September 16, 2001
Beginning of the Road
By Dane Sorensen
I must admit elections often do not thrill me. Going to vote often is like going to the dentist - an obligation one would like to avoid. This is especially true of minor elections. If you are an honest person you will admit that you probably do not have a clue about about even half the judges that show up on state ballots. Not having to use a judge I don't know them. However, there is an approaching election that I am very interested in.
It is the upcoming school board election. Our Ely School District is a precious asset. It civilizes our children and gives them the tools to survive this complex and crazy world. It serves as a center for; our community, local sports, local arts and it is used by every organization under the sun.
Since before television, radio, and computers the Ely School District has existed. In no time since it came to be has it been in such straits. Declining enrollment is the enemy of this beloved institution. It has been slowly draining the life's blood of the district's treasury. Our leaders and many in the community have tried to think of ways to reverse this 30 year trend. Alas, no one has come up with anything. Nothing new in Ely has reversed the downward spiral of our student population. In spite of the arrival of new job sources like the Revenue Building, or Sato, or tourism it has not been enough to turn or even stop the tide.
It is not time to give up on an independent system. However, I do think this election is a good time to vote for new people who will bring new ideas to the district. I was lucky enough to work at the district in several jobs for the last four years. I enjoyed watching the kids do what they do best - be kids. I enjoyed working with the teaching staff. We are lucky to have some incredible teachers who sincerely care for our children and who are important assets to the entire community.
What concerns me is that the leadership of this district has been sorely lacking. Our current school board shows no innovation and little leadership. I feel the handleing of several former high school teachers was unprofessional. The foul treatment of the band director is public record. The lies and the hiding behind the Privacy Act were unbelievable. However, that teacher was not the only teacher that was treated like chattel. One newly tenured teacher was only offered .64 part time for this year and decided that was too little to stay for. The replacement was offered much more time.
When I had employees I always aimed to give them the most opportunities I could. I promoted from within when an employee deserved it. I always tried to empower them. It is my opinion that in the high school there is a complete lack of mentoring by the administration. I know they have publicly claimed there is, but don't believe it. Training new teachers the ropes is more like throwing a child into a river and letting it sink or swim. Many teachers have told me the former band director should have sat on his butt (or something like that) until he was tenured. In short, a new teacher should do nothing for three years. No new ideas and no attempts at superior efforts. I do not think we should tell teachers to waste what should be the three best years of their career. I don't believe management in the high school even understands the word "empower."
The inability of the school board to not govern and question anything the administration dishes out is a threat to the school district's health. If anyone recalls the budget fight for school year 2000-2001 they will remember how the school board totally ignored all parental input. They listened and then they ignored. They believe they have a lock on all wisdom. In my definition of leadership I think dialogue is an important element. I realize in my business affairs there are times when it is very important to get outside input. I realize, unlike Mrs. Koski, I do not know it all. Therefore, I seek input.
I have never seen the school board dialogue or even debate amongst themselves. Somehow, in a mysterious way they seem to know what they are going to do at their meetings. There is never any discussion. I don't know how they manage to govern without discussions.
In the upcoming election we have a chance to elect new faces. I think it is time that is done. However, these new board members need to come with a realization of what needs to be accomplished. Tops on the agenda is financial reform. I know of no business that still uses typewriters to handle things such as requisitions and purchase orders. Last Spring I was told by the commercial sales division of Best Buy that Ely was the only school did not have a business credit card. Without a credit card for the district we cannot take advantage of on-line bargains of supplies. We can't order easily over the phone. Many companies don't accept purchase orders so the school is limited as to who it can buy from. I found there is no systematic way to check if items are being purchased at the best price. I personally feel the district is wasting enough on purchases to pay for several teachers. A new school board should make it a priority to revamp the financial practices of this district. It may even be worth spending a few thousand dollars to bring in experts, especially since many of the school's practices date back to Nixon era.
Another important agenda item is to truly set up a mentoring program for new teachers. I, also, think it would be a very important idea, to have new teacher evaluations done by more than one staff person. I simply do not trust the current principal's professionalism. That is a blunt opinion, but I have seen this person in action and I do not approve of her professional behavior. She has poisoned the spirit of the school. Having a board which will keep our administrators on task and professional would be another important agenda item. It is time we end the feudal rights of principals.
As for the rest of the teaching staff, I think it would be important for the school board to link directly to them by allowing teacher's to be on more board committees - the same opportunity should be offered to concerned parents. I do not think we should only allow the administration to control the school board agenda.
Another thing that I feel strongly about is the erosion of non-teaching jobs. The school board has been slowly chopping positions into little part time jobs that could be accumulated into full time jobs. If we truly want to have meaningful jobs in this community which can support families, our public institutions should set an example. This principal was unsuccessfully fought for by me and my former union. Many jobs around the district could be combined to make real jobs - jobs where we could attract better people. Instead some jobs are so tiny and foolish we get very poor candidates. I further feel the savings in these truncated jobs are false economies. The cost of more paperwork, more paychecks and higher turnovers only waste time and bloats the administrative side of the equation.
Finally, technology standards need to be improved. Computers and all they do need to be integrated into curriculum in the high school. These kids are not getting the computer smarts they will need. Many schools think every classroom needs computers, but that is not the case. I still feel in the early grades the role of computers is very limited. However, by high school it is very important. At our school we do not have a technologist with even a degree in computers from a trade school, let alone a college. Ultimately, computer technology should be headed by a licensed teacher in that field. Only a teacher can blend the needs of teaching with the tools of computers. Further, the waste of our current technologist, due lack of knowledge and poor purchasing decisions, is easily equal a first year's teacher's salary. A school board must not allow important positions to be held by ill trained staff.
I honestly think if a new school board can address these issues they will cut enough fat and waste to help save teaching positions. We can't stop the student population from shrinking more, but we can maximize every dollar we get by bringing the business practices of the district up to the 21st Century.
By preserving teaching jobs over a bloated administration we can keep class sizes small and subject variety large. In several areas I worked in I was able to cut dollars spent and maintained what was ordered in both the elementary and the high school side. I know this can be done district wide.
I have not mentioned any names on purpose, except for the sole person I feel is responsible for the board's failings. I feel that a new board can inspire and motivate, one way or another the administration to compete with it for new and better ways of operating our district. Our elected school board was meant to be a check and balance to our hired professional administration. We have ignored this fact and allowed the administration to dominate. This is unhealthy. A new school board should poke its nose everywhere. It should work with the administration, but it should always verify what it is told. That is where dialogue with others is so helpful.
Yes, this election is very important for the life expectancy of the school. It is up to us as voters and parents to ask each candidate what their positions are on cutting fat and creating a positive work environment for all staff. These are the tasks that need to be done and the work all starts with the ballot box.