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The High Cost Of Incivility

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What we can learn from the suicide of a superintendent

In the lives of each of us, there are defining moments, those single specks of a lifetime when we are required to search our hearts and souls. Usually these moments are defined by events, great or small, that touch the very core of our existence and dictate, from that moment on, our behavior. Last March, in Albany, N.Y., such an event occurred for me.

Colleen Fennell, the superintendent of the Wynantskill, N.Y., school district, committed suicide. A year before, 14 charges had been been brought against her by a split vote of the board of education and she had endured nine days of a public arbitration hearing. She prevailed on all charges but one and part of another, which were termed by the arbitrator as "trifling."

Ms. Fennell's suicide occurred on the Saturday following another acrimonious executive-session meeting between her and the school board. This was not the first meeting of this sort; contentious behavior from some members of the board had become the norm rather than the exception.

Though we can all reflect on the agony Ms. Fennell must have experienced, we will never fully understand her despair or comprehend her act. As great a personal tragedy as this is, however, it raises for educational leaders an even greater issue.

Somewhere during the last decade the veneer of civility within the educational community has been lost. We have been required to accept in our public life behavior we would not tolerate in our private lives. In some communities, the divisiveness between elected members of a school board and the superintendent has reached the point of a blood sport. Once stirred, the acrimony spills over into the school district, to the administrative team, to the teachers and support staff, to the parents, and to the students. Sides are chosen, and odds are placed on the combatants--only these odds are manifest in the behaviors people display. Who will win the battle becomes the talk of the town. In the end, just like any other war, no one wins and everyone loses.

As a direct result of the treatment of our educational leaders, a new cynicism can be found in our schools.

The lack of regard for and the callous treatment of superintendents, principals, other administrators, and supervisors is beginning to have a chilling effect on the future of public education. Fewer educators are enrolling in administrative preparatory programs, the number of candidates for administrative vacancies is rapidly declining, and, for the first time, districts have been forced to employ recruiters to seek out candidates to fill building-level and supervisory positions. As a direct result of the treatment of our educational leaders, a new cynicism can be found in our schools. "Who cares what the superintendent thinks? The board hasn't renewed the contract of the last three superintendents. She will be gone in two years, so we'll just wait her out."

Perhaps the greatest loser in this "war" is not the adults but the children. In many instances, we have been diverted from our mission of educating children. When a county district attorney files charges against a superintendent that are allegedly motivated by political purposes, we are diverted; when a "tax pac" group representative reportedly hires a private detective to investigate the personal life of an administrator, we are diverted; when a school board president verbally attacks a building principal in front of the faculty, we are diverted.

Rather than reflecting upon the needs of children, we reflect upon our own needs of survival. Rather than thoughtfully discussing the educational curriculum, we discuss strategies of endurance. Rather than taking the necessary risks of leadership, we focus on the perils that lie before us.

The resentment and animosity between school board members, superintendents, administrators, and teachers must end. Each of us, personally and professionally, must become a living example of the behaviors we expect of our child. We will differ on some issues, but surely we can do so with dignity and respect. Yes, there will always be a political agenda, but together we must assure that the political agenda does not overshadow the educational agenda.

All educators must come to regard one another as colleagues and teammates in the great quest of public education. Our failure to seize this moment will only lead to a great American tragedy. Our failure to act now will only continue the degradation of our educational leaders and teachers. And our failure to come to terms with the incivility that has invaded our board meetings will only lead to another Wynantskill tragedy.

Today, any person who cares about public education must take up the crusade to restore dignity and value to the public forum of this invaluable institution.


Richard J. Thomas is the executive director of the School Administrators Association of New York State, located in Albany, N.Y. This essay is adapted from "An Open Letter to the Educational Community," published in that group's newsletter in April.

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