In Defense of Superintendents
I caught one item on the editorial page of the Oklahoman over the weekend ripping school district superintendents in general. I totally missed another one targeting two specifically, though. So thanks go to Melissa Abdo from Jenks for tweeting about it and putting it on my radar.
The editorial from Sunday was typical for them. Somebody at the newspaper is incredulous that superintendents continue complaining about funding. Let’s review…
First the legislature failed to fully fund its mandates. Then the SDE withheld more than twice what is mandated this summer. Then they made a slight adjustment in August when online enrollment numbers were known. Finally, they released mid-term adjustment funding levels in December, while still withholding millions of dollars from the formula. The mid-term adjustments strongly favored the state’s online schools.
Unlike the Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, for its part, did this radical thing called interviewing people. They actually talked to school district officials about their concerns over the mid-term surprise. The result was what’s known as an article full of facts. I know…I sound like some kind of beatnik muckraker. Reporting facts in stories in a way that’s designed to present a balanced view so readers can make up their own mind is no way to operate – well, not if your intent is to funnel the billions spent in Oklahoma on real education into the coffers of large, multi-national corporations.
This follows a typical pattern. The World reports a story that includes the perspective of people running schools. Then, after a few days pass, the Oklahoman criticizes the scary Education Establishment on the editorial page. What happened Saturday, however, was altogether different.
This is the one I missed – the one Abdo mentioned on Twitter this morning. Tucked into the Saturday Scissortails post on the editorial page was a blurb criticizing Jenks Public Schools for picking an internal candidate as its next superintendent. The blurb also criticized Tulsa Public Schools for sticking with Keith Ballard for one more year:
With the retirement of Superintendent Kirby Lehman, Jenks schools could have charted a new course. Instead, they promoted Deputy Superintendent Stacey Butterfield, who called Lehman a mentor. This is telling because Lehman’s recent tenure has been marked by frivolous lawsuits and a disturbing attitude toward less-fortunate children. He championed filing lawsuits targeting the parents of special-needs students (which the state Supreme Court tossed) and griped about funding charter schools serving poor minority children (whose parents can’t afford Jenks homes). In 2005, Jenks joined a teachers union lawsuit demanding a billion-dollar increase in school appropriations (also laughed out of court). Sadly, other troubled Tulsa-area schools are following a similar path. Union promoted a deputy superintendent and Tulsa replaced “retiring” Superintendent Keith Ballard … with Keith Ballard for another year. Rather than moving ahead, this suggests that these schools will continue advocating an agenda that hasn‘t benefitted students.
Again I should point out that the husband of Superintendent Barresi’s one-time chief-of-staff writes editorials for the Oklahoman. I should also point out that as chief-of-staff, she caught a lot of grief for calling certain Tulsa-area superintendents dirtbags. When the Oklahoman writes a piece out of the blue slamming two superintendents that aren’t even in its main service area, the motives have to be questioned.
Lehman and Ballard are successful professionals who don’t need me defending them. The academic excellence of Jenks is unquestioned. And the district has continued planning for growth by passing bond issues with sizeable margins. The community that knows Lehman’s work has continued supporting him, for more than two decades. That speaks volumes. Likewise, Tulsa Public Schools, under Ballard, developed the Teacher Leader Evaluation system that has since been adopted by over 400 Oklahoma school districts. This has occurred over the objections of Barresi, who wanted the TLE Commission to select a different model. Garnering the acceptance of your community and your peers is far more significant than any criticism superintendents might receive from a jaded editorial writer.
Both of these articles point to why few want to serve in this capacity. Everything superintendents do is scrutinized. Selecting an architect for a building project, choosing principals, even where you sit during a football game is seen as a referendum on your leadership. The public wants to know not only how much money you make, but where you spend your money. You spend every day in the public eye. And in some cases, newspapers will even come after you before you start on the job.