Opinion

December 15, 2017 - Volume 37 Issue 12

Commentary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.” - Anne Louise Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad who influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

Erica Marks

By Greenbrier Almond, M.D.

What a year we are having for the sake of the children of West Virginia!

We have met together in our usual stomping grounds of Charleston, Stonewall Resort and Morgantown to discuss (and cuss at least a shucks or two) about issues important to West Virginia School Board Association members. 

     Sometimes we meet in new haunts and under unusual circumstances.  Dr. Howard M. O’Cull, our fearless leader, even came up to the Allegheny Highlands in a snowstorm just before Christmas – not to partake of our renowned destination for outdoor recreation like hunting, fishing, caving, hiking, biking, and skiing but to help us plan for our next Upshur County schools superintendent.  We asked him to stay until spring but he had work to do in Charleston. His visit was like family coming home.

     Some recollections from our duties as members of local boards of education meeting as the WVSBA that bring a chuckle and a tear include West Virginia Governor Jim Justice dropping into our September meeting at the Charleston Marriott.  He asked for our help with the billion-dollar road bond vote in October. I heard him declare that he loved us and that he needed our support.  That is the way family talks when we need help at harvest time. Well, let the word go forth.  From the land of the “birthplace of rivers,” we delivered the goods. We carried freight. The corn was tall but we got’er done.

   At the November meeting of our West Virginia School Board Association at Stonewall Resort, we heard the hard lesson of Richwood from A. J. Rogers, member of the Nicholas County Board of Education, about our proclivity for floods in the Mountain State. They are grappling with situations that bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.

     In June 2016, West Virginia experienced one of our worse floods, particularly since Brigadoon-like places sustained irrefutable harm. Recall the story of this mysterious Scottish village that appears for only one day every 100 years. My ties to Richwood are like the musical love story. First, my Grandmother Mary Barnes shared her falling-in-love story when she served as a deaconess for the Methodist Church in Richwood during the early part of the 1900s. She had a wonderful sense of mission for the children of the lumbermen harvesting the greatest hardwood forest in the world. Second, my father’s esteem for Jim Comstock, editor of the Hillbilly, a “weakly” newspaper published in Richwood, occupied and entertained us at family suppers. Dad’s telling of stories from the back page humor column, “The Comstock Load,” make up rich memories from my childhood.  “Almost Like Being in Love,” an American standard song from the Broadway play, “Brigadoon” captures my feelings for mythical Richwood.

      Our board of education members listened intently to the telling of the tale of $50 million worth of damage to Nicholas County schools, including 70 percent to 80 percent damage to Richwood High School. We shook our heads in aghast belief and disbelief simultaneously as we heard the plight of the school whose student enrollment had been declining for 10 years from about 1,000 students to 350 students at the time of the flood.

As board of education members, we understood the issues of finding level land outside the flood plain to consider rebuilding. It just isn’t easy to find.  Besides, the issue of consolidation is not easy to consider.

At the end of the presentation, we applauded our fellow board of education member as a way to pat him on the back for doing the best he can to be a local team member of empowered citizens spending one of their most difficult years of their life accumulating five volumes of West Virginia Department of Education-required material following state law and policy to the letter. Yet, they have no resolution, and, in fact, the local board is in arbitration with the West Virginia Department of Education.

 Then there is the sun setting on the Regional Education Service Agencies. When the West Virginia Legislature is in session amazing things happen.  Now our WVSBA is dusting off an old tool almost forgotten in the back of the barn.      

     “Cooperatives” have existed in West Virginia at least since the Great Depression. They have been primarily used in an agricultural context to allow farmers to buy seed or to sell milk or other farm products like strawberries. Our former RESA 7 will revitalize this organizational tool for Barbour, Doddridge, Gilmer, Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Taylor, Tucker and Upshur counties. 

     Our table talk at our WVSBA meeting among board of education members from across the state of West Virginia gave me the nugget of wisdom I need to keep serving the children in the Upshur County Schools.  

     Why did I run for the board of education in the first place? To borrow a thought from Steve Casto, new superintendent of the Lewis County schools: “Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a recovering workaholic!”

     Yes, we have had quite a year in 2017 as the West Virginia School Board Association. Now we pause to catch our breath. However, there is more work to do for the sake of the children. So along with many fine souls from across West Virginia, I am ready to roll up my sleeves and keep on serving in 2018.

Greenbrier David Ralph Almond, M.D., is a member of the Upshur County Board of Education. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Among other professional honors and accomplishments, he is a Diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology..

Erica Marks

By Howard M. O'Cull, Ed.D.

When it comes to the fundamental issues that humanity faces, I think that solutions involve shifting consciousness towards cooperation.” - British actor, filmmaker and founder of Peace One Day Jeremy Francis Gilley (b. 1969).

Problems, solutions

Gilley’s quote is trenchant. Indeed, cooperation often is key in finding “solutions” to societal ills or policy questions, although both cooperation and certainly solutions are words laden with nuance and intricacy – certainly not settled science because solutions are processed through organizational behaviors highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions. Thus, even small policy alterations can give rise to strikingly great – often unintended - consequences.

Moreover, some societal problems are so complex actual “solutions” prove elusive or unattainable or would prove too costly to implement, especially if fairness, equity or balance were goals. Some “solutions” displace established thought, order and are predicated on extreme measures, including threat of violence or oppression, to engender compliance with enunciated ideology.  Marxism–Leninism, Maoism come to mind.   Other approaches to address socio-political problems are equally vexing.  While the Utilitarianism maxim, “the greatest good for the greatest number” proves attractive to some, the calculation ensures someone is left in the cold.

Finally, Jesus proclaimed, “For you always have the poor with you…” (Matthew 21:6).

In a literal sense many problems do not have ready solutions and “solutions,” as previously mentioned, often engender unintended consequences – political, social and economic. 

In a literal sense many problems do not have ready solutions and “solutions,” as previously mentioned, often engender unintended consequences – political, social and economic.

Yet by quantifying, naming or declaring a societal circumstance or issue as a problem – poverty for example – we have a basis by which to determine how to approach the solvable parts of that problem it is hoped in ways that make something bad or unsatisfactory better without resorting to radicalism. (The word ‘radical,’ in fact, means of or going to the root or origin of a problem rather than addressing ‘symptoms’ or the ostensive “root cause” of a problem.)

Cooperation

Cooperation (more importantly collaboration) makes problem-solving easier since cooperation brings dissimilar interests to the table. At least theoretically no one group monopolizes the problem-solving goal, although power-laden elites may have or may operate from a vantage of authority and, while participating in cooperative problem-solving, may be able to highjack end results – or more often mitigate the effects of the solution in order to diminish perceptions of loss of authority.

In the ideal sense each party commits itself, including time, energy and resources, to forge workable solutions to address the problem or “solvable” aspects of the problem.

Cooperation, of course, means give-and-take and the ability for an individual or an organization to reframe questions, especially compared to how others approach the issues, so that answers (solutions) are not found in rewrapping or repackaging tried (or tired) and true prescriptions especially if both the question and the solutions have been elevated to embrace a wider expanse of considerations engendered through group-informed thought and input.

“You believe your own rhetoric.”

As former State Superintendent of schools Dave Stewart once said to me, “You believe your own rhetoric.”

If one takes that statement literally it might be interpreted as saying truth is malleable; that truth is relative; and that truth can easily be adapted to whatever proves of greater utility.

Dr. Stewart, however, meant none of those things. He was saying one’s truth – “rhetoric” or organizational ideology – can be a stumbling-block if one clings to that rhetoric rather than fully and openly exploring questions or issues from the broader vantage cooperative engagement, our focus, allows, especially regarding solutions for vexing societal problems or issues.  

Few public policy problems have finite solutions

County boards and county board members easily discern few problems can be solved finitely, especially those problems that are systemic within communities such as poverty or the Opioid Crisis or economic  inequities or imbalances many of which are historical or cultural in counties.

But, as Dr. Greenbrier Almond states in the “Opinion” piece above, “Yes, we have had quite a year in 2017 as members of the West Virginia School Board Association (WVSBA)… What a year we are having for the sake of the children of West Virginia!”

In his Opinion piece, Dr. Almond expounds on this statement.

“’A destination without a roadmap…’”

I also want to say that 2017 proved to be a year of cooperation, especially in terms of implementing legislation to establish successor entities to Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs). In fact, this approach is one WVSBA will perfect and continue to use.

This regional services aspect of this legislation proved valuable in several ways. As Doug Lambert, Grant County Schools Superintendent, states, ““We were kind of given a destination without a roadmap, but we’re going to get there.” 

As county boards began to wrestle with implementing this legislation county boards soon discovered the state Board of Education was not going to stand in the way of locally-derived ideas for RESA successor agencies.

Through the WVBE’s RESA Ad Hoc Committee, which State Board Vice President Dave Perry chairs, the School Board Association, working with various individuals within the state Department or Board of Education, constructed a collaborative approach to develop guidelines for county board implementation of the portions of House Bill 2711 which encompass regional shared services. 

As WVSBA’s work progressed, county boards, RESAs and other entities enriched those efforts by providing approaches based on their positions.

Comparing notes became a prominent part of this collaborative exercise. Additionally, under State Superintendent Steve Paine’s leadership, state Department of Education staff having expertise to formulate responses to higher level questions such as those involving legal and school finance were provided that leeway. Those responses, relayed to various affected groups, help rewrite or refashion WVSBA’s guidelines for establishing successor entities to RESAs. 

Comparing notes became a prominent part of this collaborative exercise.

On another front practitioners had questions which focusing on “the boots on the ground” issues, namely how to ensure identified implementation approaches would “actually work,” meaning work in such a way that students would not be deprived of services.

As we moved through late summer and into the fall, cooperation proved more fruitful. I believe most gamesmanship was set aside so that implementation could occur in terms of informing creation of Educational Services Cooperatives (ESCs) or cooperative arrangements in order for county boards to secure shared regional services. 

Cooperation or collaboration proves of great value as ways to engage parties to address large policy questions.

Tried and true solutions often lead to dry wells

As the state’s public school student enrollments continue to decline – a persistent trend since the late 1970s – the tried and true solutions, including increased public education spending as the way to address public education woes, lead to a dry well devoid of innovation, creativity, downplaying the responsibilities all parties have to solve or attempt to solve a problem.

Indeed, public education problems are complex due to societal considerations, declining dollars and resources, and the changing culture of our communities. To some degree – dependent on the issues - cooperation can flatten the fiat of hierarchical state educational structures, redirecting the influence of public education hierarchies, groups or interests to aid in solving woes or problems. The key is whether these entities are willing to see the problem – more acutely solution of the problem – as demanding participation in cooperative or collaborative exercises.

Of course the genuine fear state-level hierarchies have is that cooperation will erode largess of authority if the entities approach full engagement, meaning the fear cooperation and collaboration will result in yielding too much yardage thus weakening or eroding authority.   

True county leaders see potential not limitations

House Bill 2711 is far more than a prescription to develop post-RESA regional services structures for county boards.

To see the governor’s bill in a limiting way is to miss the bigger point, namely the bill’s fostering cooperation and collaboration.

To see the governor’s bill in a limiting way is to miss the bigger point, namely the bill’s fostering cooperation and collaboration.  Indeed, 2711’s regional services components provide a step toward creating a 21st Century West Virginia public education system that is geographically seamless not dependent upon county boundaries; a system operating on basis of concentrated, focused strategies and goals for schooling as informed by county educational leaders; and a de-emphasis on state-level dictates and edicts. Thus, the emphasis can become one based on both heightened county board flexibility and accountability for results – results that meet or exceed state educational aims and objectives and which can only be secured through cooperation and collaboration.

Of course, the governor’s bill does not make any of these pronouncements overtly. Leaders, however, do not wait on pronouncements while compliance managers do. Leaders seizes potential, meaning county leadership - county superintendents I am talking about you first and foremost - is vital. Managers implement legislation but don’t leverage or elevate legislation as a springboard to any higher plane. As Chief Executive Officers of county boards, again these comments are directed to county superintendents.

County education officials, including county board members, must use this legislation, abandoning tired, slothful attitudes toward change and innovation and a constant plea for more state School Aid Formula money, to illustrate locals can be entrusted to create the public education system West Virginia needs. It is more attitudinal than implementing a legislative decree.

Indeed, mountains can be moved in terms of our public educational system progress if counties have the ability to rely on their own ingenuity rather than waiting to implement the next spate of state decrees. With the Nicholas County court case as a glaring exception it appears the state Board of Education is beginning to acknowledge this approach. There are those who will disagree of course. Educational policy has its bogeymen. That is a given. The greatest problem public education faces is lack of incentive for innovation, creativity and reward for new approaches to problem-solving.

Don’t simply ply extra dollars to county boards 

In this sense the solution may be simple: Don’t give county boards extra funds until county boards prove they can both identify and implement efficiencies without compromising educational progress. That means state-level leaders set the broad vision and goals and county officials illustrate how they can meet those goals, including demonstrated efficiencies, cooperation with other county boards, and the dumping of excuses as to why this can’t be accomplished.

“Primacy”

In exchange county boards meeting broad state-settled objectives for a three-year period would move to “primacy,” meaning greater local decision-making discretion and flexibility. After a five-year period “primacy” would be provided to the county board.

The heavy lifting, however, must occur at the legislative and state Board level, providing county boards leeway from onerous statutes, policies rules and regulations.

The heavy lifting, however, must occur at the legislative and state Board level, providing county boards leeway from onerous statutes, policies rules and regulations that augment the status quo; that are inefficient and that are ill-positioned for a state facing persistent declines in student enrollment and vagaries of an Opioid Crisis and a people who, in many ways, have given up hope falling for the familiar liturgical chant typifying West Virginia’s religious-political fatalism, “there is nothing we can really do…”

I see meaningful change of tone at the state level and believe it will continue as our economy grows. But we cannot be lulled by happy talk – yes West Virginia’s graduation rate may be the highest in the nation. Cynics could say the number of people moved by that pronouncement probably would fit in a telephone booth. That statement is too harsh, however. Inquiring souls will embrace questions such as this: How many of our high school graduates actually earn a higher education degree – that is, “after” many of these students must first enroll in remedial higher learning courses?  Again, inquiring minds are not afraid to ask hard, tough questions not for the sake of asking those questions or to assuage their inquisitiveness. Rather questions formulate policy considerations.

Addressing problems while retaining organizational values

If the “problem” is large and important enough the “solution” often results in displacing an educational interest group’s static approach. The best hope is education interest groups, imbued with purpose, ensure their long-held values and goals retain merit and worth all the while the interest group becomes more elastic to meet new demands, new challenges without abandoning deeply-held values.

That is the greatest value of cooperation and collaboration – organizations willingly place themselves outside the conventional, the expected and the time-worn. Worth and value as an organization deepens through “learning” – learning which is enhanced through cooperation and collaboration.

Dave Stewart is right: If an organization cherishes its rhetoric in order to shield itself from making meaningful  contributions in times of change or flux,  the organization literally abdicates only to cling to  happy talk pronouncements and the conviction the organization’s rhetoric will provide insularity, protection and security.

 

In my experience, with few exceptions, it doesn’t work that way.  

- O’Cull is West Virginia School Board Association Executive Director.