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Friday, May 22, 2015

The Question of Neutrality ???

A neutral position, at least in terms of driving a vehicle with a manual transmission, results in getting nowhere. Well, you don't go backwards, but you also don't go forward either. That can leave you in a fairly comfortable position. However, we live in a world where change is the only constant. The world around us is continually evolving.

Public schools generally reside in a relatively small comfort zone limited by neutrality (think Switzerland). There are several issues confining public schools, some restrictions are imposed externally (i.e. schools can't use public funds to advocate for a position - no money can be expended to promote people to vote in favor of the budget or adopt a stance on political elections) and others are manufactured internally (i.e. "keep the boat steady so we don't make waves among competing constituent groups on a political or social level"). As such, public schools are much more reactive than they are proactive. Typically, public schools change positions on social issues when forced to do so by legislation (civil rights of individuals in the broadest sense of race, religion, gender,..) rather than their own initiative. You might say that public schools represent an institution that clearly follows society instead of assuming any desire to lead society.

Now, I've never been to Switzerland. From all the images I've seen and everything I've read, it's a beautiful and prosperous country. I am not disparaging this fine nation, but merely using one of it's distinguishing characteristics to explain the point of this Blog. The neutrality of the Swiss is a hallmark of their recent history. That view serves to define the country as impartial and fair (although recent issues in the banking world have tarnished that perception). That neutral position allowed them to avoid the destruction that ravaged countries all around them during World War II. There's clearly something to be said about that form of isolation. They haven't lost a war.

On the other hand, they've never won a war either. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating conflicts and the immeasurable suffering and casualties that are left it the wake of war, but the world around us is constantly contending with conflict on a far lesser scale that wreaks havoc, produces casualties of a different nature, and requires adaptations accompanied by stress and discomfort. Review British politician Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy prior to the German onslaught across Europe as an example of what can happen when one makes concessions to avoid conflict. (I don't mean this to be a history lesson)

We may be safe, and our borders on maps remain steadfast, but our boundaries are permeable and shrinking. For example, economic decline, political strife, technological impact, social pressures, are but a few of the daily influences on us all that cross any type of border and threaten our boundaries on a moral, social, political, financial fashion.

Public schools are no different. These institutions are buffeted by winds of change on the same fronts - financial, political, technological, and social. Change is the only constant in an evolving world that has rapidly expanded through the Internet, 24/7 television channels, and countless social media platforms. Almost anyone can share their opinions (i.e. this Blog) and instantly broadcast their views to all four corners of the world.

Public schools are certainly not quiet. Witness the public schools gradual use of emerging social media platforms to extend the reach of various formal and traditional communication channels. But these forums are predominately employed for the purpose of sharing news on school programs and events within an academic or athletic reference point. These communication vehicles are designed to be informative. They are utilized to maintain and sustain a flow of information that is intended to enlist support of taxpayers and convince community members of the value of their investment in public school education.

But what, one may ask, is the public school's view or position on sensitive subjects and/or emerging issues that regularly arrive on our doorstep without answers or owner's manuals included? The longstanding position of neutrality and political correctness confine public schools through the manner in which they were founded and funded. They are institutions founded by a clarion to embrace everyone and therefore offend no one; and funded by, a) public funds generated by a constituency of myriad political persuasions and beliefs - and b) federal funds that are bundled with constricting regulations and restrictions. You might say that it is, and has been, the nature of the beast. Let's wait for the winds of legislation or litigation to determine our course before we raise the sails of our boat.

National Hockey League scoring champion, Wayne Gretzky, once explained it this way: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Maybe if we remain entrenched in neutrality, like Switzerland, we will never miss a shot, but Switzerland never makes a shot either. Then why play the game (especially a game in which we have no choice but to participate) if the best outcome is a tie?

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's in the Fine Print

2 billion (with a "B") dollars (that's $2,000,000,000) for schools in the state of New York to allow them to upgrade technology and also address needs of pre-kindergarten programs and facilities.

Wow! Who could be opposed to that opportunity? Especially since it was entitled the Smart Schools Bond Act? Who wants anything less than smart schools? And, our school district would be eligible to receive $257,106 dollars for the following four areas: equipment; Internet connectivity; high-tech security; and/or facility renovations for prekindergarten programs.

I was not in favor of the proposal.

I voted against this bond act when it appeared on the ballot last November. I felt there was insufficient substance supporting the initiative beyond the catchy title (everything made public as an explanation is contained in the second paragraph of this blog post), and worried about bonding money for technology that could be obsolete years before the taxpayers repay the money. However, a majority of the voting public approved the proposal.

It appeared to be another case of the public making decisions on bumper-sticker explanations of important issues. That is, the reduction of a complex issue to a phrase or identity that could either fit on a bumper-sticker or a media headline. Perhaps the interest/attention span of the general populations has "twitterized" to the point that everything must fit in a minimum number of characters.

At any rate, the proposal was overwhelmingly approved months ago - 62% yes, 38% no. The idea originated in the Governor's office as opposed to the State department of education. As a result, superintendents, leaders of school districts and stewards of the public funds, only recently received some general parameters of the Smart Schools Bond Act.

Chief among the stipulations that have emerged to govern the access and use of the funds is the requirement that the school districts purchase the products/services and then seek reimbursement from the state. While that may not seem much of an obstacle on the surface, you must understand that public school districts are limited in their budget by another state initiative that restricts increases in the district budget to no more than 2% of the tax levy or the actual computed limit derived from a mandated formula to determine the limit. Exceeding the threshold amount of increase would require a 60% majority of voters affirming the budget.

So, since our identified tax levy limit for the upcoming 2015-16 school year, per the state formula, is 0.48% (or approximately $15,000 dollars) if we wanted to replace outdated technology the only way we could add more than $15,000 to the general budget and avoid exceeding our tax levy cap, would be to reduce the budget in other accounts, with the subsequent decrease matching the amount above the $15,000. That is extremely difficult considering our school system, like other public schools throughout the state, has experienced several consecutive years of declining state aid and tax levy caps that restrict growth.

Two billion dollars certainly sounds impressive, but it remains out of reach,

A New View

Anthropology Professor Colin Turnbull of Columbia University studied the members of a rainforest tribe years ago. Members of the tribe lived in a jungle of densely populated trees and vegetation that surrounded their habitat. The plant life was so lush that the absence of any large swath of cleared land reduced the inhabitants view to a very limited range. This meant that the tribal members were accustomed to a fairly restricted vision of their world, a community covered by a roof of sprawling tree branches and leaves, and walls of tall trees and incredible jungle growth.

Turnbull developed a particularly good working relationship with a native named Kengee. One day he and Kengee trekked a great distance through the jungle to the edge of the rainforest and looked out from the top of a hill down to the relatively barren land below. They spied several water buffalo standing in the field below. "Insects" cried Kengee. As they gradually walked down to the field below and the distance between them and the animals decreased with each step, the 'insects' became larger and larger. "Magic!" exclaimed Kengee, “You turned those insects into large animals.”

Some organizations unwittingly limit their own views and visions through unwritten practices/policies that form the basis of their work culture. In their classic text, Corporate Culture, authors Deal and Kennedy simply defined organizational culture as, “the way we do things around here.” The inexact nature of unwritten practices and policies that have hardened and form the bedrock of an organization can make the workplace an unwelcoming, inhospitable, and unforgiving environment for leaders who are “foreigners” that have entered the organization from the outside, as opposed to growing up through the ranks of the organization.

It can pose the same dangers that one would experience when required to walk through an open field laden with landmines. The people who planted the explosives, or watched as others navigated the field, know how to avoid them and where to tread accordingly. As time passes by the locations of the landmines are imprinted in their minds and memories. This becomes such a routine that they no longer know a world other than that.
Among the leader’s most important contributions to sustaining an organization is the ability to create and convey a vision of a desirable future state that engenders hope for those in the group. This requires crafting a credible, realistic image of what the organization can become. This essential element challenges the leader to encourage others to see beyond their current or historical perceptions and construct of reality, like Turnbull did for Kengee when he showed him the effect of distance and perspective on his otherwise restricted view of the world. Marcel Proust, the famous French novelist and essayist, describes the process of discovery as "seeing with new eyes" as opposed to seeing new things.