Alone with J
A vacation, from
the grid goofiness
By J SWYGART
Back on the job earlier this week following a whirlwind nine-day exploration of the Great American West. From dodging mudslides around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to a slight change in plans due to an avalanche in Yellowstone National Park, to a delayed entry into Zion National Park in southern Utah — caused by what one local described as the heaviest late-May snow storm in 20 years — and an overnight interruption in getting home caused by a power outage in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, well ... Decatur never looked so good. Home Sweet Home, and all that.
The information above is likely of no particular interest, but serves mainly as a precursor to what is to follow: An explanation, of sorts, in this column’s delay in commenting on the apparent controversy that gripped the community during our absence.
While work, for the most part, was left some 2,000 miles behind last week, I did log onto the Democrat’s website one day to check on things back home. And, at the time, the football was hitting the fan in the wake of Nate Andrews’ decision to forego the coaching/teaching position at Bellmont High School to which he had been hired — in a deeply divided vote — just seven days earlier.
Truthfully, that news came as little surprise. What was surprising was the tenor of comments from area residents that were left on the Democrat’s web page regarding the coach’s decision — and that of the school board’s, as well.
I had to chuckle just a little; not that the whole episode was in the least bit funny, but because — having sat through countless school board meetings over the past five or six years, most times with precious few other area residents in attendance — it was entertaining to read about the alleged demeanor and agendas of certain board members as described by writers who have never, or seldom, watched this board in action personally.
But back to the matter at hand.
The two North Adams school board members who voted against Andrews’ hiring have been bearing the brunt of criticism from those who have chosen to comment on the gridiron goofiness, and at this juncture I must submit that this pointed and specific criticism is, in my opinion, greatly misplaced. There is a much larger issue at hand than the hiring of a football coach, or in voting against doing so.
The current school board members — with the exception of Juan Gutierrez, a long-standing voice of reason who unfortunately has completed his term and must now leave the panel — must share equally in any criticism that is to be doled out.
Because these members have, nearly from the outset of the board’s current incarnation, given themselves the unspoken title of micro-managers in every sense of the phrase. It was evident early and often that the old rules didn’t apply any longer; that there was a new sheriff in town.
It’s a tea party mentality; that of believing the system is so broken that a select few must step in and make it right again. And it is certain in the long run to have unwanted ramifications for North Adams schools that stretch far beyond who does or doesn’t coach its football team.
School administrators are, for reasons not fully clear, firmly under this board’s microscope. Every action seems to be scrutinized and analyzed ad infinitum. And, as a result, some awfully good people could be leaving North Adams in the not too distant future to escape the “we-know-better-than-you” management philosophy of the current school board. That would be a shame, but no one could blame competent educators for fleeing. The internal situation here is not a comfortable one at the present time.
Much ado also has been made surrounding the school board president’s comment — shortly before voting against hiring the previous teacher/coach candidate — that she would not be a rubber stamp for the school administration.
In reporting on a myriad of school boards over the past 33 years in this profession, I often have used the “rubber stamp” term to critically describe the actions of those panels. But now, in retrospect, I firmly believe there are worse things than allowing competent, educated and well-intentioned professionals to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. If that constitutes being a rubber stamp, well, so be it.
The current school board members aren’t bad people; quite the opposite. But perhaps the coaching controversy was just what was warranted to focus some needed attention on how North Adams schools are operated.
The microscope has now shifted.
The writer is the opinion page editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org