, in other words, there were never any comparisons done between St Mary's and other public schools to see which was performing better. When questioned the principal indicated such data was not available. In my own personal research the indication is that St Mary's is actually performing worse than the free public schools and that comparative data is available.

There is a total lack of leadership. The school has done nothing strategic, there is no long range plan, the issues which existed three years ago still existed. The administration tended only to deal with whatever happened to come up from one day to the next without ever developing a longer range strategic vision from which all issues could be resolved in a proactive manner.

There is complete organizational paralysis. The school is administered by the principal who still answers to the Bishop. The Bishop in turn created a management committee which was intended to function as a board of directors but in fact had no authority over the school. Consequently the
principal routinely ignored the recommendations of the management committee and the committee in turn had to seek the approval of the Bishop for every idea it had. In the midst of this confusion over who is in charge, who is responsible for what and so forth, the whole structure was paralysed and ineffective allowing the principal to basically do as she wanted with no supervision or direction. Since we, as an Alumni Association, also had no authority she simply ignored us too in favour of her own personal agenda. These three issues in turn created many others too such as questionable fiscal management, no accountability, and so forth.

The facilities led to major issues too. The physical plant (buildings et al) are in decay and need renovation. That was not a surprise, deterioration over the past three years was very evident. While the library is second to none, there are still gaps which need to be filled. There is a shortage of sports equipment, musical instruments, shop tools and many other things. None of these things had been brought to our attention.

Student Recruitment was not encouraging at all. Many issues were listed none of which suggested that the school had done anything positive about the process.

Personnel management was unchanged over the past three years. Though earlier in the day as a result of one of my questions the principal indicated that the morale issue among the staff had been fixed, the working group found the opposite. There was also no staff development plan or direction, annual performance reviews were not undertaken, the principal apparently did not even bother to sit in a classroom once in a while to assess how things were going. Though the principal insisted that there was a staff development program, we pointed out an interesting experience too. We offered a P25,000 sum to be put towards staff development under some reasonable conditions. The money was never requested and spent.

Curriculum was a serious problem too. Though to some extent the core curriculum was solid, there was not enough class time to carry it through. Often teachers assigned to specific subjects were not specialized in these. Students did not receive the support they often needed.

As all of these issues were summarized and combined, the principal offered no comments. She neither agreed with anything we found nor did she refute any allegation either.

To deal with the organizational paralysis question, we managed to get the Bishop to come up to hear about our organization and management findings. We presented these when he arrived and asked him to give authority to the management committee as well as to hasten the incorporation of the school so that it could finally be independent of the church. He agreed to both requests. When this will actually occur is not known however we will follow up to ensure it goes as quickly as possible and practical. During this session the principal again had nothing to say.

So where are we?

The two days were very well spent. In 1997 very few people asked any questions or raised any issues. Comparatively, it was a very quiet reunion. This time was different. Many people came to a microphone raising issues and expressing opinions. In the streets people were discussing the issues, they were aware and interested. So there is now a general awareness within the community and within the alumni which attended on what is really going on. While this may not seem like much, it is actually a major achievement for generating awareness and a consensus on the issues is not easy to do as a rule.

One thing which is clear is that the principal needs to be replaced, she represents a litany of bad management and lack of leadership. The reason the school has not moved can be summed up in a few points however the primary reason is that the principal has done nothing at all to move it forward. I feel she should resign and I wonder how she can sleep nights drawing a salary from the school while doing nothing about its survival. It is not likely that the Bishop will dismiss her and the management committee at this time has no authority so how this will play out I can't say at this time.

The findings from the five workshops are going to be published in the Souvenir Program of the Homecoming. This will make all of the issues very public for Sagada as well as all alumni to read at leisure. This too will hopefully ensure that we are clear about what is happening.

Rufino Bomasang, on the first day, proposed a deal. He is presently trying to make a deal which would see St. Mary's aligned with a major college. The deal is to make St Mary's specialize in science and become the feeder for that university. The other part of the deal would be that funding would be assured in the longer term too. Alas, this dream is not possible until we solve the management issues in the school and until it turns around. We cannot ask Rufino to risk his personal credibility as long as we cannot guarantee that we can deliver. Then there is also the question of whether St Mary's should specialize or not, a debate for a later day too.

There was an attempt made to write a mission but we ran out of time. As a result Frank appointed a committee of which I am a member, to finish that job. Once we have something which we feel is sound we'll send it out for comment to all of you.

We have the agreement of the bishop to give the management committee the authority to finally run the school until the school is incorporated. We also have his agreement to hasten the incorporation. To that end we have a group to also deal with the incorporation papers. Hopefully this effort will move forward quickly too. But there is a little catch.

The church is clearly willing to give up control of the school. I got the feeling that the school, among many other issues, is more of a millstone around the neck of the Bishop than an asset and I don't mean this in a negative manner, but rather to say he's got far more urgent issues than St Mary's and would welcome being relieved from the burden of having to manage it. But transferring authority and control is one thing, transferring the assets of the school is something else. I have the distinct feeling that the Bishop sees an opportunity to make some money for the church. This suggests that to finally incorporate the school may have to buy its facilities from the church or, alternately, lease them year by year. Ideally it would be nice to have the assets simply transferred free and clear but I doubt very much that this will ever happen.

One other item of note, in his opening remarks Frank (our president) declared this was his last homecoming, that he is now tendering his resignation. While many of us understand the frustrations and the enormous demands the job has placed on him and could symptahize, we were also saddened for there is really no one to replace him. To that end, just before the nominations were opened for the new officers, a motion was put forward that the body refuse his resignation. This was unanimously accepted and he reluctantly agreed to stay on. So we continue to have him to lead us for the next few years, a move which is good both for us and for our school.

Missing from our list of accomplishments are a few critical things. We do not have a constructive relationship with the principal at all so it's not likely she's going to listen to us on anything regardless of how good it may be for the school. We have not established a communication mechanism which keeps us informed on how the school is doing. She often spoke of a "communication problem" as she had in 1997 but not once did she say she would communicate with us. At the same time though she will no doubt gladly accept our donations as needed, she simply has no intention of giving anything in return. Missing as well are some measurable objectives we could monitor to see how the school is progressing and to which we could tie our funding. But, things are not as black as they seem. We know the issues now so we can use them as our measurement of progress. So overall, the two days have been effective and well spent.

And what should we do now?

My initial reaction to the issues and the principal's attitudes was to recommend we stop all funding and support. But that is not the answer as you likely have already guessed yourselves. Our issue is to turn the school around and make it live another hundred years, serving Sagada in general as well as Igorots throughout the Cordillera. While its present management may be terrible, it's the institution, the concept of St Mary's we are trying to save. To that end please continue to donate moneys and materials as best you can. The donations are not wasted. The school will turn around even though nothing has happened for three years. The community is now aware of the issues, the Bishop is aware of the issues, and we are aware of the issues. That is the first step in turning things around. Let's now continue the struggle because through dogged tenacity we will yet win.

If anyone has questions on the above please don't hesitate to write me and I'll try to answer them for you. If you have any comments on how to deal with the issues raised please write me and I'll make sure the appropriate people are

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