School district should listen to public concerns

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 | 3:35 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Although some in the Columbia Public School District claim not to understand the lack of attendance at “Chat with Chase” events, the reasons seem pretty evident to me. “Chat with Chase” doesn’t work because it’s the modern equivalent of a royal audience. If Superintendent Phyllis Chase was really interested in hearing what her constituents have to say and in being responsive to their concerns, she’d get out and get down with the hoi polloi by attending some parent-teacher orientation meetings, writing an interactive blog, responding to questions through a regular newspaper column, doing regular spots on The Eagle and KOPN public interest call-in shows, getting on the agenda at Pachyderm and Muleskinner meetings, or making use of Columbia Access Television as a public forum. To say that Columbia is a well-saturated media and communications market is an understatement.

So why is the school district not taking advantage of these opportunities to listen to its constituents? Easy, there’s two primary reasons. First, the district doesn’t want to answer questions in spontaneous, thoughtful or nuanced ways and — heaven forbid — reveal that it doesn’t have a definitive answer to every question. From the inappropriately-credited editorials written by district personnel and published under the names of school board members to the precise scripting of every report by staff to the school board at public meetings, these high-heeled warriors work hard to ensure that nothing is revealed that has not already been vetted through the district’s public relations and legal staff. Additionally, the district would have to publicly listen to the opinions, ideas and concerns of others without a prepared rationalization for disagreeing. In other words, the district might have to acknowledge the social, philosophical and/or pedagogical legitimacy of an opinion counter to its own.

Most of those operating in the public realm are aware that there are folks out there who disagree with them. These folks, if politically savvy, are tolerant — even sanguine — in acknowledging that most issues can be successfully addressed through a variety of solutions. Columbia Public Schools, however, continues to assume the role of the 19th century schoolmarm, unequivocally correct in all factual and moral judgment (the old "Because I said so!" mentality) and relentlessly gentile in conduct and demeanor. It’s an inherently undemocratic and ultimately counterproductive way to both run an organization the size of our school district as well as to educate children to be engaged and productive citizens. In the past couple of decades much good has been realized by applying efficiency models and innovations in business practices to the public, educational and human service sectors. However, adoption of the corporate mentality of secrecy and subterfuge has not been a net positive for anyone involved in such endeavors — neither professional administrators and service providers nor their clients. As Columbia Public Schools examples: The integrated math curriculum shouldn’t be treated like the recipe for Classic Coke; a land use decision on a scale that will affect public policy and investment across local governmental jurisdictions for years to come shouldn’t be a back room, sweetheart deal; and it shouldn’t be acceptable to spend public dollars to pursue civil legal action and lobby state-level public policy makers without the specific and explicit consent of taxpayers.

Columbia Public Schools rationalizes its hierarchical culture of "managed accountability" as fidelity to the Missouri School Boards Association’s model of forced conformity and avoidance of conflict (at any cost) in service to the "good of the children." However, most thoughtful adults realize that rancor and incivility are not requisite attitudes to negotiating disagreements, as most adults can grasp and accept that ambiguity and evolution are the norm, not the exception, in forming human relationships . If Columbia Public Schools really wants to model good citizenship, it will begin to conduct its mission as public bodies are intended to: By publicly acknowledging its role and position as one of many — both legitimate and negotiable.

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