Communication Not Politics
By Alex Saitta
August 4, 2017
This was long a complaint of mine when I was on the school board. The school districtís communciation department too often fails to communicate with the public, but rather acts as PR department and a political arm of the district administration.
This is the way the process should work.
The district administration is charged with identifying the needs and wants of the school district in order to educate 16,500 students. To this end, the administration investigates the needs/ wants of the system, as well as potential funding sources, and then puts their recommendation forward in a plan with reasoning that is presented to the board and the public. At that point, the trustees ask about the administration questions, discuss and debate the plan, and possibly amend the plan and takes a vote or series of votes on the plan.
The 2015-16 capital needs plan provided a good illustration of how the process should work and how it should not work.
The administration first identified a need for an annual capital budget for roof and HVAC replacements, parking lot repaving and painting schedules. Dr. Merck and his team investigated the capital needs/ wants, formulated a plan for 2015-16 that listed $5.8 million in facilities and equipments needs and included refinancing the bonds for $3.2 million savings and $2.6 million in a property tax increase (4.8 mills).
This plan was presented to the board and the public. Questions were asked by the board and answered by the administration and the communication department talked to the press about the administrationís plan/ recommendation. All that is the job of the administration and the communications department. Well done up to that point.
The board took the plan and first reading took place. At this point, as always and by design, the process becomes political in nature, meaning, there are advocates in the community who step forward and work to persuade the public to pressure board members to vote either for the plan or against the plan or to amend the plan. For instance there were liberal organizations like the Concerned Citizens of Pickens County (Robin Nelson Miller) and Manufacturers Caring About Pickens County (Tom OíHanlan) who advocated to the public and board members to pass the plan as presented with its tax increase.
There were conservative organizations like the Pickens County Taxpayers Association (Weldon Clark) and Conservatives of the Upstate (Junius Smith) who advocated to board members and the public for not increasing property taxes, but instead seeking more efficient use of existing resources. This is how democracy is supposed to work. Good and fine on that part too.
Where It Went Wrong:
Once the board starts the voting, kicked off by the first reading, the administraton should not jump into this political process, trying to persuade the public one way or the other with the hope of them pressuring the board members to vote for the plan.
John Eby, the communications director, led the administration in its wayward political effort on TV and in the print media said taxes had to be raised or schools would be closed or teaching positions eliminated. He said things like that throughout the time the board had the plan.
The last two times I talked to the communications director, he was trying to persuade me to vote for the plan. I thought to myself, this is not your role. Honestly, I didnít say much, but just walked away from him. It was the last time I really talked to him by the way. To me, it was clear he was less of a communications director and more like a lobbyist/ and paid political activist for the school district.
The next year the district closed schools, and raised tax rates and teaching positions were eliminated. So the idea that raising taxes would keep the schools open was a bogus sales pitch.
When the administration was formulating their plan, the board members werenít in the district office meetings urging them to include this, or to recommend the needs be financed this way or that way. The administration was allowed to formulate their plan without board influence or comment. It was their recommendation.
Once the administration handed off the plan to the board for its evaluation and debate, the administration should have done the same. It didnít (never did) and that was disappointing.
Instead of politicing while the board is debating and voting on the issue, the administration should have been there to answer questions about their plan, and needs/ wants and say we presented our plan, our reasoning and strongly recommend the board approve it as presented. It is now up to the board to either vote for the plan as is, modify it it or vote it down and come up with something else.
Those on the board who supported the plan as is like Brian Swords, Judy Edwards and Herb Cooper should have been politicing -- advocating, persuading, promoting -- the plan through the debate and voting process, not the administration.
Once John Eby and the administration injected themselves into the political forum and advocated to the public, working to pressure the board, they opened themselves up for criticism like every one does in the political process.
I was critical of the adminstration for using the communications department as a political arm. Why? Well it is true. Plus the administration made the decision to cross into the political forum, so their comments and actions were open to scrutiny by me or anyone else.
When I say my issue is with the system, and not with the employees, this is a good example of what I mean. Administrations throughout the state and our district off and on foolishly injects itself in the political debate. This leaves a bad taste in the publicís mouth and one reason why the traditional public school system is finding it harder to maintain the status quo in education.
Looking at the terrain, youíll now see the legislature wants to change the system. The governor wants to change the system. There are more outside groups than ever who are advocating system reform. Gosh, even on Facebook there is more public desire to change the system and take control away from the administrators who had it for decades.
One of these days Iím going to write a paper entitled, ďPublic School Systems: How they threw away their monopolyĒ. This will be one the sections.