Video concerns: Democracy in action

By Beverly Bacak December 18, 2010 05:00 am
A dialogue is taking place in our community regarding the showing of a John Birch Society video in a middle school class.

As one of the four citizens who presented a concern about the video at the November school board meeting, I was disconcerted to find myself accused of violating district policy and was baffled that the meeting was described as a “fiasco.” The accusation and the characterization of what occurred came from the one board member who was absent from the meeting.

There seems to be confusion, so let me be clear. My concern was not a complaint against anyone but was about the source of the instructional material and the controversial content of the video. My concern was about school district policy and how something so ideologically driven, historically inaccurate, and biased, came to be included in the curriculum.

At the meeting, the board members and Superintendent Hodge listened attentively, treated me respectfully and took my concerns seriously. I believe Ms. Ryan has a fundamental misunderstanding of my intentions and her misperception has caused her to mistakenly accuse me of policy violations. Adopting a more thoughtful and reflective posture and taking a more deferential attitude toward the understandings and perceptions of those who were present could help precipitate a reconsideration of the accusations.

By assuming erroneously that my complaint was against the teacher, Ms. Ryan concluded that the board should have kept this behind closed doors in an executive session. This misunderstanding caused Ms. Ryan to conclude that I violated district policy by bringing my concern publicly to the board. But because of her misunderstanding, her opinion of how it should have been handled is rendered irrelevant.

The board should deal with all personnel issues in closed executive sessions. But this controversy is not a personnel issue. Instead, it’s about the content of instructional materials. The District Policy Manual states unequivocally, “The Board is responsible for the selection of instructional material.” Policy requires that all materials adopted shall be selected “in consultation with parents and citizens” and, “any resident ... may challenge the appropriateness of district instructional materials.” My appearance before the board was precisely that sort of challenge and bringing my concern directly to the board in an open meeting was not a policy violation.

My greatest disagreement with Ms. Ryan’s analysis centers on the issue of openness. This controversy concerns the appropriateness of instructional material. Keeping this issue behind closed doors is the opposite of what is called for. There is no better example of where non-transparency is antithetical to democratic principles. Every parent of every student who viewed the video, and every member of our community, has a fundamental right to know the content of all instructional materials presented in public classrooms. Keeping this discussion a secret would be a breach of the public trust and a genuine violation of district policy. Elected officials who appear to insufficiently value openness risk losing the trust of the citizens who vote them into office.

Public bureaucracies need to be vigilant and avoid the tendency to protect narrow interests – e.g. avoiding or suppressing unflattering publicity – instead of maintaining full attention to protecting the public interest. Board Chair Horel stated that it is appropriate to bring policy complaints directly to the board. In her disagreement, Ms. Ryan asserted that the responsibility of the board is to show that they support district employees, “to show that we’ve got their backs.”

It’s important to be supportive of all district employees, but the board has a broader mission. As district policy affirms, “The Board is responsible to the people for whose benefit the district has been established ... and must look … to the needs of all district citizens.” Policy requires that the board must maintain “effective communication with the public,” “conduct board business openly, soliciting and encouraging broad-based involvement of the public” and, “earn the public’s confidence.”

What occurred at the November meeting was neither a “fiasco” nor a “free-for-all.” The citizens who brought their concerns to the board did not deserve to be accused of wrongdoing. What occurred was democracy-in-action, and I’m proud to have been an active participant.

We adults involved in this controversy have a responsibility to model for our young people how grown-ups deal with contentious issues. Remaining calm and thoughtful and selecting our words and actions with care demonstrates how to relate constructively to public disagreements.

In controversial times, it’s crucial that we conduct ourselves in ways that promote collaborative problem solving and encourage respectful airing of disagreements in ways that preserve the dignity of everyone.

One final note regards the poignant complaint brought to the board by Mrs. Cruickshank, the parent of a student served by the district’s special education program. It was disappointing that she was accused of violating district policy and verbally abusing two employees. What everyone present witnessed was an anguished and extraordinarily frustrated parent. She was angry, and it’s difficult to remain poised while being the target of someone’s wrath. Superintendent Hodge handled himself professionally, recognizing that she was a loving parent struggling to get the best quality education for her son in a woefully under-funded system where special needs students are often the most under-served.

When in the presence of raw human anguish, the humane response is not accusation. What is called for is maximum patience, deep compassion and sensitive understanding. I hope the board can shift its attention away from some perceived transgression committed by Mrs. Cruickshank and instead focus on the substance of her complaint.