Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Our Intractable Conflict

I imagine I am far from the only one who has been losing sleep over the way our community has been torn apart. My view: people who have wanted for a long time to get rid of our superintendent seized on the M-STEP scandal as “the last straw” in their litany of complaints. I think it is reprehensible to defend what certainly appears to be cheating in order to discredit the person who moved quickly to restore our integrity. Good grief, what message does THAT teach our children?

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Obviously, he is a polarizing figure, with very loyal supporters and very adamant detractors. How is it possible for one person to be viewed so differently? I suggest that it is simply a result of the lenses through which he is viewed. We all filter the information we receive, based on our perception of the accuracy and credibility of its sources. But, most importantly, we filter based on our subconscious emotional judgments. Fascinating, credible, and replicated research has demonstrated that we make up our minds about political candidates almost instantly, and that we rarely change our opinions based upon any subsequent factual information we come across. Thus, for example, people will say of both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz that they “simply cannot be trusted.” If pressed, they can often come up with rationalizing evidence for their opinions, but — in reality — the opinions came first and are later bolstered and justified with “facts” (put in parentheses because they are often factually wrong).

The same phenomenon operates in this case: both sides made snap judgments, have their opinions, and are mightily resistant to changing them.

Those who see him as The Problem in our district will cite the way they believe certain individual employees or others have been treated by him as the main reason they think he is “wrong” for our community. They may have the facts wrong about some or all of these cases, but that does not matter: they “know” he is a “bully.” Any good that they grudgingly admit he has accomplished is outweighed by the harm they believe he has inflicted. Except for some decades-old personal affront about their treatment as teens (historically not the most reliably detached observers), the harm is generally described in terms of poor treatment of adult employees.

Those who see him as The Change Agent tend to focus more on children — not their OWN children but children who struggle, fail, give up, are lost. They see him as the relentless but passionate nag who reminds us every day that our work literally saves lives — or not — and that nothing could be more urgent than getting better at it, so that fewer children are left behind and lost. If feelings are hurt or people leave because they don’t share in either the urgency or the belief that we can and must do more, then that is a mere side effect, outweighed by the good that is done in aspiring to reach the ideal.

Clearly, from my presentation, my bias is toward the kid-centered rather than the adult-centered point of view. I believe my responsibilities as an elected trustee are (1) to provide the best possible education to our community’s children, (2) to be a good steward of public monies, and (3) to be a humane employer —IN THAT ORDER. When there are conflicts in those goals, earlier ones take precedence over later ones. Thus, when the state legislature adopted an unprecedented cut in per-pupil funding (in order to sustain the $1.7-billion cut in businesses taxes) just before we were legally required to adopt a budget for the following year, I voted for a deficit budget. I knew it would have to be fixed later, but I could not justify the wholesale and precipitous cuts in educational services it would take to balance that budget immediately. It took time and a transparent process (including building closures, redistricting, and negotiation of contracts in conflict with priority 3) to accomplish that.

I would ask everyone in our community to think about their own priorities for our schools, and about how they would resolve conflicts in those priorities. Because that is precisely what I think is at issue here and now.

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