Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cussing the Dog

If Richard Sherman were a dog, he would be my parent's Border Collie, Clancy.  Smart, athletic, and possessing a superior understanding of the game, Clancy and Richard are unique and fun to watch.  My parents bought Clancy when they made an ill-fated foray into the sheep and goat business. For those who have not been around sheep and goats, those pictures of docile creatures and little shepherd boys in illustrated kids' Bibles are a serious misrepresentation. Truth be told, after David spent his formative years dealing with mean-spirited billies, the whole Goliath fight really isn’t as uneven a match as some have portrayed it. 

So enter Clancy. My folks needed help with the sheep and goats and a well-trained dog was just the ticket.  Clancy was raised on the farm and then went away to herding college when she reached the appropriate age.  She came home a steely-eyed missile man.  Mom learned the commands and signals and it was a treat to watch.  Just like watching Richard Sherman go one on one with Duane Bowe, those sheep and goats never had a chance.  Clancy could separate them out, round them up, and generally put them wherever mom’s hand signals and commands told her. 

Not long after Clancy and the goats arrived at the farm south of Bunker Hill, Dad had a severe heart attack. He was in the hospital for an extended time, so my brother and I were enlisted to help out with the chores.  This probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  One of our assignments (even in his internment in the hospital, Max was able to relay written instructions to his two greenhorn hands) was to load up some goats to haul to the sale.  The task of getting about twenty ill-tempered mindless goats into a trailer was left to me, my brother, and Clancy. 

The truck and trailer were readied and we began to herd the goats.  Clancy was watching our incompetent work with some disdain until a goat broke loose from the herd.  In our excitement, either my brother or I yelled and pointed at the errant beast. What we did not realize is that we had apparently given the signal for “Clancy, kill the goat.”  Like a rocket-propelled missile, Clancy launched herself at the goat and attacked.  Before we could yell $#@+!, Clancy had the goat by the neck and on the ground.  Growling, barking, baaing, cussing, and blood was everywhere. Neither of us knew the signal for resuscitate the goat so we did our best and finally separated the unevenly matched fighters.  Animal rights activists need to know that we also learned that a goat's ear has a lot of blood vessels and the blood was from a small wound.  No goats were killed or seriously injured in this debacle, but many lessons were learned.

The moral of this story is that what we had was a severe case of failure to communicate.  Clancy, my brother, and I had no ill intentions for the goat and we were all just trying to do our job.  If we had taken the time to learn a few hand signals, the whole incident (which until this telling has been kept secret from the gentleman farmer who owned the goats) could have been avoided.

The moral can be applied to so many aspects of our lives and business, but my purpose here is to make a point about what is happening in Kansas politics this Spring. Whether you identify with Clancy or her handlers, we have some kids to care for and we are not communicating.  We have a severe financial crisis to deal with and are not having a genuine meaningful conversation about it because neither side has taken the time to learn the other's language.  Cash reserves: schools have big stashes of money because they don’t care about kids; or, cash reserves are a way to deal with rainy-day situations like we are in right now?  Increasing teacher salaries are proof that we have plenty of money, or the result of short-term fixes that cannot be sustained and necessary because of increasing demand for trained workers? Schools have more money than they have ever had before, or schools have less real operating funds than ever before?

Educational leaders know how to have hard conversations.  We start with seeking first to understand, and then to be understood.  Have we taken the time to listen and learn or have we become so caught up in the task of loading the goats that we are just cussing the dog?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Should Service Members Be Allowed to Serve? SB 171

How many of you remember learning about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in American History class? The subject caught my attention only because I recall my grandmother (a well-known embellisher but great story-teller) describing an incident involving the local sheriff, some WPA trees, and a relative. For the sake of family reputation I will not go into any details.

The WPA is important today only because the origin of the Hatch Act lies with some indiscretions committed with WPA employees. Rest assured these kinds of high-level shenanigans were above any of my relatives’ abilities or interests. Furthermore, they were alleged to have been committed by Democrats and, as the blog title infers, I come from a long line of Republicans.

Clear back in 1938 some politicians used the WPA jobs as patronage in exchange for votes. Hard to believe, I know, that politicians would do such a thing. As a result, Congress passed the Hatch Act. The Act has been tinkered with over the past 80 years or so, but remains true to its essence in that it forbids employees of the federal executive branch from engaging in partisan political activity. Similar rules also apply to members of the military.

Why do we care about 80-year-old legislation here in Kansas now? For the second year in a row, legislation (SB 171) has been introduced to make school and city elections partisan. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea, but the biggest one is that it eliminates a large group of citizens from serving their local communities: members of the U.S. Military and Federal Employees. Currently, members of the military and other federal government employees can serve on local school boards and city commissions because these elections are non-partisan.

According to the State Smart Website, there are 61,773 federal employees in Kansas. Over half of these jobs, about 36,000 are military personnel. Under the suggested legislation (SB 171) none of these Kansas citizens could run for local partisan elections. But the Hatch Act is more expansive than just direct employees. Any person whose salary is paid for in whole or in part by federal funds is subject to the prohibition on partisan activities. Cases have been brought against persons running for office for such tangential relationships as receiving federal funds to purchase bulletproof vests for local sheriff officers. If local elections are made partisan, it is impossible to predict just how many Kansans would be eliminated from candidacy for local office because of these broad interpretations of the law.

It is also impossible to say how many people who have already been elected by local voters would no longer be able to serve based upon the provisions of the Hatch Act. The Topeka Capital Journal recently ran one veterans story.

In my opinion, one military service member being removed from his local school board just because he serves his country is too many.

Some of our legislators disagree. Some of you will remember the 70s when the voting age was changed from 21 to 18 because young men who were serving in Viet Nam were old enough to serve, but not old enough to vote. Is SB 171 a strange contradiction to that 1970s change that seems to imply good enough to serve, but not good enough to serve?

I hope you, and your communities will take the time to let your local legislator know how you feel about SB 171.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Don't Mess with Kansas... ELECTIONS!

“A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that nationwide, 64 percent of respondents wanted more local government influence on schools, while only 24 percent said there should be less.”

For a student at the University of Kansas, being from Hutchinson was considered being from “western Kansas,” or as we referred to it “God’s country.” I got closer to learning the truth about the westermost meridians when I taught government and history at Bazine Jr.-Sr. High School. But it wasn’t until I moved to Leoti as superintendent that I really knew how far west Kansas goes. At the time, Leoti had the westernmost Kansas stoplight on Highway 96.

Teaching government and history, I thought I knew something about politics, but Leoti taught me the real meaning of Tip O’Neil’s famous statement that “all politics is local.” Being superintendent one sees the pride of community and begins to really understand the Kansas value of local control. I remember our Representative (a Democrat) and Senator (a Republican) talking to me about solving problems at the lowest level. It made sense then, and it continues to stick with me. State interference isn’t needed in local matters. Local control is a Kansas value.

Kansas has a history of rugged individualism. We stepped up and fought against slavery. We formed communities to help us be more efficacious in tough times. Those communities drew strength from hard-times in the depression, the dust bowl, WWII, and the divisive 60s. Every community did this in their own way. Every community set their own standards and solved problems in a unique manner. The state helps with resources, but making decision has always been best when done at the local level.

Our system of local governance is being challenged now by some members of the state legislature. Through SB 171 we see a move to change election times, methods, and structure. Some legislators want to add party politics to the local mix, move election dates, and change representative voting plans. State politicians want to meddle in local government.

Local officials consistently trump state and federal representatives when it comes to the trust and confidence of the general population. Surveys consistently say that the electorate supports their local officials, including those they send to Topeka and Washington, far more than the state's as a whole. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that nationwide, 64 percent of respondents wanted more local government influence on schools, while only 24 percent said there should be less. An Ohio study done by the Fallon Research found that 65 percent of respondents said they had the most trust and confidence in their local school board, by far outpacing their governor, legislature, and state school superintendent combined.

Local control is a Kansas value. Unwarranted interference from the state level will create less focus on local issues and more on party positions and litmus tests. Take a minute and contact your legislator to tell them how you feel about state-imposed changes on your local governance structure.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Field Kindley's Own... Randy Watson

Coffeyville and Independence are bitter rivals.  I spent junior high and one year of high school learning that above all other goals came beating the Field Kindley 'Nado.  If I had any eye-hand coordination, height, or skills maybe I would have tried out for basketball and known some members of the 'Nado team. (Instead of wearing a singlet and studying the lights in every gym in the SEK.) Then I might have recognized the kid from Coffeyville who was at all the Church Camps we went to, the C-ville guy who was always trying to date girls from Independence, as future Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson. 

From high school, Watson took his basketball skills to KSU, was rejected in his first practice by Rolando Blackmon, and decided to focus on the books.  I went to school down the road to the east, and focused on, well, college life.  Randy and I didn't cross paths again until later in our education careers, and it wasn't until we became Facebook friends that we realized we were bitter rivals for the same dates to high school dances.

A few years ago, when I was superintendent at Emporia, our community set forth on a strategic planning process for our schools.  Sometimes you get just the right group of people, a great facilitator, and the process really clicks.  That was the case in the Emporia process.  We were only flummoxed once, when we discussed the subject of how to measure success.  There was a strong feeling among the group that test scores were not the answer, but we knew that NCLB was requiring improved test scores.  We discussed simply telling the Feds we didn't care about their assessments, but in the end, we complied and our goals became about test scores.  A more visionary leader would have looked for a better answer.

A few years later, a more visionary leader asked the community of McPherson what they wanted for their kids after graduating from high school.  As you might imagine, no one said high test scores.  They said college, career, and citizenship are what are important.  Educators know the rest of the story.  The only NCLB waiver granted to a school district in the country and a system focused on the outcome of adult success instead of test scores.

Recently, I was at a meeting where we were discussing what we want for our kids, and Senator Steve Abrams said that test scores are not outcomes.  For twenty years I have thought of test scores as the outcome, so I immediately went on the defensive.  Of course test scores are outcomes... but are they? Randy Watson explained it to me- test scores are inputs.  They are just one piece that contribute to the outcome of a student who is college, career, and citizenship ready.  

Who knew that a Coffeyville 'Nado would have the courage, determination, and vision to show this old Bulldog a new trick? It is time to rethink outcomes in Kansas, and focus on what it takes to make a successful adult, not just test scores. Randy is touring the state the next few weeks, asking people to help build a vision for Kansas education by defining what we want in a successful adult.  I look forward to working with all Kansans to build that new system and I encourage you to do your part.  

Attend one of the meetings. Let Dr. Watson know what you think.