Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Civics Lesson for a Local Official

One of our local Board of Education (BOE) members – who embroiled herself last week in the hotly contested and, ultimately reversed, firing of our school district’s superintendent – is seemingly in need of a civics lesson.

Let’s begin with the fancy footwork that started the whole hullabaloo. Five members of the BOE voted to enforce the Unilateral Termination clause of the superintendent’s contract. The clause itself, also known as a Termination for Convenience clause, allows for the termination of a contract without reason, even if the contractor is performing his or her duties splendidly. There is no need for a causal infraction, default, or violation to justify the termination. The employer, in this case the majority of the BOE, needed only to vote in favor of termination. In that sense, the “Gang of Five” likely held to the letter of the law, making moot the argument over whether they had the right to fire the superintendent.

Just because you have the right to do something, however, does not mean it is the right thing to do. For example, I am fully within my rights to work in my yard without wearing a shirt. I choose not to because it might be an affront to my neighbors and emotionally scar their young children.

In this case, business leaders, teachers, parents and local elected officials admired and applauded the superintendent for the changes he was attempting to make. He was more visible than any superintendent preceding him and was working within the community to develop educational partnerships and bolster teacher morale. It seems to me when you have a leader whose only apparent popularity issue is with the bloated middle management between him and his line-level employees, it might be an indication he’s doing something right.

I do not know the reason why the Gang of Five wanted to get rid of the superintendent, and I don’t care, either. I’m also not particularly sold on the idea of a recall election. I have to put more thought to that one. Laura Lang, the lone holdout on the BOE who voted to fire the superintendent has been, for now, rendered harmless in her minority standing. A coup to oust her from the board might make her a sympathetic figure. Allowing her to limp ineffectually along to her regularly scheduled re-election could prove the wiser tactic.

That Laura Lang believes her actions justified, I do not doubt. It might even be that she truly believes what she did was in the best interests of Moore County students. Only she can know for certain. In the aftermath of the resignation of the other four BOE members and the rehiring of the superintendent, Ms. Lang made only one comment that struck me as requiring a response:

“Cruel and absolutely harsh things that have been said about all of us has just been so unlike the citizens of Moore County. It’s shameful.”

I’m sure some people went too far when calling or emailing the BOE members to vent their outrage. Anyone guilty of a criminal act should be held accountable for their words and actions.

Many people, however, merely suggested the five BOE members might have colluded to oust the superintendent in order to free the position for a political ally. Others might have used such words as misguided, arrogant, rude, disconnected, and stubborn when talking about Ms. Lang specifically. I might even have suggested the possibility the Gang of Five was helping to foster a bullying, abusive work environment for our teachers. But, none of that is cruel or harsh. In her attempt to portray herself and her fellow BOE members as victims, she is labeling the entirety of the uprising against her shameful and, therefore, attempting to negate our right to vocally and vehemently condemn her actions. Not only do we have the right to stand up for what we believe, we have an obligation to do it. For the most part, the commentary and conjecture has been timid in comparison to the kinds of tactics available to our forefathers.

It was only a generation or two ago that hanging someone in effigy was acceptable in the United States. Instead of posting our comments on Facebook or filing calmly into a crowded high school auditorium, we might have formed an angry mob to parade around the school with a flaming representation of you dangling from a long stick, all the while chanting wildly inappropriate lynching songs. If we tried that these days, we’d be charged with attempted arson, reckless endangerment, communicating threats, and possession of a weapon with intent to do harm before we lit the first match.

And how about our Founding Fathers? If you think people have been uncivil this past week, consider Thomas Jefferson and John Adams when they set the stage for character assassination during the Presidential election of 1800. Jefferson’s campaign labeled Adams a war-mongering, tyrannical hypocrite. Adams’ campaign labeled Jefferson an atheistic, cowardly weakling. Adam’s people said Jefferson was the son of a Native American squaw mother and a multi-racial father. Jefferson’s people called Adams a hermaphrodite. A hermaphrodite! I’d much rather be called arrogant or misguided than a hermaphrodite.

The schools of Moore County have flirted with greatness over the years, often falling short for one reason or another (can you say inadequate local tax funding? Under-funded capital projects? Inconsistent policies and programs? Poor community relations? Putting sports before academics? Bueller?). This time around the thing standing in the way was our own elected leaders.

Take heart, Ms. Lang. You aren’t the first public official to be vilified, and you won’t be the last. If you truly believe you’ve done the right thing, rather than hiding behind words such as “if you knew what I knew” when people condemn your decisions, grow a thicker skin and borrow from that master of public insults, Benjamin Franklin: “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain… and most fools do.”

Just bear in mind that statement might also apply to you.

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