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When 'local control' is too local

Jun 3, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

When a school board member has children, spouses or in-laws working in the district, the temptation to attempt total control of a school, or at least an area of it, is hard to resist.

It has been an amazingly quick year since I hit the the "Rule of 85" last June 1. To answer a question I'm asked often, no, I don't miss education.

But I do miss educating young minds in the classroom and challenging them on the athletic field. As many of my retired teaching friends are quick to note, "I don't miss the crap that education has become, but I sure miss the kids."

That simple statement indicates the inane, insanity that much too often permeates public education.

As the villains in countless films say when they realize they've been beaten, "How did it come to this?"

For much of my third of a century in K-12 education I railed against centralization, praised academic freedom, and was an outspoken proponent of local control for our schools.

While a return to academic freedom in the classroom would produce more positive results in just a few years than the present armies of specialists, facilitators, coordinators, assistant principals, assistant superintendents and curriculum experts could in a millennium, the big money just won't support such a simple solution.

The Wyoming Legislature continues to mandate more reporting, more testing and more "middle men" that never aid a single child, but that's simply a matter of big money driving experts to perpetuate the problem.

The other two components -- centralization and local control -- have faded a bit with the growing narcissism found in districts large and small across the state.

In the 1980s few of us could think of a time when a parent had enough pull to alter a child's grade, change a starting lineup, or become intricately involved in getting his own child an award the kid didn't deserve. That's not the case anymore.

In the late 1990s coaches across the state noticed that a well-known girl's basketball coach with a string of successes to his credit was terminated unceremoniously the first time his team didn't win big.

The year he was fired his squad took second in the state championship game. His crime was an obvious one: He had cut the superintendent's daughter from the team four years earlier.

The disgruntled administrator didn't have enough power to fire the coach outright so he bided his time and waited for the first opportunity.

The coach was quickly dismissed amidst a haze of innuendo, false accusations, and carefully guarded "personnel" issues that the superintendent couldn't discuss due to privacy laws he carefully hid behind.

Those of us in the ranks knew better. As one friend often noted, "People can't be objective when it comes to their own children." He was right.

A few years later another superintendent fired a coach who had just won a regional tournament for the first time in his school's history. His crime was similar; the superintendent's son didn't make the tournament team.

A year later and the replacement coach also was fired when he didn't select the boy either. Perhaps working with his son after school on some fundamentals or just rebounding for him as he shot the ball 100 times each evening would have been better than meddling and trying to end the careers of excellent teachers. But prep sports rarely play out that way anymore.

Local control plays sadly into this scenario much too well. With 48 school districts in our small-population state, it is simply too easy for an administrator or school board to micro manage a district.

Micromanagement has become a de facto art form in districts large and small across America. For once, Wyoming is a leader in an educational trend.

States with county superintendents, governed by elected countywide boards just don't have much chance to meddle. Local issues remain local and have to be handled by due process rather than emotion or vengeance.

In many districts nepotism isn't just tolerated, it's a way of life. When a board member has children, spouses or in-laws working in the district, the temptation to attempt total control of a school, or at least an area of it, is practically irrestistible.

Treating a family member as the all-knowing answer to every issue just produces distrust, resentment and damage to the other children's education. Take a spoiled brat, with a hovering-helicopter mom, and you'll see the carnage produced as he or she goes through a small system.

It is easy to see with athletics. Even when they have limited skills, these kids get to play ahead of other children with more talent. Coaching vacancies follow their progress through the system. In some cases, every head coach quits if junior's princely status isn't granted.

The coach with high standards, fair practices and self-respect doesn't have a chance, and any disciplining of the "chosen one" can result in a quick termination of the coach.

Local control may have outlived its effectiveness when issues such as moving the pop machine or assembling a lynch mob can fill meeting rooms, while changing a math curriculum, choosing to eliminate vocational education, or censoring books brings almost no response.

Control is a good thing in the hands of well-meaning people, but in the wrong hands it destroys careers, ends dreams, and simply perpetuates the spoiled-brat status of those in favor. It shouldn't matter who your daddy is when it comes to a publicly funded education -- but, sadly, it still does.

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