Sunday, April 4, 2010

Small Town Frictions

One of my "beats" at the Calistoga Tribune is education, so I routinely cover school board meetings, high school plays, hiring of new teachers, the doings of honor students, etc. Much of the time, that news is positive and upbeat - a celebration of successes. But occasionally, it gets more political, and then, it can be just as gritty and challenging as covering City Hall or state politics.

Our much-loved school superintendent of 25 years retired last summer. His replacement, a woman from San Diego, was the top choice from a field of 27 candidates, and at first all looked rosy ahead. But it just happened that right at the moment she took over her post, there was a rift in the school board over a possible facilities bond (a proposal to build a new school gymnasium), and in the ensuing months, there has been increasing tension as two distinct camps have formed. They finally seemed to have come to an uneasy truce around January - and then three weeks ago, out of nowhere, the new superintendent announced that the principal and vice principal of the high school had requested "reassignment" to teaching positions. Of course, as the story came out, they had been given a choice of being let go completely or being reassigned. The high school principal happens to be another member of the community who, although admittedly quirky, has been thoroughly commited to the kids and the city, and has been involved in the administration for over 20 years.

The town exploded into two divisive camps once again, one backing the superintendent's right to make changes and head in a new direction, and one demanding answers and reasons, wanting to know what in the world had led her to make such a radical decision when she's only been in the community for nine months.

At last Monday's school board meeting, more than 200 people showed up, packing the community room beyond capacity, many willingly standing outside in the rain to hear the proceedings. And when, after all of that, it was clear that it was simply a formality, and the board (and superintendent) had no intention of reconsidering their choice, I began getting phone calls about the possibility of the initiation of a recall movement. (Neighboring St. Helena recently recalled their entire school board, so this is a very real threat.)

As a journalist, my job in these situations is challenging. I often have my own opinions about things, especially since I have quite a bit of insider knowledge because of my continuous scrutiny and coverage of these events. But, my role is to make sure everyone feels represented and heard, and that the news is presented on the page in as balanced a format as possible.

It's hard. I like the new superintendent. But right now, she's doing things that I don't like - obvious things, like not answering my calls, or sidestepping my questions. She's being evasive with me, which in turn makes it difficult for me to present her in the best light to the public. And other people are also expecting me to take "their" side - or, contrarily, assuming that I will NOT take their side, and so they won't return phone calls. It all turns into a ridiculous headache at times.

People frequently say to me, right after these meetings, "I hope you're going to be fair." As if I would purposefully try to be anything else. I want to say to them, "You have no idea. I labor over these stories, trying to make sure that I have given everyone their say. And then I go home, and spend the weekend worrying about how everyone will react to the quotes that I used. I know that I wrote down exactly what they said. And I also know that people sometimes get furious when you quote them. Sometimes, especially in heated situations, there's just no winning. Even fair isn't perceived as fair."

For the last three weeks, I have been covering this story. And unfortunately, I'm afraid it's just starting to heat up. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it will blow over. But my sense is that this board of trustees and this superintendent have no idea what Pandora's box they have opened with this high-handed approach.

The thing that makes me crazy is that it all could have been avoided if it had been packaged differently, if the community could have been made to feel included, if they had been told that this was part of a larger vision that was for their benefit. Instead, they have been treated like children, left completely in the dark by the "parents know best" attitude of the board and superintendents. And that is no way to build community.


  1. It sounds as if you have some very good thoughts that would fit right into an editorial. One informing the powers that be that they might be losing their jobs. People are generally anti-govt these days, in case they haven't noticed.

  2. Dear Michelle: I am a member of the Crystal Springs Sangha. I have a long perspective, in being a public employee much of my life. I would suggest that you right down all the facts, including the fact that you can't get answers from some people. From this material, select your article/ editorial. I would then try to get someone on each side, but not an extremist, to do a confidential review for you, before you publish. Its not easy, I know. -Tom Dickerman.