Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 12, 2004

Politicians’ prerequisite: A thick hide

Here’s a bit of advice for school district trustees and administrators: Grow a thicker skin.

From the looks of things in both of South County’s school districts, thin skins abound.

In Gilroy, the school board recently met in closed session and voted 6-1 to immediately fire a Gilroy High School teacher who had been critical of the district at board meetings and in the newspaper.

District officials deny that the teacher, a probationary employee who could be fired without cause, was terminated because she voiced her criticisms of the district to the newspaper and to the school board.

Funny, the “if it looks like a duck, and quack likes a duck” axiom leaps to mind.

And that’s the key: Perception. Intentionally or not, GUSD officials have sent the message that criticism of trustees and administrators will not be tolerated, and that employees might even pay for the luxury of expressing their First Amendment rights with their jobs.

That scary message can’t help but chill the free exchange of ideas, suggestions, and yes, even criticism that is paramount to an open society and to improving schools. It’s certainly not a lesson we should be teaching our children about citizenship and democracy.

Especially in public service where taxpayer dollars are involved and most especially when our children’s futures are stake, you’re going to get criticism. Develop a tough hide.

Which brings me to the mess that is the Morgan Hill Unified School District boardroom. Tensions have been high for months, with some community members so outraged at what they see as gross mismanagement of district finances and a hidden educational agenda that they’ve tried to recall four of the seven school board members. One of the recall targets recently resigned, and the other three have indicated they will not run for re-election when their terms expire in November.

But last week’s school board meeting was a doozy, even by the MHUSD’s  dizzying doozy standards of late.

Trustees were trying to decide how – or even if – to fill the vacancy created by the resignation. The newspaper endorsed a candidate, Jasmine Woodworth – the fifth-highest vote-getter in the last election. When Woodworth‘s name came up at the board meeting, the gloves came off.

According to reporter Marilyn Dubil’s article, MHUSD school board president George Panos, one of the recall targets, lambasted Woodworth as a loser and impugned her motives for assisting the recall proponents. He implied that Woodworth’s involvement in the recall movement should disqualify her for a school board seat. He even whined about wanting an “anti-harrassment policy” for the board.

While he was making his comments, an audience member shouted, “George, you’re a moron!”

Didn’t I tell you these meetings are better than soap operas?

I’ve met Panos on a few occasions and he always seemed like a reasonable man to me, but after reading the account of his comments, I was dumbfounded.

Guess what? This is a democracy. Recalls are part of the democratic process. You can agree with a recall or not, but every citizen has a right to their opinion. Any public official has to have a thick enough hide to deal with a wide variety of opinions. Supporting a recall – or not – has no bearing on Woodworth’s qualifications to serve on the school board.

I’d hate to impugn Panos’ motives for his vehement opposition to Woodworth, but not supporting her because she helped the folks who want to recall him sounds sour grapes to me.

Gov. Gray Davis, the subject of a bitter and successful recall drive, dealt with his opponent more graciously. It’s that tough hide.

Public servants and elected officials, and this goes double for those involved in public education, have got to have thick skins. Growing one will do wonders for their blood pressure levels, but more importantly, it will do wonders for the school district.

If you think that unanimous board votes and pats on the back from the public are the norm, if you’re going to have hissy fits when you hear from disgruntled parents and taxpayers, if you think teachers and other education professionals are going to agree with every initiative you put forth, you’re naive.

We don’t need naiveté on school boards. We need people who can weigh competing interests, listen to a wide range of points of view, who can see issues from a variety of perspectives and make decisions that are in the best interests of the students.

The process will involve criticism, disagreements, competing ideas and passion from parents and taxpayers. And it should.

If you want to be involved, you’ll need a thick skin.

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