Charlie’s Warning

With election day tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to share a thoughtful warning from my friend and colleague, Charlie Irish.  Charlie served as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, Medina, Ohio, for 13 years and is now the point person for the Santa Rita Collaborative on an important research initiative with the Kettering Foundation.  Here is his warning:

While we hear school leaders promote the attributes of their public school systems, we don’t hear them talk very much about their community’s commonly held purpose for their schools and children.  We seldom, if ever, see school leaders trying to help their communities forge that common purpose.  As a result, the legitimacy of our schools as an institution representative of our communities is vanishing, and our schools are on track to becoming little more than a service that has no voice.

The following fictional story written by an 83-year-old Nobel Prize winning author from Portugal speaks to this loss of legitimacy.

On a rainy election day, practically no one went to the polls until 4 in the afternoon, and then everybody seemed to arrive at once.  When the ballots were counted, almost three-quarters turned up blank.  Then, after a week of governmental consternation, the elections were held again, on a perfect sunny day, and the results were actually worse — 83 percent of the voters did not mark their ballots.  Imagine the chaos that created in the government.  Shocked, but unable to do anything about this, the government leaders decided to punish the community by moving out of the area withdrawing support for these citizens.  Then a strange thing happened.  Nothing changed.
The story is a work titled “Seeing,” written by José Saramago.  It isn’t about an American election, but the mere thought of this sends a chill down the spine of anyone who seeks to provide legitimate leadership in a community.  What if no one votes?  What if no one shows up?  How can anyone claim a right to lead?

Saramago suggests that his fictional voters had come to understand that while a vote could change the people who are in charge, it wasn’t going to change policy.  Whatever the outcome of the election, people believed that nothing would change.  The voice of the people had become little more than the voice of a parrot.

In this country, we call voting “participatory democracy,” but wise school leaders know that sustaining a healthy school district requires more from citizens than simply showing up to cast a ballot.  Voting by itself is not an act of power.  Citizens must also participate in decision making well before they register their say at the polls.  If they are to own the choices they are asked to make and if their vote is to mean anything, then they must also genuinely engage in deciding what those choices are.  Sadly, much like the leaders in Saramago’s story, the cultural norm for school district outreach has become to control citizens’ thinking and actions, and to keep decision making in the hands of an elite few.

More and more in this country, it looks and feels like people are casting blank ballots.  So, here’s my message to the superintendents who strive to control community thinking, and see little value in a call for them to become community leaders by helping citizens reclaim an ownership for their schools again.  You risk losing your legitimacy.  You risk becoming irrelevant.

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