Honest conversation needed in Danville Schools community

Published 8:29 am Thursday, March 29, 2018

As the pages of this paper have shown in recent months, there are a lot of people with passionate opinions about whether Danville Schools should have renewed Superintendent Keith Look’s contract.

Those on both sides of the issue have argued their cases, but we doubt many — if any — people have changed their minds because of it.

The recent attorney general ruling that found Danville Schools did not violate open meetings law is a good example of the current intractability of the argument. Supporters of the school board majority can hold up the ruling and claim it vindicates them; but detractors can easily dismiss the ruling as missing the point and failing to address the real issues. The same would have happened in reverse if there had been a different ruling.

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It didn’t matter which way the AG ruled in the case, the ruling was never going to solve the underlying problem: a lack of good communication — with the word “good” being key.

There’s been no end of communication on this topic, but the vast majority of it seems to be either lobbed like chants from fans at a football game, or wrapped up in political wordsmithery designed to gloss over and misdirect.

If the community around Danville Schools is ever going to reunify, the two sides must stop trying to beat the other and try instead to see things from the other’s perspective.

Let’s take a look at one example: the alleged “collusion” by the school board majority to vote Look out.

Those who argue the board colluded have pointed to a lack of public discussion by the board prior to the vote, and the fact that all three members who voted not to renew Look’s contract had prepared statements with them — allegedly indicating they knew in advance of the meeting they would be voting to change course.

It’s entirely possible that the three board members suspected there would be a vote on Look’s status, suspected how the vote would go, and each decided to write down what they would like to say following the vote. But to aggrieved members of the community who already feel the board is not listening to them and plotting in secret, such an ink-blot test will look exactly like collusion.

But instead of addressing this perception head-on, the board’s official response, through its attorney Vince Pennington, was to pretend the issue was about having prepared statements at all.

“Of course, there is nothing improper, in and of itself, about an elected official speaking from notes or a prepared written statement; one can easily imagine why an elected official might stick to prepared remarks when speaking on a controversial or sensitive subject,” Pennington wrote in a response to the now well-known complaint letter signed by more than 100 individuals.

Pennington also noted many community members in the audience the night of the vote had prepared statements — a misdirection that ignores the legal difference between members of a public agency and the public, and again pretends the complaint is primarily about prepared statements, not the perception of collusion.

In this example, we first had community members who felt wronged allowing their anger to feed a biased perception before they had evidence to prove it. Perhaps instead of shouting “collusion” and going for the jugular, they should have taken a breath and asked more questions — put pressure on the board to answer for its decision without making its members feel cornered.

Then, we had an unhelpful response from the board that ignored the real complaint and danced around the issue. Perhaps instead of pretending not to understand how the prepared statements created the appearance of collusion, the board should have acknowledged the perception and provided an explanation of how the prepared statements came to be without any collusion occurring.

There are many other examples where both sides are talking past each other and refusing to listen. There needs to be a lot more honest conversation before the Danville Schools community can move on.