Saturday, April 26, 2008

Redistricting means always having to say you're sorry

Here is a reproduction of my opinion piece that appeared in the May 2, 2008, issue of The Advocate of Stamford, Conn., newspaper. Below it is the original "Always Home and Uncool" version that I improved upon for the newspaper article.


* * * * *
To Stamford's school redistricting planners: Say you're sorry
By Kevin McKeever

If anyone needs to an image consultant these days, it's any Stamford official involved in the never-ending public school redistricting debate. Since I've got time to spare this morning, I'll volunteer for the job.

hugh grant jay lenoI propose that my culprits, I mean "clients" -- the Stamford Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr and Mayor Dan Malloy -- appear front and center at the Monday, May 5, public hearing at Cloonan Middle School (7 p.m. Eastern, 4 p.m. Pacific) and do what is necessary. Apologize to the parents, children and miscellaneous taxpayers of Stamford.

A flat-out, no-holds-barred mea culpa from each of you. With a little self-depreciating humor and a lot of humility throw in.

They should follow the Hugh Grant model. Remember years ago when the "Four Weddings and a Funeral" actor was busted for having services rendered by a Hollywood prostitute in a car? Of course not! Hugh made it go away by appearing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and, with those puppy dog eyes peering through his professionally tousled hair, doing his British best "oh, how daft but civilized and charming I am" routine:

Leno: "What the hell were you thinking?"

Grant: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Pure magic. (Note to self: Contact Larry Craig and Eliot Spitzer. Those two boobs also need help.)

Here's my vision: The Board of Ed, Starr and Malloy all take seats at the front of the auditorium. Then, one by one, they admit the mess they've made progressively worse by creating the entire "open an environmental magnet school and close Toquam, no -- close Davenport, no -- shutter Hart … one second, wait for it … let's board up K.T. Murphy, uh uh … how about Rogers … we meant, Stark" fiasco.

Then, they beg forgiveness. They vow to play nicely with each other and the public in the future. Finally, they commit to start over from scratch with a better, more open approach.

Here are the talking points ...

Board of Education members:
We seriously overestimated the time and effort we could devote to this. None of us has the expertise to tackle all the issues and emotions involved. We tried really hard but, let's face facts, we're rubes on redistricting! We thought you could slip tab A into slot B, C into D, and so on, and everything would fall in place like so many dominoes or Communist nations. Whoops, scratch that last bit!

We held a lot of meetings. But, we admit, we forgot that not everyone lives and dies by the vague meeting notices we post online. We should have reached out to the school PTOs, kept them informed of upcoming topics, and sought input from them and their school's communities before voting on matters. We should have devised complete plans -- grandfathering, legacy kids, feeder patterns, etc. -- before shouting "bus those kids across town" in a crowded meeting room.

And, honestly, we were so blinded by the hordes of cash the state was dropping on us to build a shiny, new state-of-the-art facility that we never bothered to learn what the parameters for operating the school really are. Or whether anyone outside of Stamford would want to come to it. Details, details - pish, posh!

Superintendent Starr: Wow, how did this get so out of control? Where was I? Oh, yeah … probably stuck on the BQE.

First, I should have directed our staff to proactively gather all possible information about what we can and can't do with this state-funded, interdistrict, 6-to-6, environmental thingamajig of a school before ground was broken.

Second, I should have insisted the Board of Ed receive a complete analysis of facilities, capacity, enrollment projections, and district-by-district student breakdowns of total population cross-referenced against race vs. socioeconomic status vs. magnet or district school attendance, yadda yadda yadda, before they even thought about redistricting. Then we could have discussed the school system as a whole, not in this piecemeal, "endangered school of the week" fashion we took.

Third, my 11th hour Stark-closing proposal did a fantastic job of bringing a previously unheard from part of the community into the discussion. But talking about it with Stark parents first would have been wise. So would have putting it on the public meeting agenda.

And what's the deal with magnet schools? Are they working, are they really balancing the system or just messing with the people's minds? Do we need more seats or fewer seats? They're more expense to run, but other than that I honestly don't know. I should investigate this and address it in my long idle blog.

Mayor Malloy: Zzzz. Huh? Oh, oh, yeah, yeah.

Yes, I am a member of the Board of Education. A non-voting one, mind you. But, yes, I should have been more involved in redistricting from the start because it is important to the people of Stamford, whether they vote for me or not.

I should have made my opinions on redistricting clearly known and used my power to wring vital interdistrict school information from state officials for the greater good not personal acclaim. While not as dramatic or endearing as playing the white knight, charging into the fray at the last minute to save the day, being active throughout the process is the right thing to do because Stamford is me, and my actions are a reflection of Stamford.

Same for performing last-minute sneak attacks on the school's budget proposals. I was wrong about that, too. Now that the debt on my failed gubernatorial bid is paid up, I'll stop being a petty Betty.

All parties: At this point, we're as confused about what to do as anybody. We probably need a fresh set of eyes on this. Maybe we can still gather up all the information at hand and, working with an independent party, come up with three to five complete scenarios (closing schools A or B, no closings, moving magnet programs, etc.) with feeder patterns, budget estimates, etc. and roll them out to full debate and discussion with parents and the boards of Finance and Representatives.

In any case, we will refrain from springing any more PowerPoint presentations and doomsday scenarios on the public until come up with a complete, big picture plan. Only then can we have a real dialogue with people rather than these "not my school/kid" debates every other week.

One more thing. Each of us should have recognized early on that we were in over our heads. We should have slammed on the brakes and asked for more help sooner. We were well intentioned, but also arrogant. We'll do better next time to work with the community because our priority is ensuring Stamford kids gain intelligence, wisdom and understanding. Forgive us …

Hey, readers -- me, again. To conclude, on behalf of all my imaginary clients, I'd again like to quote The Divine Book of Hugh Grant, as spoken to Jay Leno:

"I think you know in life what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there you have it."

* * * * *

Original gansta, I mean, version:

Set your TiVos, folks. Stamford Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr, the city Board of Education and Mayor Dan Malloy -- Starrboard Malloy, for short -- will appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" to re-enact Hugh Grant's famous "Divine Brown" apology.

But the context has changed. It's in response to our city's never-ending redistricting debacle.

Jay: "What the hell were you thinking?"

StarrBoard Malloy: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Every official involved in this mess needs to sit on the late-night couch and apologize to the public. Flat-out, no-holds-barred mea culpa. They need to admit the whole "open an environmental magnet school, close Toquam, no -- close Davenport, no -- shutter Hart … one second, wait for it … let's board up K.T. Murphy, uh uh … how about Rogers or Stark" Gordian knot needs to simply be cut ... then set aflame and floated out to sea like the barge full of landfill crud and seagull poop it has become.

They need a do-over, a make-up exam and, frankly, a clue.

Let me help start the healing. Here are some talking points for the gang ...

Board of Education members:

We seriously overestimated the time and effort we could devote to this. None of us has the expertise to tackle all the issues and emotions involved in this process. Some of us tried really hard to come up with solutions but, let's face facts, we're rubes on redistricting! We thought you could slip tab A into slot B, C into D, and so on, and everything would fall in place like so many dominoes or Communist nations. Whoops, scratch that last bit!

We held a lot of meetings. But, we admit, we forgot that the rest of the working world does not live and die by the vague meeting notices we post in the Town Clerk's office or online. We should have reached out to the school PTOs, kept them informed of upcoming topics, and sought input from them and their school's communities regularly. We should have devised complete plans -- grandfathering, legacy kids, feeder patterns, etc. -- before shouting "bus those kids across town" in a crowded Government Center committee room.

We were also so blinded by the hordes of cash the state was dropping on us to build a shiny, new state-of-the-art facility that we never bothered to learn what the parameters for operating the school really are. Oops.

Also, we (shhh) ... we really don't know everything. We're just volunteers. Some of us are only interested in one school or one issue and need to be poked with a stick to contribute to the team. Others of us just like hearing our own voices. We're human and fallible.

Finally, we should have recognized early on that we were in over our heads, then hit the brakes and asked for help. We were well intentioned, but also arrogant. Forgive us. We'll do better next time to work with the community because our priority is ensuring Stamford kids gain intelligence, wisdom and understanding.

Superintendent Starr:

Wow, how did this get so out of control? Where was I? Oh, yeah … stuck on the BQE.

First, our staff should have proactively gathered all possible information about what we can and can't do with this state-funded interdistrict, 6-to-6, environmental thingamajig of a school before ground was broken. I also should have looked into how these schools operate in practice as well in theory, as Mayor Malloy did. Good work, T-Bone, but a bit late to the table.

Second, I should have insisted the Board of Ed receive a complete analysis of facilities, capacity, enrollment projections, and district-by-district student breakdowns of total population cross-referenced against race vs. socialeconomic status vs. magnetic or district school attendance, yadda yadda yadda, before they even thought about school closings or sending kids to different schools. Then we could have discussed the school district as a whole, not in this piecemeal, street-by-street, school-by-school fashion that gets a new group up in arms every other week.

And what's the deal with magnet schools in Stamford? Are they good, are they bad, are they working, are they really balancing the system or just messing with the people's minds? I honestly don't know. Maybe I should address this in my idle blog?

Last point - I should have recognized early on that we were in over our heads, then hit the brakes and asked for help. We were well intentioned, but also arrogant. Forgive us. We'll do better next time to work with the community because our priority is ensuring Stamford kids gain intelligence, wisdom and understanding.

Mayor Malloy:

Zzzzz. Huh? Oh, oh, yeah, yeah.

Yes, I am a member of the Board of Education. A non-voting one, mind you. But, yes, I should have paid more attention to redistricting meetings because it is important to the people of Stamford, whether they vote for me or not.

When I did attend, I should have spoken up. Withholding knowledge that could help others, especially those I represent, is just plain bad judgment. Rather than playing the white knight, charging in at the last minute so I could look good, I should been involved from the start because Stamford is me, and my actions are a reflection of Stamford.

Same for performing last-minute sneak attacks on the school's budget proposals. I was a jerk about that, too. Now that the debt on my failed gubernatorial bid is paid up, I'll stop being a petty Betty.

I should have insisted the schools set aside money to hire an independent consultant with no stake or allegiance in this issue. The consultant could have given us three to five complete, unbiased scenarios (closing schools A, B or C, no closings, etc.) with feeder patterns, budget estimates and the Donut Delight drive-thru window ... I mean, kitchen sink. Then, we could have a real public discussion with well constructed ideas rather than these "not my school/kid" debates every other week.

One more thing. I should have recognized early on that we were in over our heads, then hit the brakes and asked for help. We were well intentioned, but also arrogant. Forgive us. We'll do better next time to work with the community because our priority is ensuring Stamford kids gain intelligence, wisdom and understanding.

Starrboard Malloy, all together, quoting the Book of the Divine Hugh:

"You think you know in life what's a good thing to do and what's a bad thing, and we did a bad thing. And there you have it."

4 comments:

  1. Sigh. Well, thanks for writing this so that I didn't have to. Mine post probably would have been twice as long and contained many, many more expletetives.

    I think you pretty much captured the past FOURTEEN MONTHS of emotional ups and downs as the board has pounced on a new school ever few weeks.

    I am tired of all of the parent committe meetings and data research we've had to do to try to supplement the information that they are using, because they don't bother doing the fact finding on their own (or they ignore the facts if they are not convenient).

    It's the redistricting equivalent of pee-wee hockey, watching them fall over each other to furiously skate over to the newest shiny puck.

    I would add two more things. I don't think Starr takes the BQE here. I think he drives, because he can't drop his kid off at the nice, private Montessori school that his OWN child attends in Manhattan.

    And two, thank goodness I kept my maiden name, so that although the Board knows I have kids in the system, they can't figure out exactly who they are.

    ReplyDelete
  2. If I might add to Dr. Starr's mea culpa:

    "Forgive me, dear citizens of Stamford - for I have had an epiphany. I've been here as your superintendent for a few years, and you are a seasoned people, a realistic people. You know that I do not intend to spend the rest of my career in your fair hamlet.

    Driving home to my far-away home in a neighborhood with an it-factor even Revonah Woods will never attain, it came to me. I knew at that moment: closing Toquam would be the death knell to my career. What city would take a superintendent who closed one of TWO successful schools in a district rife with failure?

    Having stood by silent while the Board of Tactics - I mean, Education - closed the chapter one of the only feel-good stories in this city, what town would be interested in me (at a much higher salary, might I add)? I'd be damaged goods, no more relevant than Julia Wade's one public comment, less up-to-date than my Blog of No Comment, no funnier than Susan Nabel's acerbic retorts, less mysterious than Monica Hoherchak's Sphynx-like demeanor (except, of course, when it comes to Rogers).

    So with this epiphany in mind, I bring to you my sacrificial lamb: Stark.

    Forgive me, citizens, for once I was lost, but now I am found. I see the error in my ways. I finally (FINALLY!) admit that achievement and success SHOULD BE criteria when it comes to choosing which school to close.

    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I am the Great and Mighty Oz, and I see the error of my ways.

    Toquam, you have been granted stay #23 of execution. Don't exhale just yet, because The Board of Tactics is still gunning for you."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anyone see the Advocate Article on Starr's proposal?

    Best...quote...ever:

    McDonald said the Stark plan only made matters worse.

    "It's a really unique skill to infuriate every contingent of parents in one meeting," he said.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kevin,

    I have to admit that this absolutely a great summary of this seemingly never-ending drama, which we Toquam parents have been living through for the past 8 months! It is almost a tragic comedy to see these elected officials try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public.

    First trying to knock out Toquam by proposing Academies at Dolan, then using non-existant criteria to measure Toquam against Davenport Ridge, Hart, Rogers and Murphy, then Hart is off, and Newfield parents get pissed, and on and on and on.

    How do we impeach and get a new BoE?

    All things considered, I believe Malloys timing was completely and perfectly timed for maximum political capital. He allowed the BoE to slip the noose around their necks and just as they were about to pull the board out, then the mayor, or the governor in waiting, rides on in his white horse to save the city from closing one of their only top performing schools, but shooting a shot across the bow of the BoE.

    But now, who knows what is going to happen.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete

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