TUESDAY TOPIC: Sometimes, good people make dumb decisions

October 9, 2018

Bruce Lear

In sports, we call them unforced errors. In real life, we call them dumb stuff that someone thinks is a good idea. I’m talking about those decisions that when implemented leave most people scratching their heads wondering why we ever made that stupid decision in the first place. Yes, its “Monday morning quarterbacking,” but sometimes those Lazy Boy quarterbacks are right.

Like all private business, public education sometimes suffers from a series of unforced errors that make critics howl and redouble their efforts to privatize. But remember “New Coke?” The company evaluated, learned, and returned to the old formula, so “New Coke” became a footnote about a mistake made and corrected.

I’m certainly not an expert on public schools. To be an expert you have to carry a briefcase, wear a business suit and be a minimum of 50 miles from home. My wife sold my briefcase at a rummage, and I’m pretty comfortable in a tee and shorts, writing from home.

I do have 38 years connected to public schools and I’ve seen and participated in my share of dumb decisions, so here are a few current examples I’ve observed.

--- In some public-school districts, the second highest paid administrator is a lawyer from another town. Obviously, this is a byproduct of a litigious society, but it’s also caused by administrators being afraid of not only their own shadows but the parents’ threat of throwing shade.

In those school districts, parents are regarded as customers and the district is delivering a product, the children. It’s a dumb decision and it locks administrators into using a lawyer, a non-educator, for some pretty important education decisions.

That same out-of-town lawyer usually serves as the spokesperson for the district in collective bargaining. As a result, it is often just the hired gun arguing with your child’s teachers at the bargaining table. That’s dumb, and that’s a waste of taxpayer money, especially since the authors of this horrible collective bargaining law say it “gives the power back to the district.” With all the power, why do districts need a $300-an-hour lawyer?

The first sentence of Chapter 20, the collective bargaining law, says: “The general assembly declares that it is the public policy of the state to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government ...”

If we really believe in “harmonious and cooperative relationships,” districts have to let school board members and administrators talk to employees across the bargaining table.

--- Another dumb decision is deciding that it must be a teacher’s fault if too many students fail. I ran across this often as an advocate. Administrators would pepper public conversation with “academic rigor,” and then criticize a teacher privately if a student fails. Ironic and hypocritical.

Yes, there are teachers who can’t translate the material, but there are courses that are just hard and require a student to work hard. Students need to learn that lesson before their parents pay $40,000-a-year tuition to find out.

--- Finally, let me mention a decision that is really not an unforced error but a mistake driven by funding because politicians have made dumb decisions. School districts will often chase money for grants if they will just do ------ (you fill in the blank).

This money chase often causes school districts to go off on flavor-of-the-month, or year, tangents. It sounds great. Sometimes it is. Often, it’s not.

Yes, there are really dumb decisions made by some public school districts. But then again, like that mullet we thought was cool, or that awful ruffled shirt we just had to have, or the gas station burrito we craved, we were still good people; we just made a dumb decision.

Let’s have schools learn and move on.

A Sioux City resident, Bruce Lear recently retired after 38 years of connection to public schools - 11 as a teacher and 27 as a regional director for the Iowa State Education Association.

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