Posts Tagged ‘Administrative Leadership’

COVID Decisions and Divisive Topic Laws Make Superintendency, School Board Membership MORE Stressful Than Ever… Who Will Want the Jobs? Oh… Zealots Might!

July 25, 2021 Comments off

After reading Linda Jacobson’s article on “the unsettling season of public outrage” Superintendents are facing, I recalled a conversation I had in the early 1980s. At that time, early in my career as a Superintendent, I crossed paths with a veteran from an affluent suburb in Philadelphia who lamented the days when School Boards were led by businessmen who wanted to serve in their communities as opposed to (his words, not mine) “…over-educated women with too much time on their hands“.  A few years from now it is possible that Superintendents may have a different lament: they will be longing for the days when school boards were populated by educated members who are uncommitted to public education. Why, because a consequence of serving on school boards and as school leaders in the COVID, post-George Floyd era is intense and rapid burn out which, in turn, will create openings on school boards that few will be willing to consider…. except the zealots who want to undercut “government schools”, ban “divisive topics”, push back against medical experts and government officials on health precautions, and believe everything they read on the internet.

I had dinner a few evenings ago with a doctor and in the course of our conversation I asked how the internet had affected his work. He rolled his eyes and became animated as he discussed arguing with a 19-year old who professed to know more than he did about COVID based on an article he “read on line”, and article my physician friend noted could have been written by a 12-year old in pajamas in his parent’s basement. If patients are not being deferential to physicians who are seeking to provide them with sound advice based on science, why would a school board member defer to the advice of a school superintendent, business manager, facilities manager, or ANY “expert” when they can find a contradictory position somewhere on line?

There are many reasons I am glad I retired a decade ago. No more snow-day decisions, no more endless budget meetings in the months leading up to a vote, and no more thorny personnel decisions. I often had different opinions from individual Board members and, in some instances, had to proceed with difficult decisions rendered by boards who could not achieve consensus, but I never encountered the vitriol that appears to be routine nowadays. When shouting replaces civility, those who value civility will shy aware from public office and leadership. Those who embrace it will be street fighters. I fear that the brawlers are about to take center stage in school district leadership and their target may well be the institution of public education itself.

NYTimes Op Ed Gives SCOTUS a B+ on Cheerleader Decision… But I’m Sticking With My “F”

June 26, 2021 Comments off

NYTimes guest essayist Justin Driver gave the SCOTUS a B+ on the recent decision supporting a cheerleader who was put off the team for a year for her obnoxious and vulgar post. Mr. Driver, a Yale Law School professor, gave the SCOTUS a high mark because it reversed a trend toward limiting student speech, and noted there were several factors that COULD have led to a ruling supporting the school. The key paragraph in his essay flags the two reasons I find the decision unacceptable:

It was far from assured that Brandi Levy’s case would interrupt this distressing anti-speech streak. After all, Ms. Levy was suspended not from school, but from only the cheerleading team. On this theory, some might believe it should be permissible for educators to hold students who participate in extracurricular activities to the most exacting standards of conduct. Relatedly, Ms. Levy’s series of Snapchat f-bombs did not protest anything so lofty as American foreign policy. The court might have been tempted to construe the First Amendment as too momentous — too consequential — to vindicate a disappointed teenager’s salty outburst after being cut from the varsity cheer squad. Fortunately, though, it resisted that temptation. It is particularly commendable that the court did not permit the ubiquity of speech in the age of social media to distort its analysis. The opinion’s protection for off-campus speech is heavily qualified and studiously avoids articulating anything like a clear rule.But the fact that it afforded even some protection in this context should not be overlooked.

In a post earlier this week I explained the problems with the “heavily qualified” opinion that avoided “anything like a clear rule”, which, I assert, will have a consequential long run effect on the writing of rules regarding student conduct outside of school that clearly has a link to the day-to-day operation of school itself. But as one who has long asserted that educators can hold students who participate in extracurricular activities to the most exacting standards of conduct I am especially concerned that this might not be the case moving forward. As a Superintendent trying to reduce the consequences of student drinking and stem the widespread use of drugs by student athletes, I helped the HS Principal and AD write a “contract” that a students needed to agree to if they chose to represent the school in a student activity. A parent at the HS challenged the decision and took the district to court where we prevailed on the theory that we COULD hold students who participate in extracurricular activities to the most exacting standards of conduct. If a professor of law at Yale sees this as being undercut by the decision supporting the student cheerleader I am certain that somewhere in America a parent of a student will be ready to take someone to court should their child violate such a contract. My heart goes out to the high school administrator or coach who is subject to the suit and to the Superintendent and school board as well.

As for the SCOTUS, most of whom are far removed from the travails of executing their decisions and many of whom have no personal experience inside a public school, when you render a decision like this that has serious consequences for schools across the nation, I hope that you will avoid one that is heavily qualified and studiously avoids articulating anything like a clear rule. 

Note to Yearbook Advisors, HS Principals, and Superintendents: Editing Yearbook Photos is Perilous!

March 22, 2021 1 comment

In the “good old days”, Yearbook editors could oversee their publications without worry. Students told young men they had to wear a tie if they wanted to have their picture in the yearbook and the young women had to be attired in dresses and skirts that conformed to the dress codes. The yearbook messages that appeared next to the pictures were carefully edited to make certain that references to teachers and political events of the day were omitted.

As dress codes loosened in the 1970s and 1980s collared shirts were still required for the young men and young women moved away from the kinds of apparel they would wear to, say, a school dance or church social into more casual clothing. The editing of commentary loosened a bit as the behavior codes loosened as best exemplified by the addition of “smoking areas” to schools and the lyrics to songs that were played on the radio became more explicit. References to drugs, drinking, and sex, though, were routinely cut.

Over time, though, Yearbooks became more and more controlled by the students and Yearbooks themselves became vestiges of a bygone era when girls wore bobby sox and boys were not allowed to wear jeans. To remain relevant and honor the differences and uniqueness of each student, Yearbook pictures often integrated the special interests of students and, alas, their political leanings. And after a series of court cases that gained national attention, the commentary students write is definitely R-rated.

In 2004, a colleague and close personal friend of mine, Nate Greenberg, got swept up in a controversy over a yearbook picture that illustrates the reason that many school administrators despair of setting standards for yearbooks. As Superintendent of Schools in Londonderry NH, Nate was alerted by his HS Principal that a parent intended to sue the school district if the Yearbook did not publish their son’s picture as he submitted it. The picture depicts a smiling well-groomed young man with a shotgun on his shoulder.  His parents said this picture depicted his son’s hobbies, hunting and skeet shooting, and that his son wanted to show this in his yearbook picture the same way student-musicians and student-athletes and other student hobbyists were depicted doing activities they loved. The yearbook advisor, HS Principal, and Nate looked at this differently. As Nate was quoted in the article, allowing the picture of an armed student in the yearbook might send a signal that the school endorsed the use of guns— not a message he wanted to send five years after Columbine. The district ultimately prevailed, but the controversy dragged out for months and was headlined in local newspapers, picked up by the NRA, and Fox news. In the end, the defense was that the administration was supporting the student editors, who were the ones unsettled by the picture and the State Supreme Court upheld that decision.

This incident came to mind when I read Michael Levenson’s NYTimes article about a student whose Trump T-shirt was edited out of a yearbook in NJ. In this case, though, the yearbook advisor, the high school administration, and the Superintendent were not on the same page and, as a result, the yearbook advisor won a $325,000 settlement for having her name besmirched and for the harassment that ensued. Both the Yearbook advisor and Superintendent have retired and, in all probability, neither of them did so recalling the many positive experiences they had throughout their career.

The incident also illustrates how toxic things became between 2004 and 2017. My friend Nate had to respond to a few phone calls from regional reporters but the incident was quickly forgotten once the suit was settled. Contrast that to the experience of the besmirched yearbook advisor:

On June 12, 2017, the student whose logo had been removed appeared on one of Mr. Trump’s favorite programs, “Fox & Friends,” and said, “The people or person who did this should be held responsible because it is a violation of mine and other people’s First Amendment rights.”

That same day, Ms. Parsons said, she was summoned to a meeting with Ms. Dyer and was suspended. Days later, Mr. Trump drew more attention to the issue, decrying “yearbook censorship” at the high school in a Facebook post….

…Ms. Parsons, who said in court papers that she had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, said she was soon inundated with hate mail and harassing phone messages that called her a Nazi, a communist, anti-American and a “treasonous traitor liberal.”

She said she had been afraid to use her name when ordering takeout food and feared that drivers might try to hit her when she went for bike rides.

When she returned to school in September 2017, she said, she was “disrespected and ridiculed” by students and others who blamed her for removing the Trump references from the yearbook.

She sued the district in May 2019 and retired in February 2020.

Maybe the “good old days” had some merit to them. Maybe yearbook pictures should reflect the unity that high schools aspire to instead of the uniqueness that separates us from each other.