Losing Its Monopoly There Too
By Alex Saitta
November 6, 2017
When Dr. Merck proposed closing 3 to 4 schools in Nov 2014, and the board majority of Phil Bowers, Judy Edwards, Brian Swords and Herb Cooper voted to close AR Lewis and Holly Springs in early 2016, I realized not only has the school district lost its education monopoly but also its monopoly over school news.
First of all, the administration and board majority made a decision the public opposed 99%. They knew the public opposed the closures and they did it anyway. If they didn’t totally and completely ignore the people, they would not have gotten all the negative press and public feedback.
Second, the chairman at the time Judy Edwards (who spoke for the board) superintendent Dr. Merck (who speaks for the district) did very little direct communication with the public in clarifying what was going on and why it was going on. Bowers commented on Facebook, but for the most part put-down those he was conversing with. There was a vaccum and that caused tons speculation because people were nervous about would happen next.
The way things used to be is the school district would put out a press release, and it would go in the weekly newspapers. Once in while that would be supplemented with the superintendent writing an op-ed or the chairman going on TV. That would drive the public discussion on the issue. It was a weekly news cycle the school district controlled, and naturally it told half the story and was biased in favor of the district.
Like the district once had a monopoly on education, it had a monopoly on the creation and distribution of school news. Things are changing and the district is losing that education news monopoly too. And just like the leadership is fumbling the loss of its education monopoly. It is also fumbling the loss of the education news monopoly.
For example, a few months ago I had a friend of mine tell me they got called by a department head about what he wrote on his Facebook page, something that department had done. He felt so intimated by the conversation with that school district administrator, he took his post down. This is not going to win the school district support with the public, when support is already in decline as people are looking more to alteratives on how they want to educate their children.
Recently a parnet who said her child was being bullied at school, put a video on youtube of the back and forth conversation she had with the administration at a school and how it “dealt” with a bullying situation.
The knee-jerk supporters of the school and school district poo-pooed the video. Those who have gotten a similar run around from the school district supported the parent. The rest were unsure, questioning it all, and the letter to parents at the school did not inspire public confidence.
Changing News Cycle:
What we have now is a news cycle that starts on Facebook. That is, more news comes out on Facebook, than does the newspapers or the school district itself.
Few if any of the board members ever talk to the press anymore. The superintendent never does. Rarely do the newspapers even report on school district or board issues. The school district has a Facebook page, but it is just a list of awards, announcements and pats on the back. It is not an engagement of the real issues that people are talking about or they want to know more about.
Given this vaccum, for a long stretch the Concerned Citizens of Pickens County Facebook page became the de-facto voice of the school district. Their slash and burn approach to people and issues turned a lot off to the cause of traditional public education and galvanized those aiming to reform it.
Enrollment in the county is growing, but not in the traditional public school system. Home schooling, virtual schooling, private schooling and the demand for charter schools is up.
Since the school district is missing in action on the communication front, a lot of mis-information is put out on Facebook on a regular basis. Much of what the public comments on or reacts to is inaccurate in some way. A mis-informed public weakens our local democracy and this new communications dynamic is eroding support for traditional public education.
Closing Holly Springs and AR Lewis was a decision that significantly racheted down public support for the traditional public schools in our county, not the likes of which were seen since the passage of the Greenville Plan.
There is also an erosion of support within the system. Each year the state department of education surveys teachers on three issues at each school. Are you satisfied with the learning environment, the physical environment and school-home relations?
I have this data from 2008 through 2016. Looking at the survey from January 2016 (the last one published) 88.4% of teachers were satisfied with the learning environment at their school, 91.9% were satisfied with the physical environment, and 87.7% were happy about the school-home relations at their school. That averages to 89.3%.
That average was 93.0% (2015), 93.3% (2014), 91.9% (2013), 93.0 (2012), 91.9% (2011), 91.9% (2010), 91.1% (2009) and 91.6% (2008).
The last reading of 2016 at 89.3% is the lowest since I’ve seen since keeping records. Realize teachers received 3 pay raises in August 2015, or months before they took the survey in early 2016. And the survey was taken two months before the announced closing of AR Lewis and Holly Springs. It will be interesting to see the survey results from January 2017 which should be coming out in a month or so.
The teacher turnover rate of 10.3% for 2016 was highest it has been. Why? District leaders and those in Columbia have forgotten teachers enter the field because they want to teach their children as they see fit and are trained to do. Today teachers are told exactly what to teach, how to teach it, how long to teach it and when to teach it. And administrators are looking over their shoulders, observing and evaluating every bit of the way to make sure each teacher is doing exactly as told. Likewise, the teacher turnover rate for 2017 will be released in a month or so.
The true acid test of confidence in and satisfaction with the current direction of the school district will be when this new charter school opens up next fall (Lakes and Bridges Charter School) and how many students it draws from the school district in our county.