Public officials can disagree publicly and yet still serve the public
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
Virtually nobody enjoys an out-in-the-open squabbling match between public officials. I sure don’t when I’m in the audience. Even in my community journalism days, I can’t recall a time when I got giddy about putting a sparring match in a newscast. It happened in public, it was newsworthy, and that was that.
But a recent disagreement among members of a Kentucky school board – as played out in several local media outlets – struck me as an example of how an important dispute still can be a public service.
Can such an incident go horribly wrong, becoming a relationship-ending, blood-on-the-floor confrontation? Absolutely. But the way this situation was handled by the principal players – and was covered by a trio of local reporters – provided plenty to explain what otherwise might seem an odd thing to support.
Remember – this is a column about communications for leaders – and that’s not always pretty.
There’s no need to identify the district or the individuals. If you read the KSBA eNews Service, you already have those details. The message here isn’t about who said what, but what was said.
A divided house explained
The situation that split this school board was about granting the superintendent a new contract. The discussions covered portions of two meetings. Based on the three media reports, two members favored the new pact, two were opposed, and the fifth provided a swing vote – twice.
What struck me was the specificity – accurate or not – of the arguments by the board members. So often, there are important votes by divided boards where the advocates’ positions are not voiced in front of the public. Not this time.
The pro-new contract members had examples of progress by the district, and spelled out how they had been achieved, or at least led, by the superintendent. The opposing side made their own arguments – again with specifics about low employee morale, school supply costs and poor communications.
For the most part, the superintendent was silent…until one of his critics raised an issue which he adamantly rejected, explaining that the offending action had not come from his decree. In fact, the superintendent’s comments otherwise were on how he felt he had more to do for the district.
Eventually, a 3-2 vote to deny the contact was turned around at a special meeting – after Member Swing Vote talked to school employees and constituents. What a concept: an elected official acknowledging she changed her mind based on gathering more information from the community.
One must assume the anti-contract extension board members saw what was coming in their direction after their less-than-critical colleague asked for a special meeting, announcing her intent to change her vote. Of course, a packed house at the special meeting – one that featured a standing ovation in favor of the decision to grant the new contract – probably proves they read the tea leaves quite accurately. And the media reports included quotes that were neither gloating nor disparaging.
Good advice was offered in a subsequent local newspaper editorial saying it was “time to move on and all school board members to work together for the betterment of the students.” I’d like to believe that all felt they were doing just that. And even if they really, truly didn’t feel that way, they still served the community by voting – and expressing those votes – with specifics rather than smears, or worse, silence.
The Last Word
Now, I’d like not to hear from anyone claiming that I’ve endorsed public quarreling between board members and/or the superintendent. If you feel that way, please put this away for a few days, and come back and re-read it, slowly and dispassionately.
The reality is that good people disagree every day in this world, without shady motives or intended offense. When a leader pops off just to hear himself or herself criticize – and, believe me, that’s more easily discerned than a lot of people realize – it seldom enhances that official’s public persona.
State your case. Offer specific examples. Rebutting is fine if it goes beyond something akin to “You’re wrong.” Don’t be afraid to disagree, but do take a deep breath if you find yourself becoming disagreeable.
And that’s a message worth getting out.