Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Joplin R-8 Administration controls the message

(From July 21, 2013) During the past few weeks, people have asked me the same question over and over- How can more than 100 teachers leave the Joplin R-8 School District and life goes on like nothing has happened?

Other questions have been asked less often, but they are being asked. How can the school district spend more than $30,000 sending 27 administrators and so-called 21st Century learning coaches (as if they would have any for the 19th Century) to a conference in Washington, D. C. at a time when the board of education has just approved a deficit budget?

How can the district spend more than $1.7 million for laptops for every high school student (paid for by donations, but still a considerable amount of money) and then blithely ignore the complaints being made by students, parents, and teachers? Not only have those complaints been ignored, but they have never been brought to the board of education. And now, another $300,000+ is being spent on IPads for all eighth graders and we all know it will not stop there.

How are these things happening? The truth, and it is scary, is that there are no checks and balances in the Joplin R-8 School District because the administration controls the message.

It has done so in three ways.

Board of Education Agenda

When C. J. Huff was hired by the Joplin R-8 Board of Education, an almost immediate change took place in the agenda at the board of education meetings...it was taken away from the people.

The following passage comes from the school district website.

Persons wishing to give their opinion regarding an item on the currently posted agenda requiring a Board vote should follow the instructions below. (Board meeting agendas are posted on the website.)

If that does not narrow access to the board, I do not know what does. In the 36 years that I have been involved in board of education meetings and in the more than 1,200 board meetings I have covered as a reporter or attended as a teacher, I have never seen a policy that so completely shuts off the people's access to the board meetings their tax dollars are funding.

If you have a complaint that needs to get to the board, it has to be about something that is already on the agenda (and is up for vote). People have tried to get on the agenda to talk about the high school laptops and have been blocked from doing so. After all, the laptops are not up for vote any more, so they are not up for discussion and, in point of fact, no public discussion was ever held about one of the most drastic changes in the history of Joplin High School...and one that will have lasting consequences.

When the public is allowed to speech, it is limited to three minutes and anyone who uses that time should be prepared to be rudely interrupted if you go over by even one second.

Not only does the public not get an opportunity to address the board of education except under severely limited circumstances, but board members indicated after their June retreat that their job was not to listen to the public, but to deal with policy. After all, they have hired administrators to deal with the public. Any problems you have, you can work with the administrators- and if the administrators are the problem, as has been the case in many instances over the past few years- you are completely out of luck. The Board of Education does not have the time for you.

The Complicity of the Media

When the Board of Education approved the Comprehensive District Improvement Plan at its June 25 meeting, part of that plan specifically addressed public relations. A goal of 15 positive media stories per month was established by administration and rubber-stamped by the board.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having positive publicity about the school district, especially when it is warranted. Whether it should take up about 20 percent of a district improvement plan for the next five years is questionable.

The one thing administration does not have to worry much about is unfavorable publicity. It is difficult for television to do the kind of investigative reporting that is necessary, though unsuccessful efforts have been made.

The area's newspaper of record, however- an entity that has the money, the power, and the space to do thorough reporting on the Joplin R-8 School District- has completely failed its readers and the taxpayers of the school district.

Part of it is an age-old attitude that many newspapers have, and I have never been able to understand- about the education beat. They think it is not that important and nobody reads it. It is often considered to be a graveyard of stories about kindergarteners creating cute objects with popsicle sticks, and of course, any building projects or bond issue elections that arise.

Invariably, the education beat, though it affects more readers than any other, is given to the new kid on the block or to the reporter who hasn't quite made the grade, but nobody can figure out what to do with him or her.

These reporters often do not have the interest nor the inclination to find out what is really happening. And education is not an easy beat. Administrators and board members will throw so much jargon at you that you are afraid to admit that you have no idea of what they are talking about. When I was covering the education beat at the Carthage Press and the Lamar Democrat, if some administrator hit me with gale force jargon, he or she would get a follow-up remark. "Now, can you explain that where my readers can understand it?" Sadly, they were often not able to do so.

The problem with coverage of the Joplin school district may lie much higher up than with its education reporter. We have editors who actually believe there is no news right now in the Joplin School District except for buildings and technology.  Administrators have told them that, and of course, administrators would never steer them down the wrong path.

And after the experiences the past five years at Missouri Southern State University, we have to wonder about the complicity of the Joplin Globe's publisher in the lack of evenhanded coverage of the R-8 School District. At a time when Globe reporter Greg Grisolano was doing outstanding investigative coverage of the university, Publisher Michael Beatty had him removed from the beat and reassigned and he sent an e-mail to University President Bruce Speck telling him things were going to be different. Beatty suggested a meeting with he, Speck, and Editor Carol Stark to discuss positive stories that could be written about MSSU and he provided examples. He also gave Speck advice on how to manage the media.

That e-mail was obtained by the MSSU newspaper, the Chart, through a Sunshine Law request. Later, as the Chart was neutralized and its advisor T. R. Hanrahan was sent packing, the Globe remained silent. This is almost unheard of. Newspapers have traditionally backed the student media because of the importance of the First Amendment.

Not Michael Beatty's Joplin Globe.

Is it possible that Beatty also sent an e-mail to C. J. Huff or Angie Besendorfer explaining exactly how they, too, could manage the media? After all, it gave Bruce Speck a good, long run at MSSU, a much longer run than his record should have warranted.

History also seems to be repeating itself with student journalists challenging the R-8 School District, just as the Chart reporters challenged the status quo at Missouri Southern. Already pressure is being placed on these young people by C. J. Huff. Is history going to repeat itself?

(Note: Contrary to what Huff and other administrators are saying, I have had nothing whatsoever to do with the student blog. In fact, I have advised the students who are doing it that they need to really think about what they are doing. I have seen firsthand what the Joplin R-8 Administration is capable of doing and I do not want anything to happen to my students.)

The Public Relations Machine

The $15,000 that the Turner Report revealed earlier this week was going to be used to pay teachers to do the Facebook pages for the school district is not a major amount, but merely one more step in the use of taxpayer money to build a publicity machine that enables administration to get out its message unchallenged.

While Jet 14 is used for many legitimate educational purposes, it has also been used as a publicity vehicle for administration, including its televising of the evening board of education meetings, which almost play like infomercials.

Any discussion on educational topics takes place at the earlier 4:30 p.m. "work" meeting and does not appear on Jet 14. The evening meeting most often is a "celebration" of some positive program in the district (and there is nothing wrong with that), videos complete with dramatic music of construction projects, and reports from administrators about all of the good things that are going on in the district.

In a representative form of government, the way business takes place is not pretty, in fact, it is often ugly, but not in the Jet 14 version administration creates, where everything is running smoothly, tax dollars are being spent wisely, and all votes are 7-0, because as we all know, members on effective boards of education never disagree on any issue.

We have also seen one job after another created in Admin over the past few years to keep the good news coming, as people handle Facebook, Twitter, websites, and send out dozens of news releases.

I would love to see the Joplin Globe do an investigative report on how much money the Joplin R-8 School District taxpayers pay for public relations. I suppose I will have to wait to see how Inside Joplin handles it.

How Did This All Begin?

The movement toward what we see today in the Joplin R-8 School District began the minute access to the agenda was virtually eliminated.

It accelerated after the May 22, 2011, Joplin Tornado. After that, everything became public relations and the control began immediately after 161 people were killed in the worst tornado to hit the United States in six decades. No one who was teaching in the school district at that time will ever forget the recorded message C. J. Huff sent to us telling us that no one could talk to the media without first going through his people. Anyone who did talk to the media would be "guilty of insubordination," he said, in an ominous tone. We all knew what that meant- we would be fired.

A couple of days after that, at a meeting at the Memorial building, Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer spelled it out even more bluntly, as she often does, telling us, "The media are not your friends; they are the enemy." If we talked without permission, Dr. Besendorfer told us, "You will be fired."

That was certainly the message to send to a traumatized group of teachers whose lives and the lives of their families, students, friends, and neighbors had forever been changed by the events of a few days earlier.

That did not make any difference to our top administrators- the most important thing that day, as it has been to this very day, has not been students, teachers, parents, or taxpayers.

The most important thing has been controlling the message.







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