Monday, September 27, 2010

No Time for Heritage

The city held workshops for Neighborhood Tourism Development Fund grant applications. They need to have a workshop for the commissioners so they’ll know what a worthy project looks like. The Hickman Mills School District’s annual 3 Trails Day uses city funds to help defray costs. That may have been a good idea in the beginning, but no more and it shouldn’t continue to receive funds.

A bit of background: The school district was certified in 2002 by the National Park Service as being on the actual alignment of the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California Trails. It is the first, and perhaps still the only, public school district to have received that recognition. As many may know, there is a plan to physically lay the trail on the ground across the entire KC area and the school district laid the first leg. To celebrate the certification and to get the trail construction underway a groundbreaking was held complete with two oxen to literally break the ground and a group of Native American dancers who consecrated it. A number of city and state officials were present. Because of the Hispanic connection, the consulate here in town was contacted. Unfortunately, no one from there was able to attend. Everybody had a good time and it was decided that the district should continue to celebrate its heritage by hosting a 3 Trails Day every year. Not only would it be good for our community, but it could be an event that would draw ‘tourists’ from other areas of KC and the surrounding area.

The first year was great. I was on the planning committee and we really had some big ideas. In the end we decided the first year should be a bit smaller and then each year it could continue to expand until it became a two-day event. The event was held from 10-5. We had a Native American actually camp out, teepee and all, in front of Hickman Mills High School. He was a great source to provide a true history lesson for all who would listen. The area was decorated with pumpkins and hay bales. There was a hay-wagon ride and a place to have your picture taken. The gym was filled with crafters. The police department was there with their helicopter and there were several emergency vehicles for demonstrations. There was a clown and even an ‘antiques roadshow’. All in all it was a great day; but, people leave, new people take over, and the focus changes.

It wasn’t too many years before the time was shortened an hour or so until last year when it was only 11-4. This past year it didn’t even rate its own day. It was held the same day as the back to school rally. That meant there was a parade which was great because we had always talked about having a parade; however, since both functions were held at the former Hickman Mills High School, it also meant nothing could even be set up until about noon. That’s not a good way to encourage crafters unless you’re only interested in home-made jewelry or maybe soaps or candles. You’re also not going to get any re-enactors to participate.

It’s a sad commentary on the school district when they turn their backs on their African American and Hispanic heritage and turn a true celebration into a simple community day that provides a few of the usual carnival type rides for the local children. Not only has it become something of little interest for the older members of our community; but it is certainly nothing worthy of much sought after tourism funds.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's a Sad Tale

One has to feel for the students in Hickman Mills. The school district says its mission is to educate its students for a lifetime of success; yet, sadly, that doesn’t seem to be happening. On their annual performance report they only met 6 out of 14 standards, the same score they made last year; and didn’t meet the standards set for either reading or math, despite the fact that they are spending money for reading and math specialists. ACT scores increased from 16.6 to 17.0 which is nothing to be proud of when the state average is 21.6. In fact, the scores for kids at the former Hickman Mills High School actually decreased. In my book it all gets back to the leadership.

It’s the superintendent who is responsible for putting the right people in place; which makes her the most accountable employee. It would seem that if scores aren’t measurably improved, the superintendent’s neck contract would be on the line; yet, last year only 3 school board members voted to not extend her contract. (Most superintendents in Missouri have 3 year contracts, so each year they simply request a 1 year extension.) Once she was safely secure in her position and after 2 new board members had been elected, she decided to hire back the chief curriculum officer (who had retired) on a part time basis. First, given the poor test scores, it doesn’t seem like this should be a part time job. Secondly, this person hadn’t been able to get test scores up prior to retirement, so I’m not sure what reasoning would think she would now. Still, the board agreed on 6-1 vote.

Then there are the rumors, which are rampant in the district, that the Superintendent is hiring her friends in many positions. Whether true or not, it doesn’t make for good morale. One possible example was last week’s board meeting which was depressing to attend. The Board approved the hiring of a(nother) reading consultant at a cost of $1,000/day. When board member Debbie Aiman asked about the person’s qualifications, she didn’t get an answer; yet, the other 5 board members voted in favor. I would hope this person has more qualifications than a friendship but the process didn’t look good. There was also the re-classification of a special education secretary to special education ‘analyst’ at a considerable increase in salary. This, of course, took this person off the secretarial salary chart and thus raised some questions among the secretarial union group as to motives.

These votes, though, get to another major problem of leadership: the Board itself. It seems board members, except for Ms. Aiman, don’t ask questions. Even though the district is in dire financial straights, they hired yet another consultant, for mediation and counseling services, without knowing the total cost. When Ms. Aiman inquired as to the fiscal note, board president Bonnaye Mims told her she was micromanaging. If a school board does not question but simply rubber stamps the Superintendent’s recommendations, it is not only not doing its job, but is doing a disservice to those who elected them as representatives of the community.

Of course, Ms. Mims could simply have been flustered. Having arrived late, she seemed to have difficulty working her computer and also had considerable difficulty in figuring out where they were on the agenda. From what I understand, she often has trouble keeping her place on the agenda. She has also been known to call for a vote on a question before an answer has been given to that question. Whether this is a matter of being too hasty or simply inattention, neither is the mark of a good leader.

Towards the end of that same meeting the Board needed to find an alternate date for their October meeting and looked at several. One the Superintendent couldn’t attend, so they ruled that one out. Another, Ms. Mims friend and fellow board member, Darrell Curls, could not attend so they ruled that one out, too. A third date was thrown out, but Ms. Aiman was going to be out of town. Ms. Mims decided that would be the date for the meeting because, after all, they needed to go with the majority. It’s hard to figure why no other board member came to Ms. Aiman’s defense, but that is indicative of the current Board; and makes a sad comment on the state of the school district.

It’s also sad to realize that politics still plays a large part in Board processes even though John Sharp is no longer there. Since a board member recently moved out of town, the Board will be interviewing candidates for his replacement. Ms. Mims was overheard telling one of her fellow board members that they need to come up with a fourth vote. I think I know which candidate she favors and would love to tell the other 3 to not bother; but will just let this hand play out.

Once upon a time the Hickman Mills School Board was a professional group of people who really seemed to care about the kids and put their interests first. Now it seems, Ms. Aiman excepted, the Board is more concerned about their own interests and promoting themselves, or possibly their own kids, than they are about the overall good. They don’t seem to take school board leadership seriously or for that matter even know what it means. They don’t seem to understand that it is the School Board that sets the tone for the entire district and it is they that need to set an example. The community has entrusted them with making hard decisions to ensure the best possible education for all students; and the state has charged them with being fiscally responsible.

A friend told me once that you have to hit bottom before things get better. On the one hand, I fear we’re almost there. On the other hand, to switch metaphors, perhaps that means the pendulum is about to swing back. If only we didn’t need to wait for next April’s election when Ms. Mims will be seeking another term.