Thursday, March 1, 2012

Leave Bad Enough Alone

A few days ago the Santa Fe school board summoned its courage and did the right thing: it voted (narrowly, 3-2) to buy out the contract of school superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez.

The actual vote was a long time coming, although to be honest, the last school board election which voted in three new reform-minded candidates was clearly intended as something of a referendum on the public schools and the leadership.

Voters, it seemed, were upset at the performance of the school system--poor graduation rates, overwhelmingly failing efforts to meet annual improvement goals--and the way the outgoing board did its business--a lack of transparency and very poor communications with the broader community.

In a remarkable piece of political theater, the outgoing board even voted to extend Ms. Gutierrez's contract as one of their last pieces of business, right before they were replaced by a board that clearly had serious reservations with the adequacy of her performance. The schools-as-theater got even more absurd when the in-coming board learned that one of Ms. Gutierrez's employees had doctored the numbers given to the old board before they voted--actually omitting data that showed areas of failure by the administration. She didn't think the board was looking for bad news, the employee explained.

So now the reformers have voted to buy out Ms. Gutierrez's contract--and surprise, surprise, the editorial writers at The New Mexican, Santa Fe's home-grown daily, are outraged! (No surprise there; The New Mexican has been an apologist for the superintendent and her poor performance for some time. Students don't test well in annual yearly progress exams? Must be the fault of the exams! The numbers were fudged on that memo to the out-going board? Don't make too much of it; let's move on!)

The New Mexican writes a mean editorial: There was no warning of this vote! It happened late at night! The people who voted to buy out her contract didn't campaign on that platform!

Lame arguments, but at least they're arguments

But then the editorial writer at The New Mexican veers from the lame to the inane.

There are two problems, says The New Mexican, with terminating Ms. Gutierrez's services.

First, the three school board members who voted to buy out the contract weren't born in Santa Fe.

That's right, The New Mexican is now in the camp of the "birthers."
If you weren't born here, you don't belong here!

In a state that still approves of giving undocumented immigrants a driver's license, the newspaper of record wants to revoke the voting rights of school board members who weren't born in Santa Fe.

But wait. It gets weirder.

The real reason not to buy out Ms. Gutierrez's contract?

Efforts at school reform in the past didn't produce great results. In fact, some were failures. Some superintendents brought in from outside didn't stick. Others didn't click. And others were okay, but not exceptional.

In other words, leave bad enough alone.

If the schools in Santa Fe aren't graduating students, aren't meeting mandated improvement levels, aren't teaching kids the skills they need to go on to college and get good jobs--well, at least life in Santa Fe is good. We've got a lot of artists. And Richard Florida says that's good. And we've got great festivals. World-class, in fact.

So if the schools are terrible, and the educational opportunities offered to Santa Fe's children rank at the bottom of the nation, well, what can you do?

Why bother trying? Why get rid of an ineffective leader who hasn't produced? Why try to improve the status quo?

After all, a truly ambitious new superintendent probably wouldn't have been born in Santa Fe either.

So here's Santa Fe's new motto, courtesy of The New Mexican: Santa Fe--We're mediocre, and that's great!

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb