Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 18, 2006

Tough decisions and drop-ins

I don’t know whether or not Gilroy City Administrator Jay Baksa and City Attorney Linda Callon have overstepped their boundaries as staff members and interjected their opinions into city council debates, as Councilman Craig Gartman charged recently, or not.

In case you missed it, Gartman raised this uncomfortable topic at a last week’s Gilroy City Council policy summit meeting, although he was apparently alone with his concerns.

“I find that these personal experiences and personal opinions on items go beyond their responsibility,” Gartman said, referring to Baksa and Callon. “[Their personal opinions] are being interjected and I want that to stop.”

I do know that the proper role of staff in the running of governmental agencies is an important issue and Gilroyans are fortunate that it’s on Gartman’s mind.

As a former newspaper reporter and editor, and as someone who still closely watches local events, I can tell you that members of boards, councils and similar bodies rely heavily on their paid staff. That’s especially true on boards like Gilroy City Council, where holding the office is a part-time job. Members of these boards have full lives, and very often full-time jobs, outside of their duties as city council, school board or water district board members.

Elected officials should rely on staff members, they’re paying them; but what they’re paying them to do is to research issues to provide background data and handle day-to-day operations.

But it’s the duty of elected officials to make the tough decisions.

They’re the ones who are elected by voters, they’re the ones who have to explain their decisions to disgruntled residents, they’re the ones who voters will hold responsible when they stand for re-election or seek higher office.

Too often, I’ve seen the elected officials give the appearance of being rubber stamps. If the staff wants it, they say yes.

After all, many rubber-stamp elected officials seem to think, it’s uncomfortable to disagree with someone you rely on heavily, and staff members are paid professionals, not part-time elected officials, so they must know best.

But the rubber-stamp syndrome is never a good thing for taxpayers and voters.

Elected officials’ responsibility is to keep the best interest of their constituents, not their staff members, as their top priority. When elected officials fall victim to the rubber-stamp syndrome, they deservedly lose the respect of their constituents.

Maybe Gartman’s right, maybe he’s wrong about Baksa and Callon. But Gilroyans are better off because he raised this sticky subject that many would rather ignore. Because Gartman’s aware of the proper role of staff, and because Gilroyans, his fellow council members, and city staff know that he’s aware, it’s much more likely that staff members will observe their proper roles and that city council won’t fall victim to rubber-stamp syndrome.

***

I’m following the small uproar regarding what fellow columnist Cynthia Walker has termed “drop-ins” at Gilroy High School with much interest. It was detailed last week in Walker’s column and reporter Heather Bremner’s article.

Apparently, GHS is about to enforce a long-ignored policy not to accept credits from students transferring from non-accredited schools. This often affects home-school students and students from some private schools who want to transfer to GHS.

Walker opined that the policy is unfair to drop-ins, and she’s exactly right.

A state education official told Bremner that GHS’s drop-in policy is perfectly legal. That doesn’t make it right. The policy doesn’t even rise to the level of common sense.

Isn’t the goal of of GHS to produce students who have mastered the material necessary to earn a high school diploma? The goal of GHS should not be to ensure that students master jockeying a desk owned by an accredited institution for 180 days.

But if GHS officials do not allow drop-in students to demonstrate mastery of a subject via a proficiency test and award credits for passing grades, the message the administrators are sending is that they value desk time over subject mastery.

If a student can prove that he’s mastered geometry by passing a proficiency test, give him credit for geometry. If she can prove that she’s mastered world history by passing a proficiency test, give her credit for world history. It’s not difficult and it’s not controversial.

When you look at this situation with the high school exit exam in mind, it becomes even more ridiculous. How is it that GHS can produce students who earn enough credits to graduate but cannot pass the high school exit exam that tests, at best, 10th-grade material?

Do GHS administrators really need to worry about students who know the material but didn’t warm accredited chairs long enough? GHS officials need to drop the dumb drop-in policy.

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