Public school governance suffers from “good news” politics, avoiding “negative” issues so we don’t offend, exalting artificially “positive” boosterism. As long as citizens are not uncivil, our elected school board should respond to criticism on the merits instead of acting like embittered martyrs.
Over the last several months our school board has approved staff recommended math curriculum and budget policy changes that left parents who were questioning board actions feeling alternately misled and stonewalled. When challenged in public proceedings, the school board became defensive and insisted it was just following advice of staff.
Parents were admonished, “We have to trust the experts.” Then some board members ominously defended the staff as “decent and moral” people, who would “never” act without good intentions.
Instead of owning its actions, board members attributed decisions to staff, then accused its critics of questioning the personal good character and intentions of staff! It was a classic if amateurish and clumsy “triangulation” tactic, playing stakeholders off against each other to evade accountability.
Parents never questioned “decency and morality” of senior staff, only the judgment of the board for acting based on the record staff created to support recommendations parents and taxpayers alike questioned. The issue was whether the new polices had been presented with full disclosure of facts sufficient for an informed vote by the board.
At one point a board member even complained about not getting paid for attending long meetings as an excuse for being uninformed and needing to rely on staff “experts” in casting a vote! So much for the spirit of conscientious civic volunteerism.
Meanwhile, staff was allowed to intercede at will during limited time allowed for public participation, interposing with parents who came to address the board. These and even more serious material procedural irregularities left a cloud over the board’s budget and curriculum actions.
This happens when good people we elect become unduly dependent on career public employee staff, and staff allows itself to be drawn into the vacuum created by weak elected leadership. As a general rule, when staff performance becomes a battle ground issue between the elected leaders and public it means elected leaders are not managing staff work effectively.
These issues deserve to be openly debated without divisive leadership tactics by the board, whose service the public honors by taking its work seriously and caring enough to participate in board meetings.
Howard Hills, Laguna Beach
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