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Unresolved: Who’s To Arbitrate Daring Artistic Expression–Principals or the School Board?

| February 28, 2011

Atticus, do school boards have a clue? (© FlaglerLive)

It’s an important and necessary debate the Flagler County School Board is wrestling with: when it comes to artistic expression that tests the boundaries of community standards, especially in a community where those standards tend to embrace the acceptable at the expense of the relevant or the daring, whose authority should weight more, that of principals or that of the school board, and at what point may either intervene? The good thing is that the school board is asking the questions and trying to answer them in policy. The not-so good thing is that the answers it’s producing are clarifying only half the lines of authority in the equation.

A pair of school board policies is being re-written to make school principals’ authority more explicit when selecting and judging materials such as novels and plays, while diminishing the role of librarians and leaving the school board’s role unclear. One school board member is worried that the shift makes principals’ decisions potentially arbitrary. Another board member says the policies are part of larger procedures that will include checks and balances on principals’ power, even if, ultimately, many decisions rest with principals.

The proposed amendments to the policies are the latest of many ripples caused by the controversy over To Kill a Mockingbird last fall, the student production at Flagler Palm Coast High School. The school board is discussing both policies in an 8 a.m. workshop to be held, ironically, at FPC Tuesday (March 1).

School Board member Colleen Conklin, who opposed the cancellation of the play and successfully pushed for its restoration, wants to ensure against a repeat of the controversy. (The play was staged to acclaim last weekend.) She also wants to ensure against any single individual such as a principal having the final word on controversial decisions of the sort. The reason: a principal might verbally reject a drama teacher’s choice at the beginning of the year, without the matter going any further. That would chill creativity or daring.

To Andy Dance, the board member pushing some of the changes, “If there’s an honest dialogue, then you’re going to find that in most instances they’re going to find agreement on the best material.”

The district administration in January wrote a policy and, in addition, a set of guidelines that would have addressed plays specifically. The guidelines left it up to a principal’s discretion to “convene a panel to discuss the play” in case of controversy. The principal, according to those guidelines, also had the authority to make a decision unilaterally, at least on paper. Conklin objected, and both policy and procedure were scrapped. Instead, the board decided to tweak existing policies.

The tweaks are not resolving the issue when it comes to ensuring that drama productions—or any artistic works—that challenge conventions are protected from arbitrary decisions. Earlier this month the board agreed to minor changes in two additional policies that more broadly defined “instructional material” to include movies and plays, among other media. But those policies also don’t address freedom of artistic expression specifically. The policy on challenged materials is directed at “school-community citizens” who want to object to materials being offered students.

There is no policy in place that enables either citizens or faculty and other employees to object to ban initiated by the school itself, as was the case with Mockingbird, or to address the specific procedure of a principal objecting to any given artistic work. Nor is there a policy in place enabling the school board to intervene in case of such a ban. Conklin used the challenged materials policy to appeal the decision to ban Mockingbird because there was nothing else she could use to file her appeal. But strictly speaking, using that policy was a stretch. And by then the matter had already become public through media coverage. Had it not, the matter would have ended with the  school-based committee’s decision, without the school board publicly weighing in on the issue, and the play would have likely never been staged. That’s the situation Conklin wants to avoid—an absence of light on controversies that are better hashed out in the light, with the school board involved.

“Whether it’s a librarian or a principal the responsibility ultimately lies with the school board,” Conklin said Monday. “That’s why you have five members that can provide a diverse opinion about it. No one individual should be responsible for making any kind of a decision like that. A high school is not a kingdom, and a principal is not a king. I thought we were done with that issue. But apparently we will be discussing it again. I’ll be adamant about the school board taking responsibility for setting tone and direction within the district. That is well within what folks elected us to do.”

Policy 411 addresses the selection of library materials, now referred to as “media materials,” to reflect the large variety of what goes into a library these days. The current policy states that “the school board asserts that the responsibility of the media center is to provide” enriching, diverse and stimulating materials for students. The proposal strikes out the “school board” clause and substitute “schools” instead, essentially shifting the responsibility to local principals and diminishing the school board’s explicit involvement. The policy is amended to say that the superintendent shall develop and implement guidelines for the selection and presentation of media materials as presented as part of the public school curriculum, including plays. But that’s where the board got hung up in early February—on what those guidelines say about the role of principals and the role of school board member. The policy leaves the tug of authority unresolved.

“Even if it wasn’t spelled out, I would be responsible ultimately anyways,” Chris Pryor, the principal at Matanzas High School, said of the proposed policies: he signs for every purchase order. But while Pryor backs giving principals the authority to make those decisions—because, in his view, they’re the ones who are accountable for whatever happens as a consequence of those decisions, not the school board—in reality, those decisions are more collegial. “As a principal,” Pryor said, “I’m not going to rely on just my own feelings or thoughts. Every decision I make I go and seek other people to help me out—people in the community, my assistant principals, even students. Ultimately I’m the one who has to make the final decision, even after pulling the community together, It’s ultimately up to me. But I’m not going to do it in a vacuum. That would not be very smart.”

The proposed policy also changes  the role of librarians. Librarians, in the current policy, are responsible for selecting, buying and managing library materials. Librarians are struck out of the policy, and replaced with “the principal or designee.”

The change surprised Monica Campana, the media specialist at Indian Trails Middle School.

“When you get your Master’s in school library educational media,” Campana said, “you take several courses in collection analysis and purchasing, and in I actually took a course called helping teachers teach,  which is all about selection of supplemental material for curriculum.”

Campana welcomes input on the general direction principals want to go in—whether the library should be converting to e-books, for example, or converting to ipads. “But as to the actual material in the collection,” Campana said, “I’m not so sure that leadership courses have given them the training in collection development that they would need to evaluate a collection. And what’s weird is nothing that I recommend for purchase is ever bought without the principal ever seeing the whole list of books. It has to be signed and approved by the principal. So it’s curious.” Campana, like Lorna Moschetti, the media specialist at Flagler Palm Coast High School, say their principals have never objected to materials they’ve bought for their libraries. Objections, while few, usually come from parents or members of the community, at which point the librarians kick in the challenged-materials procedure.

Campana added, “It’s hilarious because these principals are going to go, ‘We don’t have time for this. I’m going to appoint my designee who’s trained.’ That’s my gut feeling. And I’m going to end up doing what I’ve always done.”

Dance said the change from librarians to principals is meant to reflect the fact that the policy on instructional materials applies school-wide, including, for example, drama departments.

Dance is also at the origin of yet another proposed policy change—the copyrighted materials policy, which he wanted expanded to include performance licensing and this line: “Copyright and performance licensing agreements shall be signed by the principal.”

At FPC, the drama teacher secured the rights to Mockingbird well before the purchase order to pay for those rights needed to be signed. That’s not unusual: licenses are granted schools routinely before payment. The proposed policy would prevent a drama teacher from signing off on those license agreements, essentially ensuring that a principal sees the plays in question. But principals—or their assistants—are supposed to know what plays their teachers are working on regardless: in FPC’s case, Mockingbird was advertised well ahead of time on the school’s web site, casting calls went out through fliers posted on school walls long before any word of controversy, and students were well into rehearsals before the principal, Jacob Oliva, got wind of a few (very few) objections to the use of the word nigger in the play.

In retrospect, the actual staging of the play brought none of the troubles the district feared and plenty of accolades it didn’t bank on when it had pushed to cancel the play. Given the unresolved matter of ultimate authority, the proposed policy changes the school board is working on may have similarly unanticipated, if less felicitous, consequences.

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3 Responses for “Unresolved: Who’s To Arbitrate Daring Artistic Expression–Principals or the School Board?”

  1. BW says:

    From an administrative perspective, the Principal should always be ultimately accountable for what goes on in their school and answers to the Superintendent and Board. I’d agree with Monica that pushing large amounts of tedious approvals to one desk will ultimately be delegated out. It’s just common sense.

    In terms of material, quite honestly you can find something objectionable with everything. The part that gets missed is the fact the the “objectionables” are opportunities to teach valuable lessons. To try and mask what life was really like when these items were written is actually more dangerous than beneficial to students. The one person who recently decided to change the language in Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ comes to mind here. Likewise, educators need to aware of maturity levels and effectively teach the important lessons of that which could be deemed “objectionable”.

  2. Jim Neuenfeldt says:

    It should be up to the principal. He is the first line supervisor. I would also reccomend that upon him rejecting any play submitted by the drama department, he forward that rejection and a single page narrative outlining his decision to reject said performance, immediatly to the superintendant of schools, and also the school board. The superintendant can and should address said rejection at the next School Board meeting. The board should review and approve the rejection at that same next meeting.
    Simple solutions for Simple Minds.
    This allows the board and admin staff to review and have ready why a performance in derrogatory in the first place. This makes the Principal and staff accountable to the board for “JUSTIFYING” their actions immediatly before it becomes a big issue.

  3. Jim Guines says:

    The problem is more confusing than it appears in that you have a well paid lawyer sitting on the side lines of the entire policy development issues and a Senior Director with no earthly idea of policy and its implication trying to do every one’s job to justify salary and ego. Ms. Conklin as a board member had no business getting into the policy writing role. That is school board staffs’ job. The issue created too much confision and it is still there.

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