Joplin Rights Its Course – A Story of Hope
Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights. (Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Richard Price January 8th 1789)
Jefferson ultimately trusted the people to put things right and it seems that in the city of Joplin MO his faith was well placed.
Those unfamiliar with this town may only know it because of the devastating tornado that tore through it in May 2011. There was another destructive force that drove through Joplin and that is its Superintendent CJ Huff. His name may only be recognizable to some because it was on a short list recently of possible replacements for Education Commissioner Nicastro. After reading about his most recent activity it would be reasonable to question whether his name was added for the purpose of making the heir apparent, Margaret Vendeven, look palatable.
In this last municipal election cycle Joplin had three open school board seats; two regular three year term seats and one one year spot to finish out a term for resigning member Dawn Strickland. Running for the regular terms were Jeff Koch, Lane Roberts who had been offered the appointment as Director of the Missouri Office of Public Safety, and Anne Sharp a 15 year veteran of the board and current Board President.
The Turner Blog has covered this election in great detail and I encourage our readers to go to his posts from this month to read the whole story. It is good to read the comments as well as this gives you a good look into the general public opinion on what is going on with Joplin R-8. I am picking out only the highlights to make a point.
Since CJ Huff took over as Superintendent the Joplin district scores have declined. The greatest decline was in the children who were high performing. There was an almost statistically insignificant rise in poor performing student scores. The district, which had many years being “accredited with distinction,” has not been able to regain that rating since Huff took the job. Huff has been known to intimidate school personnel and even parents in the community. He pushed through a rush order for electrical work costing the district $7 million, which was not covered by the $74 million in loans the district had taken out just seven months earlier, just so he could say the schools opened on time after the tornado. The Turner blog lists several instances when Huff brought his family into the fight, really more like thrust his family in front of him to protect him from public criticism, and created conflict or the appearance of harassment when none existed.
The most egregious thing Huff did recently was attack a school board candidate Jennifer Martucci, who was running for the one year position, on his personal Facebook using a personal letter she wrote to him two years ago. Taking specific content of the letter out of context, he painted Martucci as a racist snob. The letter had her children’s names and schools listed on it and never should have been made public. Huff erroneously claimed such a letter was subject to Sunshine Law which allowed his publication of its contents. Because it contained personally identifiable information on students, it was actually subject to FERPA regulations which would have required that at least those portions of the letter be redacted.
Martucci responded to the letter immediately and said she would not be intimidated or bullied and would continue to stay engaged in this issue because she has promised to “stand up when others sit down.”
Anne Sharp has been President of the School Board while Huff has held the Superintendent’s job. During that time, the Board, according to Turner, spent, “nearly $100,000… to change the color of seats in the Joplin High School gymnasium. Or maybe the $8 million in “might-as-well’ spending on athletic frills that she and the board approved last year.” Sharp also was instrumental in pushing through on a consent agenda the approval of a “education consultant” to train teachers on Common Core and Visible Learning. The original estimate for the contract was just under $32K. The bills are now totaling over $100,000 and the contract is not yet up. This, while the district retains a person as Curriculum Director who, according to a State Audit, did not possess the qualifications for such a position. The solution has been to add more cost to the district in the form of hiring the Core Collaborative consultant and a salary for an assistant to this Director who does have the qualifications for her job.
Then there was the little ethical problem of Sharp using a district event to record a personal campaign video, on school property, with teachers who did not give their approval to be in the video.
To say the public was unhappy with the way things were being run would be an understatement. Even current Joplin Board members were upset enough with Huff’s lack of professionalism to state so publicly. (and here)
Lane Roberts had stated quite clearly before the election (his appointment came after the deadline to have his name removed from the ballot) that if elected he would not serve. But the public elected him nonetheless making the very clear statement that they were tired of the lack of fiscal accountability, lack of transparency and the ethical practices of the status quo. They were not going to hand the election back to Sharp. The second regular term will instead be filled by appointment by the current board members.
In many ways Joplin is no different than the other 576 districts around the state. They have local politics and local personalities. There is a grassroots group, the Joplin Progress Committee, which has had a strong hand in influencing the local school board. There is a Superintendent who runs things as if the district is his own personal fiefdom. There is a local paper which uses poor journalistic practices to try to influence local government. But even with all this working against it, the people were still able to make a significant course change. It is done by countering base unethical practices with extreme professionalism. It is done by committed bloggers who try to get out the other side of the story. It is done by a lot of work on the part of regular folks who support candidates, who promise to change what is clearly wrong with the status quo, both financially and through social media.
Sharp has been dealt with through the election process. The Board should take a serious look at dismissal of the Superintendent for gross misconduct.
Jefferson said in a letter to George Washington January 4th 1786
It is an axiom in my mind, that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the State to effect, and on a general plan.”
The Missouri Constitution echoes these thoughts and states our plan in Article IX.
“A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall maintain free public schools…”
History, even recent history, serves as instruction for our lives. There are lessons to be learned from Joplin. Jefferson said, “The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us; and, to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes, should be one of the principal studies and endeavors of our lives.” Letter to John Page (15 July 1763) Human nature will continue to set up the forces listed above that worked against wise governance. The wise will take this instruction and use it to continue preserve the liberties of the people.