Is the Muscogee County School Board starting to find itself?

dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 18, 2013 

Well, it's about time.

Ten months after Susan Andrews announced her retirement, the Muscogee County School Board has made some real progress.

No, it hasn't named a new superintendent. In fact, it just fired its executive search firm and is looking for a whole new slate of candidates.

That's discouraging, for sure.

But the board appears to have finally found one thing: Self-awareness.

The noted psychologist Carl Rogers once wrote, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."

People who aren't able to recognize their weaknesses -- or at least be open to the fact that they could even have a weakness in the first place -- often become defiant in the face of criticism and miss a real opportunity for growth.

The same is true of organizations. The school board has been a great example of this, especially since May 21.

As you may remember, that was the Monday night when six already-vetted nominees for principal gathered with their families to hear the board's vote, which in previous years had been a formality and a cause for celebration.

Except that on this night five out of nine board members voted no to every nomination as well as two other positions in the system. When she figured out what was happening, board chairwoman Cathy Williams began to utter the word "Shameful!" -- or something to that effect -- after each vote.

Mike Johnson, the retiring principal of Richards Middle School and a 30-year veteran of the district, stood up and yelled, "You are all a bunch of cowards!"

None of the five nay-voting members would answer questions about their decision, though Beth Harris read a statement from a note pad: "I did not vote against those people, personally. We ceremonially delayed the appointments, and action will be taken at a future meeting."

Since then, for some strange reason, many people have used the words "petty" and "divisive" to describe the school board. When McPherson & Jacobson LLC, the recently fired executive search firm, asked community members to describe the challenges facing a new superintendent, one of the top responses was about dealing with a petty and divisive school board.

When asked to list characteristics of the ideal superintendent, community members included the ability to deal with a petty and divisive school board.

In early fall, I wrote several columns about the community response to the survey. One board member emailed me to say that I should stop calling the board petty and divisive. I replied that I was just summarizing the opinion of citizens and that I had neither agreed nor disagreed with it.

This member told me that if I didn’t like the school district, I could just send my children to another one.

Earlier this week, the board went into closed session and emerged to vote on firing the search firm and choosing a new one.

They denied having discussed this issue during the closed meeting, which seems remarkable because this group of folks can't agree on anything even when they do discuss it beforehand.

But when asked about the vote, Williams did not go on the defensive. "I can see how that looks fishy," she said.

A couple of days later, Williams announced she was stepping down as board chairwoman. She said she didn't have the votes, and she figured she'd be more effective anyway if she didn't have to run the meetings.

"I had to say exactly what the board wanted me to say or what the consensus wanted me to say," she said of the chair position. "It wasn't my voice. I had to temper myself, and I don't think that's necessarily good for that very special position as the at-large member."

The members who pushed her out had better be careful what they wish for.

Meanwhile, Rob Varner, Williams' likely successor, acknowledged that the board has a serious public perception problem.

"I don't think this is a Cathy thing," he told reporter Mark Rice on Thursday, "but for whatever reason over the last few years, we've been reluctant or scared to be forthcoming with things that are no reason to be scared about. All we do is harm ourselves when we do that, because it makes you think we're hiding something.

"If I'm elected Tuesday night, my job will be to repair that damage. We've got to put the gas pedal on hiring a superintendent, but, secondarily to that, we've got to have the public understand we aren't as incompetent as we may appear to be, and much of that may be self-inflicted."

Notice he didn't say the board wasn't incompetent. He said the board wasn't as incompetent as it appears to be.

How's that for self-awareness? At least, it's a mighty fine start.

Sure, whether board members can actually work together and find a new superintendent remains to be seen, but at least they seem to have started accepting themselves for what they are.

Now maybe they can change.

Contact Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, at dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com.

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