With Schools, It All Comes Down to Local Politics

When Eduflack moved to New Jersey, he promised himself that he would never, ever get involved in local edu-politics. After serving as CEO of a state-based education reform organization in Connecticut and as a school board chairman for one of the nation’s top K-12 districts in Virginia, I had had more than my fair share of politics as it relates to local schools.

Sure, a few times I slipped off the wagon. At the beginning of the year, I felt compelled to weigh in on our local battle, which made its way to The New York Times, on parents that were pushing for more tests and higher stakes in our community. And I just can’t resist wading into Facebook discussion with parents who completely bastardize Common Core and meaningful accountability measures as they try to bully other parents into joining the opt-out movement.

But today, I completely fell off the wagon. As I watch a contingent within our local community savage our schools superintendent, going after him for anything and everything. A few months ago, he was attacked because one of our high schools didn’t have enough toilet paper. Last week, it was because nine teachers (in a school district of 10,000 students) have announced they won’t be returning for the 2016-17 academic year. And then last night, the superintendent was gutted for issuing a thorough and responsive report on lead testing in all of our schools.

Following the issues in Flint, MI (and then in Newark, NJ), our local schools acted. Last night, the superintendent reported back to the community. You can see his message here. As a parent, I felt at ease and as a citizen I felt we had the right folks at the helm of this school district.

Then the hatred started coming, with the typical accusations being thrown out without having any meaning rooted in truth. The lead report was further proof the district was being run like a business. That we have 30 central office staff (in a district with 10k kids). That we constructed a new central office (so that must be wasteful, no?). That it is clearly the end of the world as we know it, and we shouldn’t feel fine about it.

So against my better judgment (and against the wishes of the edu-wife), I again strapped on the local edu-politics helmet, and waded into the social media morass. Following is my first post:

So you want better quality toilet paper for school bathrooms, and now you want to replace all the piping in our schools (even though most kids bring their own water bottles to class). Please let me know when we are going to focus on teaching and learning in our community. That’s what I care about. 

And BTW, schools are businesses, albeit non-profit ones. They have to balance their budgets, and need to do so when nearly 90 percent of their total budgets go to people costs (salaries, healthcare, retirement, etc.). As a former school board chairman, I can tell you it is easy to attack school spending when you don’t understand it. But try to address 30% increases in health insurance as you give all teachers a step increase to keep them from leaving from other districts, while ensuring no cuts affect the classroom.

These attacks on TP and lead are downright silly. We have great schools, exemplary teachers, and our kids get one of the best public educations around. Let’s not lose sight of what is most important – our kids and the teaching they receive and the learning they accumulate.

And then I needed to follow up with:

 I’m not sure what you ask when you ask would I allow. I think our supe should be praised for how he handled the lead issue, yes. He proactively (as there were no specific issues found in our schools) conducted a comprehensive investigation, then reported it back so we all know which faucets, by room number, may have had an off result. And we saw that there was no issue for concern.

If I were on the board, would I have supported a new central office? Yes to that too. For prospective educators in our district, that is the first building they see in our community. It should reflect our commitment to teaching and learning. And for a district offering a world-class education to all kids, we should have facilities for ALL employees that reflect that. In the long run, amortized over the years, that building will be a strong investment. Otherwise, we’d be making regular, ongoing repairs to old buildings that will never be up to snuff.

Investments in physical plant are always hard. You are spending taxpayer dollars to do so. Those decisions are made very carefully, and should never be made at the expense of the classroom. And I don’t believe they have.

I speak from experience. Serving on a school board is a tough, thankless job. Those who do it well do it for the right reasons. Constructive criticism is valuable, but misguided and unfounded attacks just aren’t. We have a great district, excellent teachers, and one of the top superintendents in the country. We need a board – and a community – that supports them all.

The edu-wife cringes. I’ve now wasted two hours of my life I’m not getting back. But hopefully, based on some of the responses, it is showing the silent majority of parents they are not alone in their thinking.

 

 

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