The View From Here

Emerge From Struggle a Better Leader

by Jim Butterworth

What a winter and spring it’s been! And it’s not over. All over the state, school districts await the verdict on their proposed budgets on May 17. These spending plans, developed in the midst of such uncertainty, now go before the voters where their judgment is equally uncertain.

Through the most contentious atmosphere in recent memory, boards of education and educational leaders did the best they could with what they had. It certainly wasn’t easy. Politicians scapegoated school administrators. They justified their reduction in state support for schools by painting pictures of boards hoarding millions in reserves which, if applied to budgets, would prevent layoffs and loss of services. Oh, and as usual, business leaders took the opportunity to exhort school people to be more like them.

However, as H. L. Mencken, the American journalist, pointed out nearly a hundred years ago, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Boards and district leaders, whose role it was to mediate the conflicting expectations of taxpayers, parents, staff, state and federal governments, among others, know well that there were no easy answers this spring, even if others loudly contended that there were.

From the governor to the critic at the local board meeting came inflammatory and unwarranted assertions and accusations. Many fine leaders were assailed, their competence and ethics continually challenged by those who didn’t know what they didn’t know. I watched as my colleagues in the field took these slings and arrows while continuing to agonize, often at great personal cost, about how to insulate their school communities from the worst of the state crisis.

Initially thrown onto the defensive by the personal nature of attacks, educational leaders gradually found their voices. Board members in many districts worked hard to communicate with their publics and adopted budgets where pain is shared. A superintendent, speaking to the media in the face of the controversy, proclaimed that he was still proud to be a public servant. A veteran business administrator, constantly questioned at board meetings about the accuracy of his budget numbers and motivations, calmly explained that he would not have his integrity questioned and that continuing to do so would require him to leave the district. Many principals, who could have sat on the sidelines during the budget battles, worked closely with their district offices to fashion budgetary responses which were least damaging for children.

Governor Cuomo, becoming a bit overwrought at one point this spring, admonished school leaders to be quiet and manage the schools. In the end, they did manage through the crisis but they did something more. They led, in the absence of leadership at the state level. I believe that they deserve congratulations for that, something which they are unlikely to receive. Yet, in their heart of hearts, they know the contribution they made and that really is all that matters. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

Warren Bennis in On Becoming a Leader observed that leaders are created in the “crucible” of hard times and controversy. Through this year’s long and arduous budget battle, many leaders were tested and their abilities and resolve strengthened. This is a good thing since our schoolchildren, that most important but powerless group, will continue to depend on the will and skill of leaders to help secure their futures.

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