Whitewater School Board Meeting, 11.23.20: 6 Points

Monday night’s school board meeting saw a majority of the board adopt a mostly virtual instructional model, to run through 1.17.21 (with exceptions for students 4K, early childhood, and perhaps other vulnerable populations).

The full agenda for the meeting is available. (Items 9A, 12A, and 15F were omitted from the agenda by consent.) Updated afternoon of 11.24.20 with meeting video.

A few remarks —

 1. Maps, Terrain.  There have been, in this area, guidance recommendations from three health departments – for Jefferson, Rock, and Walworth counties – each arriving at a different time, and often with modifications having been made during the course of the pandemic. The district’s administrator offered a review of these respective recommendations, and perhaps they swayed some board members to support a mostly virtual instructional model.

But not decisively – one board member expressly based his vote on the number of students or staff now in quarantine – that is, on an actual condition rather than a policy recommendation. This reminds loosely of the distinction between a map and terrain: one is a mere description of the other. It is a critical distinction: as a map is only useful when it accurately depicts a landscape, so a guidance is only useful if it describes what is happening or what soon will.

It’s perfectly possible to say that ‘Informed by Counties’ Health Dept guidance, WUSD Board votes to pause in-person instruction,’ but this would be a superficial grasp of what the board members likely believe, as any among the majority could reasonably assert that the guidance was, in the end, simply a reflection of difficult, actual conditions. Maps do not create mountains; weather reports do not cause rain.

The board’s majority might be wrong about actual conditions, but it is a better grasp of their thinking to say that Under Their Assessment of Actual Conditions, WUSD Board Majority Votes to Pause In-Person Instruction.

(As it turns out, one of that majority expressly grounded his opinion this way.)

 2. Emotion.  It’s understandable that many would approach these matters with concern and worry (and while doing so, sometimes insist that those of opposing views are approaching these matters with excessive concern and worry). A sound maxim: the hotter the subject, the colder the man. An assessment of the district’s conduct now, with months of a pandemic yet ahead, would be premature. See A Fair, Thorough Assessment of Whitewater’s Schools and the Pandemic Awaits (at the End of the School Year).

 3. Public Comment. Up to an hour of public comment for specific agenda topics seems reasonable, and there’s nothing under Wisconsin law that prevents commenters from also asking questions. There is, however, always the risk that questions will slip outside the bounds of that agenda topic. (That didn’t happen last night, but it is why many public bodies offer public comment without questions, and also without remarks from board members in immediate reply.)

 4. Engagement. This isn’t a district, and this isn’t a board, that typically attracts much political engagement. The pandemic has changed all that, and so many who are unfamiliar with public meetings are now – understandably – interested in these proceedings. It’s useful now – truly always a good idea – to explain to attendees that a motion precedes discussion. (A motion in favor or against an action isn’t a prejudgment; it’s a simple precondition of discussion. The motion is typically worded in the way the one proposing it wishes.

5. Homeless Outreach. A problem of homelessness demands a solution, and the district has hired a grant-funded homeless outreach coordinator. The first step toward a better community is an honest community.

6. Asides.

Will increased community engagement with the board outlast the pandemic? One can’t now be sure.

Does the Whitewater district describe itself accurately – as a place with different and often conflicting values among residents – to incoming leaders and faculty?  One can reasonably guess that it doesn’t, as strongly asserted community opinions sometimes seem to surprise. That’s odd – there is no opinion in this community that cannot be met with a reply; that’s as it should be.

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3 years ago

You saved the best for last, #6. There is a problem with the admin explaining core issues. it’s a majority board problem too. so yes, you’re right that one person on the board stated his vote based on the number out of school now, but you obviously get that is the main ground for deciding too. Pointing to county public health only works if county health describes what is happening! Today the admin sent out an email that the board decided “following” county public health. Ugh. They don’t get how to talk about this. Is that because they don’t get the community right?