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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Waiting for leadership

The last few days of "To Kill a Mockingbird" controversy in Shorewood have swirled to the surface a lot of resentments, assumptions, prejudices and hurt -- feelings that I think were always there but mostly dormant and hardening before the upheaval of controversy.

Even with a performance scheduled for later this week, and a "conversation" on race set for Tuesday, there is still a lot left unclear about what happened and what should happen next. I am not going to attempt to guess at most of that, though I can tell you I've been up at night trying to figure it out, to no avail.

In turning all of this over in my mind, reading the comments on social media and having sideline conversations at sporting events, I realized that most people don't really have a sense of who is supposed to fix the problem, and some, I think, believe the school board might do something to resolve the mess.

The board is set to meet Monday afternoon to talk about the plan for this week's " Community Conversation on Race." I am guessing it will be a series of FYI reports from administrators about what is planned for that event and the performance itself. I will be surprised if the board has a role in actually planning that event or dictating what happens, but of course it's possible they will have taken the reigns from the superintendent.

It's not out of the question that they will come through and offer real leadership, but based on how I've ever seen this board operate, and more importantly based on their own rules about how they operate, it's very unlikely. I should note it will not be because they don't care to -- it will be because they can't wrestle back control of "operations" without either losing the district superintendent, or some of them resigning, or either ignoring or revising their own governance model.

This board painted itself into a corner when it adopted new rules of governance and got into the habit of letting the superintendent handle everything that would be considered "operational." The Coherent Governance model leaves not much room for our board to get involved in matters like which play will be produced at the high school.

The instinct to leave these types of decisions to administrators makes sense on paper -- you can imagine the mess it might create if a single board member were to begin interfering or trying to veto any controversial plays, for example. But it also means our superintendent and his administrative team are operating well within their job descriptions if they make decisions that differ dramatically from what the elected officials and their constituents might have wanted to see happen.

It's possible that everyone, from the board president down to the school's assistant principal, agreed that "To Kill a Mockingbird" shouldn't open on Thursday, but it wouldn't have mattered, really, if the superintendent was the only one. There's not a lot the board can do about those types of decisions, under their own rules. Unless the superintendent fails to deliver the results the board asks for, or doesn't meet what they call "operational expectations," he is working well within his official role to make decisions like this without consulting them.

It looks like, based on the notice posted very hastily the day before, around the time the poop really hit the fan and the play was cancelled -- that the board met early Friday in closed session to discuss "a personnel issue." Personnel and funding are the board's two main levers for influence on how the district actually operates on a day to day basis. If someone threatened to resign or actually did submit his resignation that day because of the play's cancellation, it would have given the board a way to discuss and give some direction as to what should happen next. Absent that lever -- refusal to accept someone's resignation or termination -- as far as I can tell, the board could only ask nicely for the superintendent to reschedule the play, and he could safely say "no."

I wanted to write this here and recommend folks read the district's governance rules so they would understand the superintendent and board's roles, since some statements about the play have come from the superintendent and some from Paru Shah, the board chairwoman. That's been a pretty typical display of mixed messages about who really is in charge.

The communications from both Dr. Shah and Superintendent Bryan Davis left a lot to be desired. Until about 20 minutes ago as I write this, it was unclear whether any student was actually ever threatened with harm (no, they were not). And it's still not clear whether this week's performance will include the many instances of the n-word in the script. It seems the licensing agreement we've signed would require it. Whether enforcement would be a matter of a fine or other consequence is unclear to me. What if an actor following his or her conscience decided to "accidentally" say "n-word" or "negro" instead? I bet some parents and kids who would like to not say or hear it would take up a collection to cover the fine, but there are just as many people in town convinced of the importance of hearing the ugly thing so it can be fully absorbed and rejected.

It's also unclear whether protest will be allowed, in silent form or otherwise. To me, allowing for protest in whatever peaceful form it might take would have been the way to compromise in the first place, rather than cancelling. It would give space to the people who believe it is unacceptable to say the word in a public space, uttered by and heard by children, while allowing the play to continue, having sparked dialogue and emotional, visceral response that supporters insist is the point of performing it in the first place.

Like everyone else who can't stop thinking about this mess and wondering what will happen next, I will be watching to see who emerges from this as a real leader. I'm not ruling out that it will be a high school student or a parent, but I honestly would be very relieved if it happened to be a board member or administrator. I wrote before that the kids should be allowed to find a way through this, but an adult may be necessary just to grant them the space to do it. There's still time for that.

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