Desperate for a dose of reality

Published 9:38 pm Thursday, March 30, 2017

Teachers picketing a School Board meeting. Bus drivers calling a “sick-out.” Other front-line employees just as unhappy.

There’s a problem in Suffolk Public Schools, and it’s way past time for those who have contributed to it to step up and take responsibility, to recognize the stark reality of the mess in the school system.

In a message posted to the school system’s staff website portal on Tuesday, Superintendent Deran Whitney tried to calm the tensions that have rocked the school system during this year’s budget process.

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Whitney, who received most of a budgeted 14-percent pay increase in September — retroactive to July 2016 — is just the guy school staff needs to hear from, but his message is muddled by the fact that he and other high-level employees have received fat raises in recent years, while many teachers, bus drivers and other front-liners will not see increases large enough to cover the extra cost of their health insurance.

So the people who actually work with Suffolk’s children, the ones who spend their own money to purchase supplies for students who don’t have what they need, the ones who have been required to do an ever-increasing amount of busy work to satisfy various administrative directives — those people are being called to buck up, to put on their “big boy britches” as one School Board member put it, and watch the administration grow richer.

Anybody who works hard certainly deserves to be paid for that work, and neither Whitney nor the others in the School Administrative Office should be considered exceptions to that rule. But then, neither should teachers.

Whitney can hardly be blamed for taking the raise he was given. But when the School Board gave him that raise — knowing full well that lower-level employees would get nowhere near that amount — it took away his ability to say what a good leader would have said: “You know, I support you guys, and I’m sorry you aren’t getting the raises you deserve. Neither am I. We’ll get through this together.”

Without that option at hand, Whitney and other administrators have been playing catch-up, and frankly it seems too little, too late.

Why should it have taken outright demonstrations for the administration to recognize the problems with employee morale and to set up teacher input sessions, for example? Teachers in Suffolk have been complaining about workload for a long time. Why should bus drivers have had to threaten a walk-out in order to get the attention of the administration?

In the end, this whole mess is a clear example of poor leadership — and here, we are not talking about that of the school superintendent. The School Board sets the tone for the system. The School Board directs the administration and sets the priorities the administration must follow. And the School Board has made it clear that those priorities are not the front-line workers in the school system.

The administration is now listening to Suffolk’s public school teachers and bus drivers. But the people whose attention has wandered, the ones who must be brought back to reality here, are the seven members of the Suffolk School Board. Until they realize how their own lack of leadership has contributed to problems in Suffolk Public Schools, the schools and those who staff them will always be troubled.

And in the end, it will take the voters to serve up that bit of cold reality to the elected School Board.