The Bangor School Committee’s three-year, 300-plus unanimous vote streak may be seen as evidence of a well-oiled machine producing quality education for the community it serves. But as with the other components of our representative government, such unanimity also can be seen as a symptom of unhealthy rigidity and conformity. Put plainly, schools and education are messy endeavors, and their citizen governance should reflect some of the inherent conflict, debate and compromise.
By most accounts, Bangor schools are first-rate in performing their valuable service to the community and society. Generally speaking, students perform well, parents are pleased with the department’s responsiveness, and compared with many school districts around the state, schools are operated efficiently on the taxpayer’s dime. This reflects well on the superintendent, the committee for which she works, and school administrators, faculty and staff.
But as soon as that assertion is made, a counterargument arises. Surely not all is perfect in the schools, or with administrators, faculty and staff. Where do unhappy parents go to complain about poor decisions, questionable policies or programs they believe are not worth their cost?
By itself, the streak of unanimous votes might seem benign enough. But coupled with firsthand accounts of former committee members, reported in Eric Russell’s recent BDN story, a disturbing picture emerges. It seems to be a unanimity achieved by squelching dissent; differences of opinion suppressed in the interest of presenting a united front; parental complaints shunted from the public forum to the confines of an administrator’s office to protect reputations.
This last point is the linchpin of the edifice that has been built around the committee. Most school committees and boards allow the public — parents, neighbors of school buildings, area business owners, concerned taxpayers — ample time to address the people elected to represent them at meetings. Bangor’s school committee’s stringent rules for public comment have the unintended consequence of keeping members in the dark.
A parent whose 5-year-old child was repeatedly allowed to board the bus without her coat on in the dead of winter would be barred from speaking. So would the parent whose 15-year-old son was subjected to racial slurs in the basketball team locker room. A controversial novel used in an age-inappropriate class might spur parents to approach the committee, but under the rules, they might be denied the right to speak if their remarks were deemed as denigrating to the teacher.
Granted, the first stop for all parents with gripes should be the teacher or building principal. If they are not satisfied, they can see another administrator. But the interests of parents — and that of all city residents — are represented by committee members. They can be contacted privately, but there are times when these issues must come before the full group.
The committee should welcome dissent. Its collective wisdom cannot only lead to solutions to problems, but by knowing the school system’s weaknesses and shortcomings, it can act to make it better. Such actions often follow vigorous debate, debate that may not resolve into a consensus. And certainly, not yield years of unanimous votes.
A little public debate, a few gripes aired at meetings, a committee willing to disagree sometimes with its superintendent would make an excellent school system better, not worse.