Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

An American Tragedy

The Jordan-Elbridge school board controversy has been in the news again this past week--The Post-Standard's editorial today has a decent synopsis of the story.  I played a minor role in the process, when I was brought in as the outside moderator for the big public meeting on October 6, when the board decided to set aside additional time for public comment before it fired its lawyer and went forward with proceedings against the high school's principal, among other actions.  800 people attended the meeting, and about 600 of them were really mad.  Afterward, I wrote about the experience in The Auburn Citizen, and made a plea to the community to focus on healing as best it could. 

It's rare that a political event makes me sick to my stomach, and I'm not talking here about the deflation I get watching a particularly distasteful negative political ad.  I'm talking about something more visceral, a reaction to violence, akin to the feeling you get when you witness a car collision, or a couple having a vocal, bitter argument in the middle of the shopping mall.  But that's the feeling I got that night as I watched members of the community rip into the board, and each other.  This was despite the fact that the meeting went fairly well by some standards--everyone who had signed up to speak was able to speak, hear a response from the board, and then provide a brief rebuttal, and there were even some others who had not signed up who were also able to speak.  But the anger in the room was deep and raw, and it flashed frequently.  One of the community members who came up to me afterward told me that going in, he had fully expected physical violence to erupt before the meeting was over.

Local education is always a touchy subject.  In this case, many in the community have rallied behind the dismissed staff, particularly the principal--that's to be expected when there is no information.  And the principal has been encouraging the community in that reaction--the ginning up was clearly on display the night of October 6.  Community members are furious that they don't know why this is happening, and they are rightfully worried about the future health of the school system.  The board asserts they have good reason to do what they are doing, but that they cannot divulge their reasons for doing it because of legal concerns. 

My hunch--and underline that this is just a hunch, based on things as murky as the vibes I picked up at the meeting--is that the board's disciplinary actions will be vindicated, if not its way of handling the communications regarding those actions.  Investigators from the attorney general's office coming in to the district a few weeks ago to inquire about student records is a clue that supports that hunch.  In this regard, the Post-Standard's editorial today, which seems to locate the main problem in the secrecy of the board and the government being "run on autopilot" may be a tad off the mark, I think.  To repeat, this is based on a hunch and I could be wrong.

The biggest tragedy though, and what made my stomach turn on October 6, and what I wrote about in The Citizen, is that the community is now headed down the path of a nasty divorce, with itself.


mike.obryan said...

I've been hoping you'd write about this situation Grant; thanks for this first stab.
I'm more inclined, based on what I've read, to feel that the community, specifically the parents, have a very legitimate beef with this Board, particularly in the ongoing use of executive sessions. By all appearances, the Board continues to act as though the court rulings don't apply, and they can do what they want if they have at least 1 lawyer saying they can.
It reminds me (and probably you as well) of the Liverpool shenanigans of a couple of years ago. The JE community, I expect, fears such a protracted, and expensive, process.
The larger issue, for me, is how the Board seems so comfortable with the perception of arrogance they've taken on. Maybe they feel enabled by counsel, or that they have knowledge no one else has, whatever. But I'm struck by how it fits with governance at many levels in our current world. Bell, California, Albany, Washington, Jordan-Elbridge; take your pick. Sad.

Grant Reeher said...

I grant it often looks that way, but for what it's worth, and again based on the very limited experience of the conversations I had before, during, and after that high-pressure meeting, I did not get a sense of arrogance or entitlement on the part of the board. I have felt such things before in other comparable settings. Instead, I felt embattlement, confusion, vulnerability, and enervation. Of course I could have been duped. But if I were betting--with someone else's money--I'd put my chips on us having one of those "so THAT'S what all this was about" moments down the road. Let's see and compare notes again...

Molly said...

Grant, Do you care to comment on the upcoming search for a new SCSD superintendent? With the challenges the city district faces, I wonder about the likelihood of getting a quality candidate. I'm also curious about the key role the Say Yes program seems to be pushing for.

Grant Reeher said...


Thanks for those suggestions -- I've been thinking I should get the outgoing superintendent on the Campbell Conversations, and also the mayor again.

I wonder whether the deep challenges might be seen as opportunities to a candidate, as career-wise, turning around a struggling system is a big feather in one's professional cap.

On Say Yes's involvement, as I recall from what I read, the thinking is that they have the resources and network to do a good job, but I wonder again--a total guess here with absolutely no information to support this thought--that this is an indirect way for the mayor's office to more heavily influence the process.

And to go back to Mike's comment, the J-E board's recent moves, as I've read them in the paper, are moving me a bit closer to Mike's view, on the process if not the substance. After I moderated that meeting, I left thinking that for all the tension and conflict, the board would still continue to try to engage the public directly, and this new system of dealing with public comments and questions seems not to be in that vein.

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