May 14, 2013 10:01:52 AM
There is probably no animal more easily frightened than the starling, for whom the slightest unexpected noise can send the flock flying away in a panic.
The Lowndes County School Board is beginning to rival that timid breed, however.
For the second time in about two months, the board has scurried away for cover in the face of parental opposition to its announced policies.
In March, the district quickly reversed its decision to discontinue its gifted program for seventh and eighth graders when parents howled in protest.
On Friday, the district backed down from its decision to enforce a county-wide school uniform policy in the face of parental outcry, primarily from Caledonia parents and their advocate, board member Jane Kilgore, who submitted the proposal to amend the board's earlier decision, opening the door for individual schools to opt out of the policy.
When the board agreed to back away from its decision to end the gifted program, we applauded the board for its decision.
But we believe the board has erred in backing down on the uniform policy.
The obvious questions is why is it a good idea to yield to parental pressure in one instance and a bad idea in the other?
It is not merely a matter of favoring one policy and being opposed to another.
Rather, the distinction we draw is in the process and in the precedent it creates.
In the gifted program case, the district had been working on the plan to replace the program for three years, yet it was not until two weeks before it was to make the change official that it first notified parents of the plan. The one and only public hearing on the subject, held just a few days before the board was to vote, drew a group of about 75 parents who made their objections clearly known. Under that pressure, the board amended its plan, keeping the gifted program intact. In this case, parental pressure succeeded in finding a compromise that satisfied all stake-holders. The board was able to find a way to start the new program it desired while keeping the gifted program. Everybody wins.
The circumstances surrounding the school uniform case is far different. The idea of adopting school uniforms has been discussed and debated for more than a decade. Last year, the district sent out a survey asking parents for their opinion on the matter. The results showed that 30 percent of the parents were opposed to school uniforms and 20 percent favored the idea. The largest percentage -- a full 50 percent -- did not respond at all.
In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for the board to issue the survey in the first place .A far better strategy would have been to hold public hearings, which would have provided a forum for all stakeholders to articulate their views on the matter. With a survey, all you get is a "yes" or "no." It adds nothing to the conversation. What's more, a survey implies that the issue has been put to a vote, something the board never intended.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the gifted program and school uniform issues is that in the case of school uniforms, the board's decision to reverse its field was based on the outspoken opinion of just one group of stakeholders.
While the board has an obligation to listen to parents, it also should respect the opinions of other stakeholders -- teachers, administrators and staff.
The decision to ignore the wishes of those groups is unfortunate because they, more than any other group, are those responsible for implementing policy. The idea of school uniforms was broadly supported by teachers and administrators. Their arguments were persuasive enough to convince the board to adopt a school uniform policy -- until parents protested. Just like that, the legitimate views on all other stakeholders were discarded.
Of course, it should be noted that school uniforms are far from the most pressing concern schools face today.
Of greater concern, is the precedent that has been established.
If you don't like the school board's decision all that is required is to collect 20 or 30 parents and speak out.
The board will be listening and, like starlings taking flight at the first sudden noise, it will abandon its position.
There is nothing more easily frightened than the starling, and nothing with less resolve than the Lowndes County School Board.
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