“Make our schools better, Mom,” said my son by way of goodbye as I walked out the door last night en route to the BOE meeting. I turned around, smiled and hugged him and then drove away wondering exactly how my attending the BOE meeting would make what are arguably already great schools any better. It also begged the question as to whether attending was more important than tucking him in for the night.
I got my answer: I should have stayed home.
There may be endless debate online about the vote to move the school board vote to November. I am not really going to write about that because as far as I am concerned, the point is moot. Instead, I’d like to focus on a problem that is casting a much darker shadow across our community. The issue is the dearth of civility exhibited by sitting members of the BOE as well as by the small band of people who have made it their jobs to regularly attend BOE meetings.
I never would have imagined having to write such a letter when we moved to Millburn “for the schools.” I have young children, and we are relatively new to this community….and I admittedly hate conflict. For me, my galvanization occurred two years ago when the BOE made a decision to redistrict my family from one school to another to alleviate overcrowding. That we have adjusted and love our new school is not the point, just the saving grace.
Two years after the fact, I am not as bothered by the result as I am by the processes in which those decisions were made. Central to all of this is a very real arrogance by some board members. As an example, I recently made the point to a BOE member that my son had gone from a class size of 22 at Glenwood to 25 students at Hartshorn. His retort shut down the conversation immediately. He looked at me and said, “Careful, do you want us to move you back again?”
That kind of arrogance does not exactly engender trust, does it? Then again, I suppose he thought I was trying to score a point, whereas I thought I was asking him to look a little more closely as the process. Perception drives reality, doesn’t it?
Last night, the word “trust” kept getting bandied about. Each time I heard it, I winced more and more. Trust left the building a long time ago, and there is a long history of acrimony to blame. The board itself is divided and there are some members who openly malign each other’s character with alarming impunity. Not surprisingly, this dynamic often extends to the audience.
Some members of the board have gone on the record to complain about the public’s rudeness. Indeed, at each BOE meeting, there is a small band of players who make a point to sigh, groan and shake their heads a la the British at Parliament. By now, it has become obvious to me they are intertwined with certain board members and are there to lend support to their allies and to be heard, darn it! During public comments, they get up and take the Board and Dr. Crisfield to task -- on everything and anything. It literally seems as though the administration can do no right. These citizens rarely acknowledge the good; but rather look for the holes that can be exploited to make their points. I sympathize with their desire to do good but I cannot overlook the negative energy that they cast out at each meeting.
Similarly, some of the board members' behavior last night was so appalling I would not even begin to know how to address it or even describe it. Suffice it to say there was name calling and mocking and I just ask you to watch the video of the meeting once it’s available online. Thankfully, there were both members of the board and the audience that attempted to restore a more civil tone. Unfortunately, the old adage about apples proved true -- it just takes a few to spoil the rest, and oh, how they spoiled things! The appalling lack of decorum led someone near me to exclaim that they needed to go home to take a shower -- I got her point.
Regardless of how we feel about each other and/or where we stand with our issues, civility should never be a casualty of disagreement. Being right is not an excuse to scorch our opponents. The public’s rudeness does not absolve the board from its responsibility to lead by example. Disliking another board member is not a license to question their integrity, to mock, or to name call.
To move beyond this as a community, we must accept the fact that listening objectively should be a basic tenet to our interactions. Opposing viewpoints are often hidden gems of information and indeed, there are always different ways of looking at the same problem. Civility needs to be a way of operating and not just a nice word we teach our kids. Even if the trust is completely eroded, we should attempt to give each other the benefit of the doubt….or at the very least, the courtesy and appearance of listening. Our leaders MUST model the behavior expected from its citizens. Only then will we be able to persuade rational people that attending BOE meetings is not a circus sideshow and/or that serving on the Board is not an invitation to be personally filleted and skewered twice a month.
Isn’t that what we want to teach to our children?
“Make our schools better, Mom.” The schools are fine, son, it’s the board meetings that need to improve.