By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
A pair of recent episodes involving Kentucky public schools are examples of the uncontrollable nature of online information sources. But they also can be learning tools for district leaders when dealing with news and/or opinion that goes viral on the Web.
The first case involves the quote by a southeast Kentucky school board member discussing what she was hearing from students about the taste of items on the new school year’s cafeteria menu. That quote – “They say it tastes like vomit” – at the writing of this column had been transformed into online news stories and commentaries on 4.9 million websites across the U.S. and in several foreign countries.
Mainstream media use aside, there were plenty of other sources that played fast and loose with an alleged relationship between the students’ actual complaints and First Lady Michele Obama’s advocacy for healthier foods in school meals. Dozens of posts were headlined, “Kentucky kids to first lady Michelle Obama: Your food ‘tastes like vomit.’”
Most of these headlines were used by Internet blogs such as “Lunatic Outpost.” At least Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch columnist Marcia Mercer protested, “But the students did not say that.” That plus the original newspaper story makes the box score something like 2 right, 4,800,998 wrong.
A few days later a guest columnist in the Cincinnati Enquirer blasted the Kentucky Department of Education and a northern Kentucky district over achievement gap data based on student race in the state School Report Cards.
“The message from Kentucky’s Department of Education is clear. Whites, Hispanics and African-Americans are dumber than Asian students. Hispanics and African-Americans are dumber than White students and African-Americans are dumber than Hispanic students. I believe the Kentucky Department of Education is the dumbest of all these groups. Racism is wrong even if self-proclaimed academic elites are doing it!” said the columnist, who almost certainly would like to be credited by name here.
So the writer is either anti-public education, anti-standardized testing or anti-closing achievement gaps, or just plain anti. But the fact remains that if you do a Google search of “Kentucky, school, racism,” up he pops, as if being on the Internet is a coronation of creditability.
But 30 days from now, it’s highly unlikely any of those people will be able to remember the district, much less the issue. The folks who will remember are the ones who care about it…at home.
What’s local is what matters
It’s completely understandable that any superintendent or school board member would be displeased about any source that presents a less-than-complimentary image of his or her district. The late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill made the point that “All politics is local.” One can argue that in these situations of external criticism, all impact is local – in the long term.
Rather than worrying about bloggers in Seattle or Washington, D.C., or London, England, school leaders should show the locals they are listening, responding and acting in the best interests of their children.
If you’re being attacked in the local paper, respond – once – with the facts and invite those interested to contact you if they have more questions. If a Facebook page is created locally to fault the district, get on there and post details that back the district’s actions. Or post the truth of the issue on the district website and do what you can to direct people to the other side of the story.
Disagreement goes hand in hand with being a leader. Some critics simply aren’t worth the stomach churning, because they’ll just go away. Someone hundreds if not thousands of miles away won’t remember. Those who will are the community members who raise issues and expect answers.
The Last Word
As Internet blogs, partisan political websites and social media postings grow, the likelihood that your school district will make unflattering news away from the home community is only going to grow. But even millions of Web posts can’t make or break solid support of local parents, staff and taxpayers.
Take the newspaper columnist with the unusual view on racism in schools. Two weeks after his piece was posted online, it had a grand total of zero posts of reaction, support or disagreement.
And that’s a message worth getting out.