Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Joplin School Board president to principals: Don't come to us; C. J. Huff is your boss

(From Aug. 18, 2013) (The original commentary originally appeared at insidejoplin.com August 11(

It had to be a special meeting of the principals of the Joplin R-8 School District.
After all, not only did they have the district’s top administrators, Superintendent C. J. Huff and Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorder in attendance, which was not unusual, but two members of the R-8 Board of Education, President Jeff Flowers and former president Mike Landis, were also in the room.
Normally, that would mean some sort of ceremonial thing, perhaps good news for the district that the top administrators wanted to share.
Not this time.
This time, the board members were here to deliver a message to the principals.
In a calm, matter-of-fact tone Flowers said the principals should not talk to any board members about problems in their buildings or in the district.
“This man standing in front of you,” Flowers said, pointing to C. J. Huff, “is your boss”
Flowers did leave the principals with another option, though not an attractive one. “If he is not here, you can talk to her,” he said, pointing to Besendorfer.
It was not the message the principals wanted or expected to hear.
To some, including ones who have talked to Inside Joplin, Flowers and Landis left one major question unanswered- what were they to do if the problem was the administrators?
The surprise appearance by Flowers and Landis at the principals’ meeting came after word had reached Huff that board member Jim Kimbrough had been visiting some of the schools and asking questions about what was going on. Kimbrough, according to teachers who have talked to Inside Joplin, had indicated he wanted to know the answers to some serious questions in the Joplin School District.
Kimbrough was asking questions about problems teachers and building principals were having with edicts handed down by Huff and Besendorfer. He wanted to know why there was an overwhelming sense of fear and dissatisfaction among the people with whom he talked.
What he found was that in many cases, people were initially scared to talk to him and the reason was always the same- they thought they would lose their jobs if word got back to Huff and Besendorfer that they had talked about any problems in their buildings or in the district.
In one short statement, Jeff Flowers let the principals know that at least as far as he was concerned, they were second-class citizens.
Kimbrough, or any other board member who tries to follow his example and ask questions in an effort to better understand the school system that district patrons have given him the responsibility of guiding, will surely be greeted with stony silence.
It is not only the principals who are consigned to this second class citizenship by the Board of Education. The same thing applies to the people who voted the board members into office.
At least, that is the impression that was given following the recent board retreat. The retreat, in which board members heard presentations from Terri Tucker of Kimberling City, a friend of Besendorfer’s from her stint as superintendent of the Reeds Spring School District, was designed to clear the board members’ heads and put them on path of enlightenment in which they could set goals for the future.
The Joplin Globe article on the retreat featured the following passage:
Among things that they said the district could have improved upon were the approach of school officials to the redistricting proposal, policy awareness among staff members, and that the district has relatively few counselors and nurses.
Other items listed included not dealing with individual parent concerns and not intervening between parents and children, and not becoming involved in the district’s day-to-day operations.
Not dealing with individual parent concerns? Why elect them if they are not willing to deal with parents?
During a speech to the Missouri School Boards Association a few months after the tornado, C. J. Huff talked about how the board had given him total freedom to spend without asking board authorization and how important it is for school boards and  superintendents to have a relationship like the one shared by C. J. Huff and the current board of education. Using his words, they are “joined at the hip.”
That has been painfully apparent when the Huff-Besendorfer agenda has been pushed through with one 7-0 vote after another. And while many times those votes have been for things that were important and positive for the school district, there were other issues that certainly could have used more discussion.
When Jeff Flowers told the principals, “This man is your boss,” he should have added  “and we are joined at the hip.”
On second thought, there is no sense telling intelligent people what they already know.

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