As South Tama County’s Superintendent, I am quickly realizing how polarizing a bond referendum vote can be for the community. Prior to taking this job, I have watched other school districts go through bond referendum votes and I’ve been appalled by how heated communication between opposing sides can become. Now, as we prepare for our own Middle School Bond Referendum vote on March 3rd, I am witnessing firsthand how this process can divide a community.
The school district has invested the last 16 months in finding solutions for our aging, 104-year-old middle school. Last summer, a fire started in the basement of our middle school and left us scrambling to open school on time (see above). In the spring of 2019 we had a ceiling tile fall during the middle of class and landed on a student (see below). These two incidents - coupled with the recent facilities assessment indicating that the middle school needs between $5 and $9 million in updates in the near future - served as the catalyst to set our sights on providing a new middle school for the community.
From day one, we have promised open communication and shared decision making. Not only have we been transparent and timely in our communication, we have also encouraged stakeholder input throughout the process. We have promoted a number of public meetings, creating several leadership committees and subcommittees. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how I clarified “anyone who is passionate about helping move the STC buildings and facilities forward is welcome to be a part of our meetings" in the July 25th edition of the Tama Toledo News.
Despite this straightforward approach, the school district’s intentions and motives have been questioned through a barrage of social media posts and letters to the editor. Many accusations and assumptions have been shared about the school board, staff, and even myself. I have spoken to a number of staff and community members who are frustrated and hurt by the fabricated information that is being shared about our school district.
While some community members believe moving forward on the defense will restore the emotions, my personal opinion is that school district leadership should demonstrate professionalism and high character at all times. My belief is that effective leaders don’t engage in bitter exchanges on social media and avoid publishing blistering responses in the newspaper. Instead, they stay positive, optimistic, and focused on the goals of the organization.
I think about what has been communicated these last couple weeks and can’t help but think about a quote from the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. It reads as follows: “At a time when we have 24/7 access to social media and news feeds that are being refreshed literally every second, our exposure to other people's energy - positive or negative - is higher than ever. And the more of it we absorb, the more it impacts our motivation, our engagement, our performance."
I have challenged myself and I challenge you not to be absorbed in the negativity that has surrounded this bond vote and in social media in general. Help our school district by encouraging others to not let the pessimism that can prevail on social media and in the newspaper impact our focus, our priorities, and - most importantly - our students.
Sadly, when a community is divided, the individuals who are impacted the most are future generations. In my opinion, the students in our school district deserve a much better middle school than the building they are currently attending. According to this Comprehensive Facilities Assessment completed last year, the current middle school presents a multitude of code issues and safety hazards (see below). It is clear that the middle school has a number of deficiencies that need to be addressed immediately. As adults we often get caught up in disputes over how decisions are being made or how money is spent. Unfortunately, very rarely do we take a step back and look at those impacted by our actions.
As I reflect again on the mindset I want to model for all these last few weeks before the vote, I ask that you think of the words of Hamish Brewer. In his book Relentless, he offers this bit of advice: “Your attitude is one of the few things that is within your absolute control. As educators, we spend way too much time trying to control the things we have no control over. Release yourself from the shackles of toxic behaviors and conversations that weigh down your attitude.”
I encourage all school district employees to not lose sight of why we are here. I encourage our community to reunite and move forward together. Our education system is the life of our community and we must be committed to doing what is best for our current student body and future generations of South Tama County.