Daily Bread for 5.3.23: What about Management of the Whitewater Unified School District? Wasn’t That an Issue in the Last Election?

Good morning.

Wednesday in Whitewater will be mostly sunny with a high of 56. Sunrise is 5:45 AM and sunset 7:58 PM for 14h 12m 53s of daytime. The moon is a waxing gibbous with 94.8% of its visible disk illuminated.

On this day in 1957, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, agrees to move the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

So here we are, at a topic that was hardly discussed during the spring election campaign: was the election a response to the management of the district? Candidly, this shouldn’t be a question: every school board election should be an effectual referendum on the management of the district. 

The board should and must oversee the administrators of this district. To oversee requires a distance, detachment, and diligence in one’s observations and judgments. (Only one candidate, to my knowledge, spoke about the current superintendent by name at a March candidate forum. The others, including the three who were elected, never uttered her name. Would it have been so hard to speak the name Caroline Pate-Hefty?)

It is, by the way, the board’s obligation to oversee (literally, to supervise). Candidates who will not speak openly and plainly of officials before an election, but instead only sotto voce among themselves and their allies in the community, have not presented serious matters seriously. Incumbents who have said too little in the public meetings they have for years attended have similarly failed in their obligation to transparent, responsible government. 

Talking to your friends and cronies is not good government. Scheming with a few trolls is not good government. Crafting tactics to see what sticks is not good government. There are no monarchs or aristocrats here, and no secret rituals. We have a Whitewater Unified School District and not a Whitewater United Magic Kingdom.  

Residents, of whom this libertarian blogger is one of 20,444 within the district, owe it to themselves to speak more directly than this board and administration has done. Perhaps, only perhaps, someone in office will catch on and do the same.

A few points — 

Community Challenges. We’ve a district with many challenges, and changes made should have been made plain and changes contemplated must be made plainly. Why is it not clear that 

a town that has experienced multiple injuries over more than a decade has a fragility that must be considered and respected. One responds differently to those who are robust (as the boosters once were) from those who are ill or recovering (as the town now is). One responds differently to those who are seeking improvement from those whose actions and proposals are a detriment to the city. 

That’s why I’ve correctly compared the district to a pyramid of eggs. Changes in a struggling district bring both greater relative gains but pose greater relative risks than in a prosperous community. We’ve less margin for failure here. 

 Leaders.  In the years since FREE WHITEWATER began publication in 2007, Whitewater has had six district administrators, eight university chancellors, three city managers, and four chiefs of police (including interim leaders). Dozens of other officials have come and gone. That’s a high turnover for a small town. Some were obviously unsuited to their roles (especially those from 2007-09), but they were not all inadequate.

This community is a sometimes a contentious place; it’s beautiful — wonderful, truly — but not easy. Deserving of one’s love, of course, yet genuine love requires seeing with clear, dry eyes. 

If we are to have more departures, then government owes a thorough public explanation beforehand, during, and after any changes. 

We should also be honest with ourselves that local government is limited in its power to effect change. See The Limits of Local PoliticsMuch of this community’s needs, serious as they are, require a different approach. See Libertarians, Bleeding-Heart Libertarians, and All that Lies Beyond. Those who think a public school district or a city government will solve all our ailments do not understand our ailments. See What Ails, What Heals. 

Months ago, at this website, I published a post describing Two Postures, Two Results. It was by design about this superintendent and her administration: 

How odd, that some who hold diversity as a value do not recognize diversity and individuality in community roles. 

And so, and so, while a libertarian may choose to write, and a choose to maintain a certain personal distance from events (all the better to see clearly), it does not mean that he or she cannot grasp how speaking, on camera particularly, is more or less effective depending on the atmosphere of the moment. Indeed, it may turn out that some of those libertarians are quite comfortable speaking, but choose against that role. It’s easier to assess an environment when one does not become the center of attention.

A simple truth, however cynical it sounds: the camera or an audience makes a huge difference. A confrontation off-camera is nowhere as meaningful to the public as a confrontation on-camera. It’s not simply that more people might see an on-camera confrontation; it’s that people perceive on-camera confrontations differently.

This brings me to a discussion of speaking in contentious political environments. When the atmosphere is hostile (but obviously not violent), for example, it’s better to lean toward others, to engage. That’s often uncomfortable, but it reaps rewards for presenter.

Consider the following two photographs, and imagine each person as an official speaking to the community before an agitated audience.  

A serious man at his desk: 

He is serious, entrenched behind his desk, waiting to deal with complaints. He’s already accepted he’ll receive a critical reception in which he needs a barrier between himself and others.

In response, one should start in a neutral tone and demeanor, assessing the strength of his responses. If he responds convincingly, then one engages in a dialogue, but there’s no more to be had. If, however, his responses are unconvincing, one can escalate argumentatively (always while controlled and avoiding overreach) knowing that this man offers only unpersuasive replies while locked into a defense physical position that makes him look either aloof or anxious. If he fails in his responses, he’s opened himself up by words and posture to others’ escalation.

Now consider a second photo.

The caption says she’s confident, and that’s an apt description. She’s subtly inviting in expression and boldly confident in posture. Her audience might be critical, but if it is, then she’s meeting them with sangfroid. Perhaps she was behind a desk, but then came forward when she thought that the discussion might become heated.

In response to her posture, one should reasonably begin and stay conversational in speech and relaxed in manner. A combination of neutral, straightforward, or even occasionally teasing and playful remarks might be in order, but no more. Deep sarcasm would be unsuited to the exchange. Her confidence in posture, if matched with confidence in replies (even replies that are unsatisfying to others), assures her something like a draw, at a minimum, in any confrontation. There is no chance, none whatever, that anger or hostility would carry the day with someone as confident as this woman appears.

In another post, I described my outlook:

I’ve no personal like or dislike in any of this. It is with disappointment but candor that one writes that Whitewater, especially the district, has become a place of chronic contention between factions. Of personal contention, there need to be repeated, official attempts at reconciliation in public settings.

An Invitation. The school board should request changes in presentations so that Dr. Pate-Hefty speaks to academic progress in each board meeting, and also has her own time to answer residents’ questions, apart from the ordinary public comment period. Why this has not been done is a puzzle. If there has been a request for a format like this that our superintendent has declined, then the public should be told of it.

There have been unplugged sessions, but this proposal would be in a bigger setting, as part of a school board meeting. 

It does no good for residents to yell at the superintendent in a meeting. It’s lawful to be upset, but that kind of dominance and submission ritual gains nothing. 

What’s wrong with some of these gentlemen that they are so cranked up over this woman?

Invite Dr. Pate-Hefty to a conversation. She alone, so to speak, without administrators or board members answering. It wouldn’t be my inclination to call the superintendent by her first name, but many do.

So, invite Caroline to a conversation. Is that so hard? Set a welcoming table, so to speak, and ask her for a bit of time.

This is, of course, a metaphorical and rhetorical invitation. It’s not as though anyone expects the school board to set up a dining table in the high school library. The offer of dialogue, however, should be public and genuine. 

What could happen? She might accept that invitation, and all the community would be better for it. Alternatively, she might decline, and then this community will have regrettably lost the opportunity for dialogue. Whitewater residents will, however, know where they stand.

About a week ago, I attended a public meeting where Dr. Pate-Hefty was also in attendance. I remember her arrival: she entered the room from the left, in a tan blouse and dark slacks, wearing an agreeable fragrance that I could not quite place. She sat directly behind me. 

We did not speak to each other, as one can assume we were both there for the speakers and not to make introductions with other members of the audience. And yet, and yet, for the full meeting, she did not once disturb, annoy, or confront me. She didn’t threaten to cast a spell or send out flying monkeys from the district office. There was no reason to be worried by her proximity. 

(In the unlikely event that Dr. Pate-Hefty did try to cast a spell, then in reply I would have asked a girl from Kansas to bring me her broom.)

But she did nothing of the sort, and there was no reason for concern. I am a resident, having arrived by invitation to Whitewater a generation ago, and blessedly here forever. Not for a while, not now and again, but forever. There is no more secure position.

This board should set a table, extend a sincere invitation to public conversation, and await her reply. All Whitewater would benefit from those public conversations. That’s the ongoing public mandate of any board and of any superintendent. 

Isn’t that obvious?

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4 months ago

Clever, fascinating post today. I don’t agree that the district direction merits more time for an invitation, but it is true that this new board hasn’t spelled anything out to the community. Asking for them to be deliberate isn’t wrong but there have been many issues by now.
What’s clever is how you approach Caroline Pate-Hefty. Very clever, to be honest. I’m not saying it isn’t how you feel, but it’s definitely well crafted.
This post is a mix of confidence and playfulness. That’s what’s clever. You dismiss her critics as emotional, and extend an olive branch by inviting (metaphorically) ‘Caroline’ to dinner. When you had the chance to talk with her, you declined, but you also took notice. There’s no one else around who would write with this kind of firm, almost affectionate confidence.
You dismiss the idea that she’s a witch, but you mention what you’d do if she was one. Very funny, Mr. Adams. You are obviously not intimidated.
She’d be nuts not to see this as a conciliatory approach. (You of all people, by the way!) There aren’t many of that view around.
You expect the board to be methodical, knowing that people are impatient.
Some of us are impatient, but maybe we shouldn’t be. Yes, that’s your point. Go slow, ask her nicely.
Something to think about, I guess.

4 months ago

I guess it’s dialogue not dismissal? Yeah, some of these guys do see her in “dramatic terms” that’s true. There are others who simply want to start fires about “wedge” issues. It’s become a political game. Too much time on their hands. Huge tension in some people. Not one of them has a plan for the future if they try to make a change, that’s a problem.
So let me ask you, what would **you** talk to her about? (I get that’s not your thing, but how would that conversation go?)

careful observer
4 months ago

This assumes that both parties will do this. They haven’t, not this way! It’s been very different. We are a rural community with top down district leaders. It definitely hasn;t happened. Someone people ask a question and it’s a board member who answers. That’s so weird. It’s upsetting like we are not important enough for a real conversation. It’s burned so many bridges.

4 months ago

One could be of a mind(as this reader is) to believe shortcoming on both sides: The lack of communication directly from the administrator(and the board charged with supervision) and a community desirous of change often less willing to listen than demand. As a non-lifelong resident, there is at least anecdotal evidence in abundance(even by the sheer turnover in positions you’ve highlighted) that instead of digging deep and working through problems that the remedy is simply out with the old and in with the new, shiny, a falsely hoped for and miraculous quick fix to long and complex issues.

That there are sides, that there is so much turnover, that there is no dialoge…perhaps as a community we’d be better off to start with a hard and honest self assessment before the mirror. Are we prepared to undertake the hard, long slog through owning all of our challenges before stepping onto the equally arduous path to meaningful progress? The needs of both city and school are many, and expecting dramatic improvements only during the school day or when the municipal building is “open for business” seems woefully inadequate.

The description of shared space in a chance meeting with the administrator also drives home a very important point. The administrator is one person. Highly educated and an expert in her chosen field(to have achieved the appointment), but not a superhero. A person with a job to do, and one to be accountable for. Collectively as a community I would argue our charge is substantially larger: to champion the betterment of the community we hold dear, and to put the needs of our children into a place of prominence – at the forefront of our conversations, at or near the top of how we prioritize resource allocation, and certainly ahead of petty dramatic machinations of small town politics.