Education Matters: A time for reflection

For Jews, this is the season for reflection, atonement, forgiveness and renewal.

In that spirit, I wish to apologize to anyone I’ve offended through my personal contact or written word.

My passion for education issues sometimes overrides my sense of decorum and respect for others, others who also share a passion for education. When passionate people are convinced they know the “one true way,” nature’s bad side can take over.

I am guilty of often dismissing other opinions and ideas simply because they do not agree with mine. For that I am truly sorry.

My passion sometimes manifests itself into frustration, anger, suspicion and intolerance.

This, coupled with my notorious predilection for impulsiveness (Why do I feel the need to hit Send without more careful consideration of the message’s tone and impact?), is a trait I must learn to tame.

I recognize that most of the people who dedicate their time and energy to the cause of bettering educational opportunities in our community are good souls. They may just see a different path to the end than I do.

I’m going to start my renewal by apologizing to those of you I’ve insulted or hurt, and ask for forgiveness.

In this age of incivility, it’s easy to catch the bug. Insulting behavior is contagious, and enough of it day after day normalizes the nasty way people often relate to one another.

I am as guilty of indulging in this behavior as others. Acknowledging this character flaw is my first step toward addressing it.

Next steps are to care less.

By that I mean to disconnect emotion from knowledge and be less critical of opinions different from mine. It’s not nuclear war if I don’t get my way on, say, later start times. This is not the end of the world.

The point is, as someone once said, it’s OK to disagree; just don’t be disagreeable.

A new low

With that in mind, what happened at the Sept. 14 San Dieguito Union High School District board meeting was a new low, even for SDUHSD board meetings that have become more tumultuous and disorderly over the past year or so.

Speaker after speaker criticized one individual by name, with accusatory finger-pointing and vitriolic fury.

Parent Wendy Gumb, the recipient of this unadulterated anger, sat in the back of the room while audience members clapped, whistled and cheered at the conclusion of every speech that vilified her.

I understand that many people are upset at her for assuming her mission is to tear down the district’s foundations. And this outrages many people.

But Gumb says these are false rumors, and explained her goals.

“My objective is that our public school district demonstrates full disclosure of the transfer of money in and out of our public schools and that taxpayers can clearly follow the money trail all the way down to a program level at the specific sites,” she wrote in an email.

After the lengthy public comment period ended for the High School Foundations Update item in the board packet, SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill spoke about speakers’ endorsements of the district’s foundations, calling them the envy of other school districts.

“One of the reasons I’ve stayed here for 16 years is because of what I’ve seen in this room,” he said, referring presumably to the support for foundations and not the explosive jeering and angry speeches.

Dill admitted that mistakes were made in accepting one donation in particular that didn’t follow board policy properly.

“Did we make an error in not presenting this to the board in 2013? Yes we did,” he said. But he said there was no ill intent.

Commented trustee Joyce Dalessandro, “There may have been some mistakes made, but were they so egregious?”

Foundations are good, transparency is good, and mistakes were made. Lord knows, I’ve made plenty of my own.

But the district seems on track to fix those mistakes and enact policies that ensure proper handling of donations and greater transparency in the future. This is good.

What was truly egregious were the unremitting personal attacks directed at Gumb. No private citizen deserves that kind of public treatment.

Good intentions

By the same token, the attacks on the motives of the anonymous donor (who’s not really so anonymous any more) were also unacceptable.

Having spoken with him at length, I understand that his intentions were good.

Yes, there were problems at the district level with the foundation’s agreement with the donor, and policies were perhaps not followed appropriately. But this was not his fault.

The district seems poised to fix these problems and develop tighter guidelines in the future that more clearly define the roles of the schools, the foundations and the district – and clarify how the three should interact.

Perhaps there needs to be a threshold level for significant donations to the foundations that requires prior school board approval.

Perhaps foundation donations should be listed each month under the “Gifts/Donations” board agenda item.

Perhaps a more clearly understandable explanation should be provided of how and when foundations can rent or offer at no charge district facilities to outside parties.

Whatever policies will be enacted, the district and board appear ready to address past mishaps so they don’t happen again.

What’s even more important, though, is that we conduct ourselves, myself included, in a more civilized, dignified way.

Board presidents might consider exercising their right to pound the gavel to stop the jeering and quiet an unruly crowd. A second warning should clear the room.

Citizens should, of course, be allowed to speak, but public comment, and audience reaction to it, should be respectful.

We must remember, as the saying goes, that the children are watching. In this case, unfortunately, they literally were.

Maintaining civility and good behavior at board meetings in an era of incivility is a worthy goal. Maybe in our small microcosm of what’s becoming a toxic world, we can make small changes that begin to set things right again.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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