Gordon LaferPhotograph by Todd Cooper

The Real Challenge in 4J Schools

The expertise of teachers and parents needs to be central to our decision making – along with administrators

By Gordon Lafer

In a recent Slant column, Eugene Weekly accused me and several other members of the Eugene District 4J Board of Directors of insulting district administrators. No specific examples were given — either in print or in response to follow-up questions. I was surprised to see this kind of charge made with no specific facts backing it up and no attempt to speak to myself or other board members before going to press.  

The Weekly’s Slant followed a statement by Interim Superintendent Cydney Vandercar that she would be keeping her senior staff away from school board meetings because she believed they hadn’t been treated with the respect their expertise demands. I believe the superintendent’s statement regarding respect for staff  was false and her decision a mistake. But after nearly two years of COVID-19, everyone in the school system is running on fumes and frayed nerves, and it’s understandable that people say things in those moments that they wouldn’t under normal circumstances. We all need to cut each other some slack.

But underlying this disagreement is an important debate that has nothing to do with personal communication styles and everything to do with how the school board should balance the insights of parents, classroom staff and central administrators.

I have great respect for the intelligence, expertise, creativity and hard work of Superintendent Vandercar and the other senior administrators who lead the district. These are people with advanced degrees, extensive knowledge and decades of experience. I would never want to make any decision without first hearing from them. 

Yet senior administrators are not the only people in the district with experience and expertise, and of course not the only ones whose views need to be respected. There are also more than 1,000 employees who have the expertise that comes from being in our classrooms every day and seeing how things work on the ground. And there are students and parents who have the expertise that comes from their own intensive experience of the school system.

The problem we run into is that as board members, we sometimes hear one thing from senior administrators, and something very different from groups of parents, teachers or classified staff. When that happens, it’s not “disrespectful” for the board to question a view put forth by administrators — it’s our job.

Honestly, it is easy for me to imagine that a senior administrator making a presentation to the board could feel that, after the issue’s been presented, board members should simply accept the staff’s explanation of the issue. After all, administrators have decades of experience and knowledge — who are board members but people who had a few more lawn signs than the other person and happened to get elected? How could we possibly think we have any basis for disagreeing with what senior staff tell us? It is genuinely easy for me to imagine how senior staff might feel that way — and not without some justification.

But there are two problems with that.

First, that’s not how democracy works. In democracy, the ultimate authority is the public, and voters elect board members as the highest policy-making authority. If we’re always just going to accept what administrators tell us, there’s no point in having an elected school board. 

The other problem is that if every time there’s a conflict between what senior administrators say and what teachers and parents say, the board is required to assume the administrators are right — that means disrespecting the voice and knowledge of parents and of the 1,000 plus employees who spend every day working with our kids. 

We know from experience that sometimes the knowledge of parents and staff turns out to be the most important. When Kelly Middle School and Yujin Gakuen Japanese Immersion Elementary School were merged into one building and asked for portable classrooms to accommodate the added students, senior administrators (in complete good faith) told us that according to standard metrics, there was already enough space for everyone. 

But parents and teachers — in jammed Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meetings and unanimous staff petitions — said otherwise. I came down on the side of trusting the experience of parents and teachers; the board majority decided differently. This year, the rest of the board concluded that parents and teachers really were right after all, and we’re now adding portables at Kelly. 

It’s not a disgrace to admit that none of us is infallible — especially in something as difficult as running a school district. Questioning how to balance the insights of administrators with those of classroom teachers is not disrespect — it’s essential to providing the best education we can to 4J students.

Ultimately, we will continue to have some version of this problem until we make a fundamental shift and start working in actual partnership with teachers, educational assistants, bus drivers and other staff. We need not just the input of individual teachers, but also the collective wisdom of staff as a group, expressed through their unions. Staff unions in 4J are too often treated strictly as opponents in collective bargaining. But there are many things that have nothing to do with money or collective bargaining on which administrators could and should be collaborating with and benefitting from the collective wisdom of school staff. 

We are stuck in an outmoded us-versus-them model. And it’s this model that keeps us thinking we’re in a zero-sum game where if we respect the voice of teachers, it’s intolerably disrespectful to administrative staff. This, above all, is the challenge we need to overcome.

Of course, there are many things we all want that we can’t afford, due to limited resources. But there are many things — developing creative and engaging classes, raising the quality of mentoring and teacher training programs, improving coordination between general education and special education teachers — where we can make critically needed improvements without spending a ton of money. The only way to do that is to leave behind the old us-versus-them model and start down a path of true partnership between administrators, teachers and classified staff — so that we can make the best decisions and provide the best possible education for our students.

Gordon Lafer is a professor at the University of Oregon and an elected member of the Eugene 4J School Board. 

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