About the HCS Board Meeting 7/7/11

I attended my first HCS School Board meeting July 7, 2011, and I was struck by how what I was seeing seemed minimally connected to what information is readily available for public scrutiny. So my assessment is based on my position as an audience member watching a  performance. I have no interest in a blow-by-blow. You can see the meeting for yourself  at the HCS site.

Best Bits

First, I was very impressed by the demeanor of Dr. Wardynski. If his actions prove consistent with his expressed commitment to basing his decisions on what is best for the students, then I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the HCS. He can’t do it alone, however.

My favorite three minutes were courtesy of a citizen’s comment. One Dr. Scales confirmed what I’ve suspected for the past month: Steve Salmon of Education Planners is no more a demographer than I am. Scales says he checked with the professional association for demographers, the Population Association of America, and Salmon is not one of its members. I just visited the website, and James Wilson also does not appear in their directory. Well done, Dr. Scales. Welcome to the world of DIY investigative journalism.

He then proceeded in about a minute to list what took me seven posts to cover, that is, the main faults of Salmon’s Facility Utilization Study:

  • No problem statement.
  • No methodology.
  • Incomplete and missing data.
  • No analysis.
  • No conclusions.
  • Recommendations are not supported by data.

Earlier in the evening, Dr. Wardynski said he would be meeting with Salmon on July 8. My fantasy is that the not-demographer has been summoned to Huntsville for a verbal thrashing.

An Interesting Exchange

The third item under Work Session on the agenda reads: “Bus Rules — p. 55-56.” Now, whether you look at the Bylaws published on the HCS site or those designated as revised 4/21/11, “citizen comments germane to an item on the Work Session agenda may be allowed,” but citizens have to sign up to speak before the meeting. (Questions about these Bylaws were raised during the meeting, and my impression is that there is no consensus regarding which ones are in effect. I’ve looked at Minutes for meetings prior to 4/21/11 and I can’t find when the revision was first proposed.) The problem is that if citizens lack information regarding Work Session items, for example pp 55-56 (pages of what?), how will they know ahead of the meeting time whether they have questions or comments on a topic?

Anyway, from what I could piece together, Dr. Richardson recommended cutting back on bus aides as a cost-savings measure and implementing a no- or low-tolerance plan for dealing with any misbehavior on the bus for all grade levels. Nobody is going to argue, I hope, that behavior on the bus which endangers the riders’ safety can be tolerated. But the impression I got is that the issue is punishment for bad but not risky behavior, like using profanity. I got the impression that the penalty for just about anything has been changed to being kicked off the bus for 3 days. (I’d much rather tell you the facts rather than repeating I got the impression, but those are not for my eyes — or yours, apparently.)

The problem wasn’t stated like this, but my analysis of the disagreement is that it comes down to this question: If the same punishment is meted out for the same behavior to two kids but the practical consequences of the punishment are radically different, then can the policy be just?

Board Member Dr. Jennie Robinson, who represents the affluent Southeast, began the discussion by asserting that riding the bus is “privilege and not a right.” Board Member Laurie McCaulley said she had been contacted by a single mother of an elementary school kid who lives off Balch Road and had been kicked off the bus for 3 days for using bad language. She had no car and no way to get him to school (probably about 7 miles — lucky he doesn’t live on Dogwood Flats, 19 miles away from its zoned elementary, Providence).

Let’s think about this, starting with the privilege vs. a right issue. We agree that in the US all kids have a right to a public school education. This doesn’t mean that they can’t lose the right temporarily through suspension or permanently through expulsion, but there are guidelines in place (I assume) regarding what kind of behavior gets you in that kind of trouble.

Now then, if the School Board is making the rules about who can and can’t ride the bus, then it seems to me that it is claiming, in effect, that when the child boards the bus, he is under its authority — he is, for all purposes, at school. And thus, would it not follow that if a kid has a right to attend a public school, he has a right to ride the bus, that it is no more a privilege than is attending classes? Attending school isn’t only a right, it is a legal obligation of the parent and kid.

Now let’s look at what happens to two kids, both kicked off the bus. John lives in a household with  at least one car. Paul lives in a household with no car. John lives 4 miles from his school. Paul lives 19 miles from his school and there is no public transportation. John’s mom or dad or nanny loads him into the car and complains for the 10-minute ride to school over the next 3 days. Paul stays home, picking up 3 days’ unexcused absences, 3 days of zeroes.

John’s driver feels hassled. Paul may as well have been suspended. Question: had John and Paul both broken whatever rule in the school building that they broke on the bus, would they have each received a 3-day suspension?

If you have resources, if you have a car and money for gas, being kicked off the bus is no big deal for your kid. But if you don’t, it is. If you have money, you don’t need to think about what you’d do if you didn’t. But if you are making the rules for those who don’t, spare them an occasional thought, please. Yea, life isn’t fair. But that gives us no excuse for not being as fair as we can be or for making provisions that acknowledge the reality that life isn’t fair.

What provisions am I thinking about? How about the kid can ride the bus if accompanied by a parent or guardian? The miscreant would be mortified, and such a punishment would deter others who would hate to be squashed against their scowling mom all the way to and from school for 3 days.

The most universally effective provision would be to take advantage of the buyer’s market for those hiring and to choose the bus aides wisely. Don’t go for someone who has never commanded people. Find retired teachers and drill sergeants of the finger-shaking, in-your-face, if-looks-could-kill, don’t-even-think-about-it variety. Hell, you might not even have to pay them. Where can I sign on?


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