At last night’s meeting of the Whitewater Unified School District’s board, the board heard presentations from a consulting epidemiologist and also a former Jefferson County school administrator who now works with Jefferson County. After comment & discussion, the board voted 6-1 to extend the September 1-11 teaching format through 9.25, with the present expectation of face-to-face instruction to begin 9.28.20. The board will decide whether to proceed with that face-to-face format after reviewing epidemiological measurements (among other information it chooses) at a 9.14.20 meeting. In a separate vote, the board adopted a mask requirement or a face shield requirement as an alternative for those who cannot wear a mask.
A few remarks —
1. A Conversational Format Gone Bad. Over these years, I’ve watched countless board meetings, whether or not commenting afterward. This board is, toward each other, mostly conversational in the way one might find at the dinner table of a slightly dysfunctional family with one-too-many moments of disagreement or interruption. (Candidly, the charm of back and forth at a family table comes from the wit and joy of those gathered in conversation; there’s nothing like that in these board discussions. A family that allowed interruptions, shouting, and serial digressions would be a recommendation only for the single life.)
In times of low community notice, that somewhat informal style doesn’t make much difference (if the board members want to slog through this way, so be it). For serious topics, the amount of back-and-forth, on side issues & secondary concerns, must seem oddly jarring to those accustomed to a better order and clarity of discussion. Debating possible alternatives only works if all participants have a clear – to themselves and others – sense of what they want. Some members of this board do have, and do convey, that clear sense; others don’t. This lack of clarity makes efforts at creative, in-the-moment solutions look more like confusion and delay (to borrow from Sir Topham Hat).
2. Jurisdictional Issues. An extended discussion of jurisdictional authority while looking for language on a mask ordinance for the district is time wasted. Indulging fixations comes at the expense of intelligible discussion. Allowing a member to shout his concerns (even when at moments he admits he should stop but won’t) is a failure of good order.
3. Robert’s Rules. A concern over procedure – however much one perseverates over it during a meeting – matters less than addressing more substantial matters. There is, it’s true, something known as substantive procedure, but that emphasis on a rights-oriented procedure means much more than anything in Robert’s Rules. This (like Point 2, above) all comes down to forest, trees, and not seeing the difference.
4. Epidemology and Diligence. I’ll offer no claims of my own about the path of this novel coronavirus, as I’ll sensibly avoid the fate of the Biggest Fool in America. How Whitewater fares in this – in sickness or fatality – I cannot and will not predict. It is notable, however, that very few communities in Wisconsin have relied on contracted epidemiologists (as this district has) to make their decisions. There’s a dislike of expertise in our area, as though anyone can easily assess any question. Some questions are, however, less inviting. Perhaps the assessments offered professionally will prove erroneous, as there’s risk in any human assessment. It’s delusional (and proud), however, to assume technical fields have no incremental value or can be entered easily.
5. Old Whitewater’s Sham Values. Old Whitewater – a state of mind – is mostly a perspective with a metaphorically narrow perimeter fence and an honor-shame culture. That culture looks to only a few people out of a city of thousands, and runs on praise for some and scorn for others. It’s a crude outlook that mistakes self-promotion and praise for true virtue. It’s slowly fading way, but there’s life yet in it, and it’s easy to slip into this view.
When a board member worries about how the board’s actions will seem in an online publication, she places greater importance on someone else’s words than her own actions and her own defense of them. It’s a mistaken view, to care more about another’s depiction than of her own work.
If someone from the government, pretending to be a reporter, comes along and writes If You’re Confused About the School District’s Reopening Plan, You’re Not Alone, it’s not a cause for concern but for a simple, detached, and dispassionate reply (point 1, point 2, point 3, etc.).
Whitewater is a small city, and now a factionalized one. In all of it, there’s no one to whom someone couldn’t respond suitably in one’s own defense. Even if Whitewater were a much larger place, there’d still be no concern: most people are sharp, and can handle themselves well in advocacy and their own defense if only they’d try. There are – thankfully – no titans in this city. No one on this board lacks an ability to respond.
6. Government v. Government. I’ve no interest in defending one part of the government (the district, of whom I have been sometimes critical in the past) against others. Like the ACLU (of which I am a member), the one representation I’ll never undertake is of the government. Yet, as this is true, I’ll also not believe that a politician’s role as sham private reporter on public affairs is anything but laughable.
It’s a sign of cultural decline that Whitewater carries on this way.
7. The New Administration. It’s been only about six weeks, during a tumultuous time, but Whitewater’s new district administrator shows two traits over these several weeks: she values sympathy or empathy as an approach, and she’s more data driven than past leaders in the area. It’s much too soon to say how this will develop, but it’s not typical for Whitewater. Old Whitewater’s culture emphasizes neither empathy nor sympathy, and very little work here is data-driven by reference to genuine experts. (Whitewater’s common council, for example, adopted a mask ordinance with far less reliance on particular expertise than the district has done here. I supported the mask ordinance, but this common council put out no data before its meeting. They showed characteristically weak preparatory effort. For the most part, claims here – especially on the economic development side – are simply flowery press releases.)
8. Discombobulated. So it’s easy to get discombobulated in this environment. What date did you say? Did you mean September 25, 27th, 28th, or 30th? These are mostly small matters, and easily corrected. (Too funny: some of the same officials who would take umbrage at any suggestion that they made a mistake scrutinize the work of others for a mispoken reference here or there.)
There are sometimes tell-tale words and phrases people use that point to deeper issues, but references to dates would usually not be among them.
9. Conditions in the Fall. Again and again: Conditions among people, not speculation now, will decide whether any given course was sensible. It’s stressful during this time (in many ways), but this time will give way to the late fall. In a few months, we’ll know what was the right course.
Previously: Whitewater Schools’ Community Focus Group, 7.8.20, The Whitewater Unified School District’s Proposed Fall Instructional Plans, The Whitewater School Board’s Decision on Early Fall Instruction: 4 Points, and Whitewater School Board Meeting, 8.3.20: 6 Points.