There are rules and guidelines in our local governance. They are a smaller version of the “checks and balances” at the state and federal level. Adhering to them builds trust and unity of purpose. Ignoring them achieves the opposite.
In our school district, a few major documents provide the framework of these rules. The by-laws, the communication plan, the strategic plan, and the code of ethics are all major documents approved and edited by School Committees over the last few decades. They span the transitions of elected bodies and administrations. They exist to provide checks and balances against the chaos that may result when political upheaval occurs. They protect our students and our schools.
These norms are not always strictly enforceable, and so ignoring or suspending standards may not have immediate consequence. But we see it erode the trust and confidence that is critical in order for our kids to succeed in our schools.
Skirting by-laws to rush a policy change makes us wonder: why? The communications plans cautions against confusing committee members’ roles in the community. When a staff member close to a committee member receives special treatment of any sort, it looks bad. And the committee is a single body with a single voice. Individual members have a voice with their vote on a particular issue. But when the vote is done, no individual member can go out and make policy. If they do, or merely when it looks like they are, it brings the ever-present image of the back room dealings that Rhode Island is used to.
Don’t criticize employees publicly. Confine actions to policy making (not day-to-day operations). Avoid using the role to benefit your allies. Encourage the free expression of all opinions. These come from the District Code of Ethics. There is no legal consequence for breaching these, but doing so affects our community and most importantly affects our kids.
Is it possible to meet these standards every minute of every day? Likely not. Sometimes, it is impossible to do so when conflicting factors emerge. The last several months have shown a committee willing to skirt the boundaries of these standards repeatedly, and we see what that is doing to the school community.
We see students upset and distrustful with the priorities of the committee. We see taxpayers reluctant to shovel unlimited funds into a shrinking system. We see teachers looking side-eyed at each other, afraid of the ties each might have to the current decision-making structure.
If we acknowledge the truths that our out there and play by the rules, the community can begin to heal. Real damage has been done, some caused by the nature of our town’s changing factors, but most from the appearance of erratic decision making that has occurred.
The greater threat comes as our confidence in the system erodes. That can change, but only by a commitment to restoring the institutional trust of our local bodies.