Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My First Syracuse City School Board Meeting


I went to the school board meeting last night and, though I wanted to talk about how testing is ruining school for kids and teachers, the talk was all about the suspensions and safety in schools. It was a contentious meeting for which two sides had been recruited. On one side of the room were parents most concerned about the reports of suspensions increasingly being applied to minority students. That side supports the superintendent. The other side of the room was concerned with a lack of safety for students and teachers. Most of these oppose the superintendent and said that she had worked to keep them from coming.

It was something of a mess.

In the end, after thirty people had spoken, the board moved to study the increased suspensions  but made little mention of school safety. In part, this was because they were better organized and represented than the school safety group.

I think the two things go together, but combining them will make one side or the other disappointed. Studying the two issues together would lead to better ideas about what to do, but it wouldn't seem like a good way to go for many of the stakeholders who appeared at the meeting. There is too much polarization along racial lines and regarding the superintendent.

A couple of things that I learned from the meeting follow.

  • Decisions are made by those who show up. People who come to meetings and speak have a chance of getting results. Those who don't show up or don't speak (I showed up but didn't speak) will find their issues ignored. Had the school safety people organized better, bringing a larger and louder contingent, that issue might have taken the forefront.
  • The media is a necessary. This is going to be trickier as the Post-Standard continues its death-spiral, but getting ideas into the public space forces action. The paper's coverage of the suspensions got it into the meeting and a lack of coverage kept the school safety issue from taking hold.
  • Superintendent Contreras is polarizing. The two groups could not have been more opposed in their feelings about her. She mobilizes forces well in pursuit of her agenda and she is deft at quashing rebellion. I understand why teachers and administrators choose not to speak. I wouldn't draw Contreras's attention in this time when so many teachers are going to be moved or cut.
  • School board meetings aren't designed for discussion. The meeting's first 45 minutes were taken up with proclamations, a performance by students, and other things such that the comment time for each parent/stakeholder was cut from three to two minutes. Speakers were applauded by one side or the other and then sat down. The board never spoke to these issues.
  • The board needs to communicate. At least one member seems concerned with the lack of communication between the board and parents and stakeholders. He is right to be concerned. The bureaucracy is very difficult to navigate. This was my first board meeting (not my last) and I can only imagine when I will begin to understand how to make a difference. 

I'll go back to the board meetings from now on and be more involved in promoting parent attendance there. We need to advocate for better schools for our kids, making sure that we aren't harming our children by keeping them in the Syracuse City Schools. The only ways to do that are to show up at meetings, organize other parents, and of course, to write on.