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Monday, November 22, 2010

Juggling Versus Balancing

In addition to performing magic tricks and illusions, I can also juggle. Years ago I exchanged the secrets of a couple of tricks with a friend who in turn taught me how to juggle three objects. I enjoy the act of juggling. It requires constant motion and concentration, with one ball always in the air while your two hands rotate the other two balls - all at once, over and over again. Balancing however, relies on an entirely different skill set. Contrary to what many may believe, balancing is not maintaining an even 50/50 split by finding the midpoint of an object. Rather, it's fluid and dynamic. It more likely averages a 50/50 split between an object, or an issue, or two different items, concepts, beliefs...

Sometimes during an ongoing event or activity there is an imbalance, say 60/40, or at other times a 30/70 split. Over the long term the goal of balancing is to eventually even out in a 50/50 average by continuously monitoring competing sides and adjusting accordingly to find an equilibrium, as temporary as it may be. Some might associate the endless ebb and flow with relationships, such as marriage, where one person may end up getting their way sometimes, while the other person gets their way at other times. It ends up being situational and contextual. In an earlier Blog posting I mentioned how the Apollo 11 rocket was off course nearly 90% of it's journey to the moon, but depended on frequent course correction to avoid straying from its projected path. But this Blog isn't about marriage or space travel - it's about the give and take that public schools experience on a regular basis as they contend with conflicting needs, perplexing issues, and competing priorities as they seek to promote the public good.

Let's first look at an example outside of the educational arena which involved a government agency trying to meet two diametrically opposed constituencies. On November 6, 2010, the New York Times featured a news article ( ) that presented two very different sides to the same coin. That is, a reporter (Michael Moss) discovered that the United States Department Agriculture has been promoting the use of cheese to decrease a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. This effort included allocating twelve million dollars ($12,000,000.) toward a marketing campaign which promoted a national pizza chain's increased use of cheese. At the same time, a different unit within that same United States Department of Agriculture was fighting to address the increase in child obesity. Here's a quote excerpted from that article.

"And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting."

I am not entirely critical of this government agency. Instead I have empathy for the plight the department faces. On one hand they are attempting to decrease a surplus that impacts the price of dairy products and threatens an important industry at a time of economic distress. On the other hand, they are exercising sensitivity in their attempt to address a health issue that is threatening more and more people in our country.

You can't be all things to all people. There are several sides to this issue and almost any other. Perhaps the best metaphor to describe leadership in the public sector is attempting to solve a Rubik's cube which requires the player to have each of the six sides of the cube display one separate color (here's a link for those of you unfamiliar with this popular game of the 1980"s ('s%20Cube). Each and every move you make imperils a previous move and poses a threat to undo prior efforts. Either that, or playing three dimensional tic-tac-toe, a game that requires you to make a move while simultaneously monitoring the impact of that move on the the other two levels of the board.

For instance, we must construct an annual operating budget for the school that balances the ability of the community to fund with the need for programming and supporting an instructional environment that will promote future opportunities for the learners of the community. It is a delicate balance sensitive to the financial means of the community to avoid imposing an unwelcome burden on taxpayers, while at the same time recognizing our responsibility to foster success for all learners in a manner that enriches the same community in terms of quality of life issues.

There are many other competing interests that become even more challenging during a period of poor economic health at the regional, state, and national levels. An example might include the food service programs of many public schools. On one hand, the consumers (children) express a desire for snacks (chips and other similar items) which, like many other things are not good without moderation. So, to minimize the risk of contributing to weight gains and health threats schools seek to either eliminate these items or seek alternatives with reduced fat content. On the other hand, these commercially produced items provide a higher profit margin that foods prepared by the food service staff and they are a la carte items beyond the meal prepared by the staff to meet nutritional guidelines. The point of contention involves the juxtaposition of the need to generate revenue and avoid conveying the cost to taxpayers experiencing budget fatigue, and the need to act responsibly in promoting good health habits. An added dimension is the reliance public schools have on government commodity foods at reduced prices, like cheese, to ensure that an adequately nutritious meal can be provided at a cost that neither overwhelm the consumer nor overburden the taxpayer.

Similarly, our district, like those all over, was faced with the difficult task last year of reducing the budget while trying to meet the needs of learners with gregarious appetites anxious to experience extra-curricular opportunities and other programs of interest. The decisions of what to cut, and how much to cut, all dramatize the struggle of competition over scarce resources. The renowned English jurist and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, once defined democracy as "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." That principle offers some clear direction, but we must make certain that entire groups or programs are not summarily eliminated because they lack a simple majority of support. It's an exceedingly daunting task of constantly monitoring and adjusting to find a balance without straying from the mission, or meaning and purpose of our school district, ("Every student will graduate prepared for college, career, and citizenship")

I must end the Blog now and return to my ongoing attempt to solve the Rubik's cube.

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