Opinion: Obligated to give top-notch education, no matter whatSeveral years ago, one of our Mitchell Middle School instructors, Kelli Baysinger, handed me a sheet of yellowing, well-worn paper taped to a framing piece of tattered gray construction paper. On it was a bit of prose titled “The Superintendent’s Lament.” The prose includes eight couplets, each of which has two sentences expressing the superintendent-specific notion of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
Several years ago, one of our Mitchell Middle School instructors, Kelli Baysinger, handed me a sheet of yellowing, well-worn paper taped to a framing piece of tattered gray construction paper. On it was a bit of prose titled “The Superintendent’s Lament.” The prose includes eight couplets, each of which has two sentences expressing the superintendent-specific notion of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
One example includes: “If I’m always at my office, why don’t I get out and learn what’s going on. If I’m out when they call, why am I not tending to business.”
I treasure this increasingly frayed document for a couple of reasons. First, it came from the desk of Don Barnhart, the last elected secretary of education in South Dakota. That his daughter thought enough of me to give me one of her father’s professional artifacts made me feel pretty good. Second, there is some truth in it. That truth isn’t that the school superintendency is a no-win situation. (It is, at times, but what job or relationship or experience isn’t on occasion?) The truth, rather, is that you can’t let the buggers get you down. Some people are always going to snipe at you no matter what. Others, of course, give you great advice and provide counsel you can’t afford not to hear and heed. If you can’t discern the difference, you are doomed.
My typical strategy for dealing with people who take potshots and really have very little basis for what they are saying is to ignore them. This view isn’t universally held, however. Two consummate, local politicians (and, yes, I consider that a great compliment; Lincoln was a highly skilled politician), I’ve noted go to great lengths not to ignore unfair criticism. I’ve heard or read City Councilman Mel Olson state on a number of occasions that unrefuted criticisms are assumed to be true. Mayor Sebert takes on even somewhat banal charges — the really rather minor expense of erecting a temporary ice skating rink in front of the hockey area — very seriously, engaging his opponent and winning unconditional surrender from him. (U.S. Grant could take lessons from our mayor.) This hasn’t typically been my style. I’ve generally assumed that the truth will out and left the snipers to their craft.
Unfortunately, with the budgetary crisis at the state level and its implications for school districts, my usual stance may not entirely work just now. Thus, I suppose it is time to clarify a few items:
1. I do not set my own salary. It is determined by the school board and generally reflects market conditions (comparisons to other superintendencies in analogous schools), compensation changes for other employees in the district, budgetary realities and job performance, in no particular order. On at least two occasions since I came to Mitchell, I declined raises offered me due to local fiscal realities.
2. The electronic sign constructed at Mitchell Middle School was paid for almost entirely with private donations from the Exchange Club, Innovative Systems, the Tobacco Coalition, Toshiba and others. These very generous local concerns helped Mr. Berens, middle school principal, find a new, convenient way to communicate with parents and I applaud them and him for it.
3. That I described the governor’s budgetary recommendation for schools as “the worst case scenario” was intended only to convey that of all the discussed school finance formula proposals —+1.2 percent, zero percent, -5 percent, -10 percent — the governor’s suggestion of -10 percent was indeed the worse of the alternatives for schools. I would point out, additionally, that I also stated in an earlier column that the governor’s stance for removing the structural deficit in one fell swoop has a lot of say for it. It is a bold, decisive move and one more worth supporting than half measures. I intend, nevertheless, to see if there are cuts in other areas that can be made to lessen the impact on South Dakota schools. When we make budgetary cuts in our schools in Mitchell, I generally don’t cut every line item by the same percentage. Some programs are less important than others and these should take the larger cut, perhaps even be eliminated, rather than reduce the effectiveness of core programs such as elementary school reading instruction.
4. We will, in fact, make cuts this year. The only question that remains is just how large they will be, and we can’t know that until the Legislature completes it work this year. Given the size of the numbers already being discussed in the governor’s proposals, I expect those cuts to be significant and I expect that lots of programs and people, including the superintendent and all employee groups, will share in them. I really can’t fathom why some are already pointing the finger at the school for being unwilling to make cuts. I don’t want to make cuts. I don’t like making cuts. But we will make cuts and I’ve already publicly acknowledged this on several occasions.
5. History bears this out. I have been in Mitchell for over 10 years. I believe we have made cuts in all but two of those years. We’ve eliminated teaching and administrative and clerical positions. We’ve closed facilities including the Reese warehouse, the administration building and the swimming pool. We’ve cut supply budgets and bus routes. We sought and received outside assistance for certain programs.
6. As I’ve already alluded to, however, cutting isn’t a panacea. I have an obligation, as does the school board, the teachers, and all the employees of the Mitchell School District, to offer a top-notch education to our students no matter what.
That is an obligation I intend to fulfill, and I’ll be damned if I don’t.