The speaker’s assessment was straightforward:
“The body language, the facial expressions and all the rest — we’re not respecting each other.”
Yes, it was a Duval County school superintendent talking about relationships among School Board members and him.
But the year was 1995, and the speaker was Superintendent Larry Zenke.
Current School Board member Cheryl Grymes was also a board member at that time.
“I think we are a horribly dysfunctional group,” she said.
That same description, minus the modifier horribly, is coming up again in conversations about the current School Board.
The answer in 1995 was a two-day retreat with a $150-an-hour psychologist to help the board members and superintendent to learn to work together.
In a column, I described how that retreat went:
“I am a tree, one said. Not an apple tree or an oak tree, but all trees.
“Another drew a picture of a hat as her symbol.
“Climb every mountain was the motto of one.
“There were purple, green, yellow and red markers galore, and plenty of smiles of encouragement with accompanying oohs and aahs.”
That effort at harmony was destined to fail as three of the seven board members refused to even show up.
I concluded “Good grief!” and offered this advice for considerably less than $150 an hour: “Act like adults.”
I offer the same advice to the current School Board and to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as they move toward hiring a mediator to help repair relationships and set goals.
Fortunately, we dodged a bullet last week as speculation grew that Vitti was going to be fired.
Board Chairwoman Ashley Smith Juarez had indeed asked him to resign, and there were likely enough votes on the board to terminate his contract.
But that would have been a huge mistake, and by week’s end, it didn’t happen.
Vitti has been a needed change agent. Graduation rates are improving. Test scores are up. He has the support of the business community, some of whom are investing big dollars to improve our schools.
Clearly, there was some personal animosity involved in this flare up.
But now that public apologies have been offered, it’s time to move forward.
The concern over the achievement gap between minority students and white students is legitimate.
As the board and Vitti set goals for improvement, they should be bold but fair and take into account that many of the causes for low achievement are outside the schools — from broken families to poverty.
That’s not an excuse but a reality the whole community must deal with.
That free advice I offered in 1995 included this:
“Remember you asked to be a School Board member. You weren’t drafted. In fact, you asked people to vote for you.
“If there is some confusion what your goal should be, that’s simple: You should represent the people who elected you and do what’s best for the education of their children.
“To do that, you will need to gather information, respect each other’s viewpoints and engage in rational, straightforward debate.”
In other words, act like adults.
Ron.Littlepage@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4284