The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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April 20, 2014

Purge begets counterpurge

— Usually, when the public faces off against a local school board, there is a key educator there to walk everyone through the best of intentions. At Midd-West last Monday night, the board was basically on its own, having just voted to heave-ho their second administrator in six months.

The technical term was suspension pending the findings of a police investigation into suspected criminal charges. If they are anything like the charges the board used to drum out their superintendent, these nefarious accusations will pop like a soap bubble before long.

The problem in the district is that the hyperbole used to oust first the superintendent and then the acting superintendent does not ring true with colleagues, professional associates and parents who witnessed dedication to the children of Midd-West.

Any school board may have reasons that the public could understand and accept for seeking new administrators.

Financial models associated with an ambitious building program may not have proven true. Academic progress might not be improving apace. There are always possibilities of abrasive management styles or unfair practices, special treatment for the wrong reasons.

But the experts (and there actually is one who spoke to me Monday night) say that over time schools tend to perform better in terms of academic achievement when there is consistent leadership. In fact, one sign to look for when auditing a troubled school is how many different bosses faculty members have had in the spans of their careers.

Some of the 150 or so people who attended the Midd-West meeting last week seemed to realize this intuitively. With respect, their gripes did not seem to stem from the popularity of the purged individuals as much as the demand to know what is behind the disruption, how long it will last and how deep it will go.

Without that singular articulate and experienced educator spokesperson, the board looked lost for an answer, as if there really is no publicly acceptable reason for what has happened.

That, by the way, has been the jettisoning of a veteran superintendent, the suspension of his replacement, the resignation of an elected board member over the personnel intrigues and dueling public petitions to recall or un-elect three members of the school board.

At least that was the score Friday, as local police and the county district attorney continued their board-requested inquisition into ambiguous allegations about how the school’s public email system could be accessed.

Meanwhile, a rogue member of the board sent an email to the entire employee base, recommending job termination for anyone identified as a school board detractor, so that anyone who disagreed with the governing group would know they mean business.  

That same board member apparently replied to a local pastor’s emails about the unsettled situation by evoking threats of criminal charges akin to the Espionage Act of 1917-18, which called for the imprisonment of anyone with unpopular ideas in order to maintain public order.

(But the world was at war then and the notion did not last long in the face of constitutional challenge, extension and amendment.)

When the pastor reached out to other board members — all nine, it seems — no one else responded. Three apologized to the citizen Monday, basically excusing themselves for meaning no offense, but not having anything to say.

The passions have been stirred in Middleburg and passion reads silence as disrespect. Offense follows.

When people run for public office for all the right reasons, and many of these folks did just that, there is no escaping the probability that a day will come when the public will show up and want to have a meaningful and difficult conversation.

Everyone understands that responsible elected officials cannot get into the nitty gritty of personnel decisions in a public forum.

But when the only articulated explanation for dramatic change is a threat to eliminate obstreperous or resistant behavior — narrowly and perhaps erroneously perceived — the entire board is misrepresented as a body that exercises power to enforce obedience.

That turns conversation into a power struggle, which is what is happening in the Midd-West School District, where they are firing off ouster petitions like an artillery barrage. To no one’s benefit.

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.

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