Monday, March 24, 2014

Democracy in America, Kansas style

In his admiring 1830s study, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The selectmen are elected every year, in the month of March or April. The town meeting chooses at the same time a multitude of other town officers who are entrusted with important administrative functions.” Tocqueville called municipal institutions “the strength of free nations.”

Admittedly, as a student I found his writings dry and not particularly interesting.  As a government teacher, I did not spend much time acquainting my students with his book.  My bad.  Of course, I am the same guy who is still mocked by his wife for, after sitting through 3 hours of watching Maximus and Wolverine sing to Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend in the “movie” Les Miserables, said, “Holy Cow, all they did was sing.”  I enjoy French toast, but the rest of French culture is lost on me, apparently.

So here is the plot summary from Democracy in America, (you can sing it if you want). At a time when the French were recovering from rolling heads down the streets and trying to figure out a way to make democracy work, Tocqueville came to America to see what made it work so well over here.

What he learned is that democracy closest to the people is the most effective.  He said, “town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”  The current Kansas Republican party took a page from his book with their platform plank, “We believe that the most effective, responsible and responsive government is the one closest to the people.”

American municipal government is still the most effective, responsible and responsive government in the world. So why do some members of the legislature want to encroach on local decision-making by moving elections, injecting party politics, and further disrupting the process?

The Chair and Vice Chair of the House Elections Committee have been adamant that their only goal is to increase voter turnout.  This is a worthy goal and one that deserves consideration.  This is something that KASB believes deserve further study.  We need to look at county and school district voting records, consider what other states do or have done, and look at evidence related to other possible means for increasing turnout such as Saturday voting and expanded voter registration efforts.

Other committee members, members of the house and senate, and party leaders have offered different goals.  The only proponent of these bills clearly stated the goal is to: 1. Move elections to the fall of even numbered years; 2. Make all local government  (including school boards) partisan; and, 3. To give precinct leaders the power to replace vacancies on boards and commissions.

These goals are a clear effort to inject state and national level partisanship into what Tocqueville called “the strength of free nations.” He warned about “transient passions and the interests of the hour” interfering with local government and moving toward us toward a “despotic tendency.”   In a more modern vernacular, he meant the state and national interests will try to interfere with local governance, and he was right.

Clearly, local school boards are one of our purest forms of government.  School board members labor for no pay.  They have no financial interest.  They meet at least once a month and face their constituents, their friends and neighbors, on their home ground.  They make tough decisions which sometimes cost them friends and business, and all the while trying to do what is best for students in the most efficient manner possible.

Interfering with this system of governance should not be done without great thought, analysis, and planning.  It should not be done for partisan reasons, but only if it can be proven to improve a system that has been working since the early 1800s.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

March Madness on/in the Kansas Courts!

March in Kansas can only mean one thing, basketball!  Through the generosity of friends, I was able to attend the final game for this year’s seniors at Allen Field House.  Senior night is always a great night, and I would never complain about being at a game in the Phog, no matter how close we were to the rafters! 

Speaking of rafters, it is just not basketball if the fans do not have a lot of advice for the referees, no matter where they are sitting.  There is always that guy who can see every call better than the referee even from 200 feet away.  They always make me chuckle at their absurdity, but referee heckling guy is always so adamant, even when the call is an out of bounds call at the other end of the court.

Speaking of courts, in our system of government, the courts fill a similar role to that of referees.  The job of the courts is to make judgments about whether rules are being followed, just like a basketball referee.  Certainly referees have to be quicker with their calls, but the basics are the same.

Like referees, the courts come under fire both by the teams and coaches (legislative and executive branches) and the fans (us regular folks).  Like referees, they cannot let teams, coaches or fans influence their decisions.  Neither can they show emotion or signs of not being completely objective, no matter what advice or expletives are hurled from the cheap seats or expensive chairs.

Leading up to the release of the Gannon case, there was a lot of court heckling.  The court has no business telling us what to do is the judicial equivalent of the coach or fan who says “let ‘em play” when the calls are going against her team.  Of course the call of “foul” or “get ‘em off” is just as loud when the calls are going against my team.  Just like when we want the court to uphold our constitutional rights.

Who can forget the famous incident when Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs got on the microphone at the request of the referees in an attempt to calm the crowd and keep the OU fans from making it rain pennies on the court?  “No matter how bad the officiating is, please do not throw things on the court!” he said over the public address system to the delight of the crowd.  Enough time has passed that even a Jayhawk fan can laugh and appreciate that great line.  Maybe someday Kansans will laugh and appreciate a legislator saying they will “give the courts the finger.”

The referees and judges job is not to hear any of this, and to do their jobs.  Our role as believers in the separation of powers is to adhere to the decision and work within the confines of the law and constitution.  Its that, or take our ball and go home.  Yes, we all knew that kid growing up, and we know that he ended up with no friends and no one to play with.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ― Gandolf, The Fellowship of the Ring

We called him Gorgeous George, but not to his face.  We may have been idiots, but not complete idiots.  It was a moniker born of adolescent respect (and his penchant for pale blue leisure suits) with no malicious intent.  That respect was based upon the singular characteristic of the man that was obvious to anyone who met him, one that was especially clear to teenagers who can root out a fake like a hog can a truffle.  George Madelen looked for, and found, the good in everyone.  

Mr. Madelen was principal at Hutchinson High School during the 1970’s. From 1974-1976 he had in his charge a supercilious gang of knuckleheads set on pushing every button and crossing every boundary that a high school could throw at them. Yet he was never angry, always professional, and had such an obvious love of students that even when he doled out punishment it was impossible to be angry with him.  He pushed us, pulled us, and did everything he could to help us find the good in ourselves.

Mr. Madelen died last month at the age of 88.  At the funeral his family told wonderful stories about how he affected their lives.  I wonder if they know how many hundreds of students their father and grandfather also affected in a positive way.  He lived a long life and helped so many people along the way.

Mr. Madelen would have been in his mid to late 40's when I was a sixteen year old Salthawk.  That's about the same age as the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of School Boards when he was taken from us last fall.  Like Mr. Madelen, Jeff Mills was a college athlete who came to education as a teacher and coach.  He was a high school principal, superintendent, and finally executive for OASB.  While he was taken in the prime of his life, he shared so many characteristics with my principal Mr. Madelen. Mainly, he saw the good in people and helped them see it in themselves. 

Jeff was a trusted colleague who cared about students.  He was an example to me of how one tolerates politics as a necessary evil to help students.  Jeff was taken too soon, while Gorgeous George lived a full life.  Something about that doesn't seem fair, but Jeff never complained and wouldn't now if he could.  

There is a lesson here for all of us.  We don't know what tomorrow will bring, so we have to do all the good we can today. Rest in peace gentlemen, you were both a role model for me and hundreds of others.  Educators, live your lives in such a way that someone will write similar words about you someday.