Authoritarian battle at the school board | Wis.Community

Authoritarian battle at the school board

August 18, 2020 - 2:30pm
Menomonie Schools Logo

Covering the Menomonie School Board has from the start been emotionally trying. I'm the guy who is almost always at the school board meeting, first doing video recordings and recently doing live streams. Through the past 2 years give or take I've seen a lot of dysfunctional behavior on the board, and a number of incidents that have left me shaking my head. The board regularly exhibits passive-aggressive behavior that at times borders on toxic. This is one of the reasons I started doing the video coverage of the board because newspaper articles and the meeting minutes never capture the demeanor of the meetings. I missed a few of these as my wife was dying last year, but  I have attempted to attend as many of these as possible wither in-person or virtually. People in the area need to know how their government business is conducted and I've been attempting to surface the meetings of both the school board and the many other governmental bodies that affect our everyday life. 

Throughout I've seen a growing irritation in the board, with the members often falling into two camps on any contentious issue. One of the camps is what many might call conservative, but which I believe is better characterized as authoritarian. This team seems to see the schools as primarily a place to deal with traditional educational issues, and which primarily sees social issues in the schools only as something that might affect school performance. 

The other part of the board is much more concerned with the social climate of the schools and has pushed hard for consideration of issues like bullying, removal of Native American mascots in the state, and making the schools welcoming to all students.  Although with the last election the balance of power between the two groups changed, it still remains, with two factions on the board that have very different views of the world and of what the purpose of the schools is.

On many issues, these two factions seem to be unable to collaborate. This friction serves nobody. I have for some time expected some sort of explosion to occur since the board seems to have an underlying continual simmering, building a pressure that at some point would be relieved unpleasantly.

Last Monday it happened. Board member Jim Swanson and tangentially at the Superintendent. Swanson was clearly out of line, and should not have done this. But it was in many ways just a culmination of a long history of animosity and bad behavior on the part of all of the board members and the Superintendent. I attend a lot of government meetings (mostly virtually these days) and never see the level of personal in-fighting that happens on this board on a regular basis.  I certainly have never seen this in the boards on which I have served.  The last big contentious issue involved an attempt t over an ethics issue that frankly was never clear to me as being a problem, but more of a reaction to an ideological viewpoint. will in the long run probably only exacerbate this tendency, and it has certainly helped to fuel a division in the community if social media postings through the past few days are any indication.

There have been calls for board members to be removed from office, calls for boycotting businesses owned by board members, and several so rude that I won't even try to paraphrase. In the long run, picking sides and duking these things out may feel satisfying but it does not solve the underlying issue, which is the continual unprofessional conduct of the board and the relationship between the board and the superintendent.

I find myself wondering why there was such a swift need for retribution here, calling an emergency board meeting the same week. It is also odd that a censure motion was prepared the night before the board meeting with only input from one board member, the superintendent, and the school district's attorney. The censure seems to me (and many in the community) to be out of line with the original sin, particularly the filing of a complaint with the police department. Many of the board members were clearly unprepared to deal with this motion and objected to it, some vociferously. It is odd that the motion says that the board as a whole requested Swanson's resignation from the board when in fact he was only asked to resign by the board president. In an example of the difficulty this board has negotiating with each other, it was not even possible to remove that from the motion, which would have at least made it factual. 

What should have happened? I think the board needs to consider that what they are dealing with is not a single incident, but a longstanding organic problem with how the board operates, and the relationship between the board and the superintendent. Many boards receive training on conducting meetings, working with interpersonal relationships, and the simple mechanics of making meetings work effectively. Although the board has attempted to address some of this through reading books and discussing them as a body, it is apparent that the issues at play are way beyond self-help. Families that become dysfunctional often seek professional guidance, and I would argue that this board should consider the same.

The incidents of the past week, and particularly the censure meeting on Friday will not solve this problem. The censure is not a cure, nor is it even a band-aid. As the board continues to meet it probably amounts to rubbing salt into a wound that the board shares, and that indirectly the community shares as well.  The school system in Menomonie faces too many serious issues at the moment to be frittering away the board's time with ideological and personality clashes. The fact that I fully expected a 5-4 vote on the censure and predicted how every board member would vote (even before seeing the motion) is indicative of how split the board is and how predictable their reactions are.  The censure was not a fix, it was a symptom of a deeper problem that the board and community must address.  

Follow Wis.Community on:

Wisconsin COVID-19 Statistics

Menomonie, WI
randomness