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Wright and Wrong

Last night I attended the Springboro School Board Meeting. In this blog post I will offer my assessment of the meeting and the implications of what was presented. I will attempt to do so in a respectful manner, while still expressing my thoughts and views – hopefully in a rational, logical way. I am not out to spread rumors, run for office, or attack public servants, but rather to share information, offer perspective, and ask questions in hopes of getting clarity and understanding and ultimately to ensure that my children and the children of our community are getting the best possible education available to them today and in the future. These issues can be polarizing and sensitive, and I hope to engage in an intelligent discourse rather than demonize people or dismiss views other than my own. With that said, I left last night’s meeting with more questions than answers and feeling less confident in the direction the district seems to be pursuing than when I arrived. So… here goes…

The featured presenter was Jamie Callender, who was there to discuss charter schools. The speaker was polite and well versed in the topic. He drove five hours across the state to share his ideas with the people of Springboro. He painted a very positive picture of charter schools. He stated that for smaller districts with very limited resources and student populations too small to scale for specialized programs, charter schools can fill a niche for under-served children who may be gifted or have special needs. He also said that charter schools can provide innovation in failing districts where the traditional approach is not working. He is clearly is very passionate about the topic. He was respectful and measured in his presentation so as not to anger anyone or appear overly zealous. In his presentation he offered examples of where charter schools have been effective such as:

1.) Struggling districts in the urban core where residents were leaving, schools were failing, and there was an urgent need to “do something.”
2.) A small rural community with an historic, unused school building that was an important architectural asset to the town. They started a charter school and saved an historical structure in the process.
3.) A creative arts academy in a village in Northeast, Ohio.

He indicated his interest in potentially helping Springboro convert the Jonathan Wright building into a charter school. The board reciprocated this sentiment and appeared very interested in exploring the possibility of developing a charter school in our community. The superintendent closed the discussion for the meeting by taking the time to say how excellent our current teachers and administrators are – kudos to him for doing so.

The people in the audience had a lot of questions for the speaker, but due to time constraints were not able to ask him much. In defense of the board, there was a very lengthy agenda for the meeting. In the future, such discussions might be better served if the board shortens the normal agenda and allows for more public involvement. That is a decision for them to make, not me, and I understand the need to close the discussion at some point so as to get on with the business at hand.

The presentation was interesting, but lacked an answer to the question of why this is relevant to or proper for Springboro to explore. Springboro has an innovative gifted programs that offers formative assessment and flexible grouping, something unique for the area and highly effective in challenging gifted children. Springboro also has a great special education program that focuses on inclusion and individual attention for those with special educational needs. I’ve experienced both of these programs first hand and can attest to their excellence. These programs are not weaknesses for our district, but rather unique strengths that attract new residents and drive up property values. The only problem the gifted program has is one of capacity, which could be solved by simply reassigning our existing group of excellent teachers to expand the number of students admitted. Solving this problem requires simple flexibility not charter schools, and it is indicative of the excellent work being done in our preschool, Kindergarten, and early elementary classrooms. Too many smart kids is a great problem for a district to have. So neither gifted nor special education really makes much sense to me, as I don’t perceive these as areas where we struggle.

The closest thing to a logical rationale for this idea was a purely financial argument that was described by the speaker as “a bit of a shell game” whereby the district shifts the responsibility of paying for students enrolled in the charter school back to the state’s general fund. This confusing back door approach apparently yields money for the district in a pass through scheme, but seems at best exploitative and more along the lines of irresponsible and unethical. It does rely on using the State’s general fund to pay for education rather than the current system of using property taxes. I realize this appeals to people, so perhaps this is the real rationale behind this idea.

I will also share that when I was talking to Mr. Callender in the hallway outside of the meeting, he willingly shared that he is a self described “radical right-wing conservative” (his words not mine), who is morally opposed to funding public education through property taxes. As a radical moderate, I was a bit surprised that he would be so candid with me, but he has every right to his opinions and I appreciate his honesty and openness. (For those who want to accuse me of spreading rumors about Mr. Callender, others were present when when the comment was made.) From what I gather of Mr. Callender, I don’t believe he would have any problem owning those words, which I respect. Mr. Callendar believes in his ideas, has strong opinions much different from my own, and yet still was actually quite enjoyable to talk to. He is a caring dad, a public speaker, and a dedicated professional – we happen to share those traits. I don’t believe him to be a demon or a despot, but he does have ideas that I don’t believe align with the needs of our community.

In reality, someone still has to pay for the kids who would attend this school. Finding a way to make others in the state pay for it so that we can run a scheme to make money in the process seems like an odd philosophy for a public education system to espouse. Ironically, shifting dollars from local government to the state seems strangely “unconservative” too. Springboro is not an impoverished area and the people here can afford to fulfill the responsibility of supporting our schools – which by the way are rated excellent with distinction. I speculate that if we spent a little less time exploring alternatives to our system and focused more on communicating the value our schools, teachers, and administrators deliver to the community, perhaps the people here would understand why it is smart to support them.

Implementing a gifted school in Springboro would seem to be a dream come true for a charter school. By pulling out gifted kids, you would be removing the kids that score well on standardized tests from the public schools into the charter school. It is very easy to then see how the charter school would do well, providing what would falsely appear to be validation to the model, while the public schools would suffer – giving justification for expansion of the program. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, I don’t view helping people prove a point through a skewed experiment as a good use of our time or resources. I also don’t believe based on what I presently know that this will somehow improve the quality of education our children receive.

When it comes to district sponsored charter schools in Springboro, I’m just not sold. In the end this feels more like a political initiative than an educational one. There seems to be no identified educational need that this plan would satisfy, other than to use our kids as part of a socio-political experiment. We have a great gifted program. We have an excellent special needs program. Our general student population outperforms comparable districts. Our teachers are amazing and caring people and brilliant, devoted educators. Our superintendent publicly states his enthusiasm for how great our teachers and administrators are and that he is committed to making our great system even better.

There may well be a proper place for charter schools in Ohio. I just don’t think it’s Springboro. Our district regularly tests higher than others in the region. We have great teachers, excellent facilities, and impressive results. I hope that our board, all of whom I applaud for investing their personal time in serving our community, is carefully evaluating its actions. I respect their views and their right to have opinions that greatly different from my own. I ask that they think about their purpose, listen to the genuine concerns of the public, and not dismiss those with questions as somehow vindictive or rumor mongers. Our children’s future is at stake and an engaged, informed public is essential to a strong community. In the end, everyone in our community should have a sense of “Boro Pride.”

My humble advice to the board as a simple citizen, local taxpayer, and concerned parent: Please focus your energy and attention on leveraging the unique strength that our current school system represents to our community.

My humble advice to other parents and citizens of Springboro: Speak up and get involved. The board works for the people, not the other way around. Respectfully use your voice to share your thoughts and guide their actions.