Sunday, July 10, 2011

Oconee's Lucas illustrates transparency with weblog

Governor Nikki Haley made "transparency" a buzzword in last year's gubernatorial campaign. She hasn't found it imperative to exercise a lot of it since ascending to the first floor of the Capitol -- yes, it is a literal descent from her former perch on the second floor, but I suggest she and her acolytes would call it an ascent to the governor's throne in her first-floor warren -- and that hasn't gone unnoticed by the capital's politerati or media. Among Haley's co-officers in the executive branch, for example, Treasurer Curtis Loftis has made great strides in making his office and work transparent to the citizenry, for which he's commended.

Loftis has likewise made himself available to travel the state and visit his constituents. Just last month, Loftis delivered a seminar in person to young people studying financial literacy in the Upstate during their summer break. I haven't heard of Haley visiting any South Carolina schools during the five-plus months she's been in office. But now that her memoir is finished -- it is finished, isn't it? -- and her travels to Munich, Paris and New York are done, and since she has a little time before her planned "high powered" trade mission to India in October, maybe that will change.

South Carolina's public schoolchildren would appreciate it, surely; they'd benefit from seeing in person the governor who vetoed funding to improve slightly the quality of their minimally-adequate educational experience.

If Haley accepts the good examples of transparency offered by others in positions of responsibility and leadership, she might benefit from reading Dr. Michael Lucas's weblog. In fact, all of South Carolina's school superintendents -- dare I include State Superintendent Mick Zais in this mix? -- would profit from it. Lucas has been superintendent of Oconee County Schools since 2007 and started posting news, information and encouragement on his blog after only a month in the position.

By all accounts, Lucas is a well-respected and able superintendent, and has proven to be quite effective in the several years he's served Oconee. Even his former colleagues from the Midlands and Pee Dee regions of the state still have good things to say of him. And looking at his blog gives a good sense of why: He shares information, he posts public appreciation and encouragement of his educators and district employees, he demonstrates real empathy for the work that they do, and he clearly supports efforts to provide his employees with competitive compensation and good working conditions.

Beyond that, he encourages his staff members to take opportunities to improve themselves and to share their strengths with the education community outside Oconee County. Just last week, one of his team members, Bill Shesky, delivered several seminars to the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development's Summer Conference in Boston on using technology in the classroom.

This is leadership at its best, but it's also transparency at its best. No doubt educators, parents and others in Oconee County have come to view Lucas's blog as a source and resource for vital information; teachers for professional development, parents for developments in district policy and programs, and citizens generally for basic data on the effectiveness of their district's and state's school systems.

Now, I recognize that recommending other superintendents to initiate blogs of their own might yield unintended consequences, especially for district public information officers. The last thing that should happen is that a superintendent decides to open a blog, then assigns the district's PIO staff to manage it. That defeats the purpose, and it appears that Lucas isn't that kind of superintendent. His blog posts carry time-stamps, and I suspect he's the one posting all those notes at 4:45 and 5 a.m. over the years. He's a morning person, and dedicated to his task.

Full disclosure: This week, Lucas ran across Educating South Carolina, and posted that news on his blog, which was appreciated. He wrote,

I do read several blogs every day … of all political and ideological persuasions … and this one definitely has a point of view. You may want to check out Educating South Carolina. Again, it has a perspective which may provoke some thought and conversation (pro and con) on the politics of public education.

Indeed, he's right. Educators in South Carolina -- for reasons good, bad and worse -- have long kept their points of view to themselves. Aside from not wanting to hang dirty laundry on the porch, and not wanting to tell tales literally out of school, educators have frankly been scared silent. It's no wonder: We've lived for 340 years in a culture that did value education so long as aristocrats could control who got it, then didn't value education once everyone was guaranteed access to it, and always sought to govern the content of our curricula. South Carolina never underestimated, but indeed harnessed and still employs, the power of denial, for example. Part and parcel of that command-and-control has been the systematic intimidation of rank-and-file educators.

This isn't unique to public education; the state's command-and-control culture has systematically intimidated working people in every sector. Volumes are published on our old mill-village culture, which wasn't far removed from our older plantation culture. Workers' own attempts to organize themselves, and others' attempts to organize them, to gain the same rights and conditions afforded to the working class in other states and regions, were thwarted with malice and vigor. An effort to organize the Upstate's black farmers in the 1890s failed. Forty years later, textile workers at Chiquola Mill in Honea Path were murdered during the multi-state strike in September, 1934. And twenty-two years later, the venerated industrialist Roger Milliken closed the Darlington Manufacturing Company in September, 1956, the day after its workers voted to organize themselves as a union; Milliken defied a court order for a quarter-century to pay back wages to those displaced workers, many of whom died while waiting for that meager check.

The messages of these events, and others, have been so startlingly clear that a four-year-old could understand them: If you're not the person in power, you have no rights. Without rights, you live in danger.

This, in America.

But the same rules have applied to educators in South Carolina. Our profession was once a women-only affair, with men serving as schoolmasters, later principals and superintendents. So it was viewed as "second-income" work, and its wages and benefits kept artificially low. Especially since 1952, when South Carolina's fearful lawmakers made it a "right-to-work-for-less" state, educators and school district employees have had no job security.

The message have been consistent:

Don't like the pay or the conditions? Leave.

Don't like who makes and enforces the rules? Leave.

Speak up too loudly or too often? You're fired.

Get too involved in efforts to change the system? You're fired.

Tens of thousands of South Carolina's education professionals have points-of-view that they keep to themselves. Those too young in their careers and new in the profession who can't or won't adapt are represented in the statistics that say we lose half of our new teachers before their fifth year in the classroom. Those who make it past the breakers to a seventh or tenth year before realizing that the conditions of their lives are governed by policymakers without their best interests at heart find only a few options: Move up (into administration), move over (transfer to another state) or move out (leave the profession, lose their investiture in benefits, and start over in a new profession).

Those who remain, sacrifice dearly and mightily for their passion to teach; they make excuses for policymakers and they rationalize to themselves: I teach because I love to teach. Because I teach, I can't earn enough to save for my children's college funds, but hopefully they'll get scholarships or financial aid. My district would offer a better supplement but we don't have a big enough tax base because we give tax incentives to huge corporations to operate here, and we need those jobs to help our economy. My Representive So-and-So and Senator This-n-That would love to pay educators more in salary, but the state just can't afford it, and everyone has to tighten their belts; maybe I can get a summer job at the Country Club, or a part-time job on the weekends.

And so on, and so on, through their fifteenth years, and twentieth years, and twenty-fifth years, and thirtieth years. And once they're eligible to retire, a new trap is sprung, and those retirement benefits we've counted on for a generation don't cover the costs of finishing the mortgage plus helping to raise the grandchildren, so we have to work a few years more, just another couple of years, and maybe one more year, just one more year, and I swear this is the last year, before retiring -- beat up, beat down, worn out, exhausted and tired.

Meanwhile, Horry County is growing every year, thanks to retired educators from Connecticut, Vermont, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, elsewhere -- people in their early or mid-fifties, who maybe took early retirement, maybe not -- who sell their saltboxes in the Northeastern suburbs, buy our sparkling McMansions on the ninth holes, bring gold-plated retirement benefits with them and live like royalty on our low cost-of-living.

That's the point-of-view from this perch, anyway. Educators in South Carolina deserve a voice no less than educators elsewhere. And professional respect, and competitive salaries and benefits, and all the rest. They deserve to be told the truth. Which is why they're so appreciative when individuals in positions of authority deliver that information and news, and encourage them, and demonstrate real empathy.

If Michael Lucas in Oconee County can offer this sort of content through his highly-commendable blog, why shouldn't the rest of our district superintendents?

Thanks, Dr. Lucas.

1 comment:

  1. For many years I was a teacher, then an administrator, in our state's public schools. Even with economic uncertainties (stated in plural because news of budget cuts seems to come repeatedly during a typical year in recent times), it is my opinion that Dr. Mike Lucas is the best thing that has happened to Oconee in many decades. Would that every SC school district -- and our state department -- had a Mike Lucas!