No Bull, No Fluff, No Smudges
Your news source for
Flagler, Florida and Beyond

More Power to Principals, Less Transparency as Board Kills Policy Inspired by Mockingbird

| February 2, 2011

'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' wouldn't make it on a stage: encourages cutting school.

There will not after all be a school policy explicitly regulating or protecting controversial student plays such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In confusing and still unsettled maneuvers, the Flagler County School Board on Tuesday voted to advertise two minor changes to existing policies on challenged and instructional materials instead. The move effectively kills a previous, proposed policy that called on the superintendent to develop guidelines “designed to support drama presentations that challenge, nurture and extend student skills while adhering to the basic educational mission of teaching students boundaries of socially appropriate behavior, the rights and responsibilities of the exercise of free speech, and the importance of taking into consideration the sensibilities of the community.”

The move diminishes transparency and shifts power back to school principals, who again have wider latitude to forbid plays without the matter gaining wider knowledge or including other voices.

A drama teacher could propose staging “Hairspray” or “Cabaret” in conversation with a principal, be told no on both counts, and that would be the end of the discussion. School Board member Colleen Conklin late last year was opposed to giving principals the last word, fearing it would chill creativity from the outset as drama teachers, should they be faced with more narrow-minded or skittish principals in middle or high school, would opt for safer, tamer plays as a rule. Conklin blocked a set of procedures that did not give others in the school, including possibly students, at least an advisory voice when controversial plays are at stake. Aside from student board member Ryan McDermott, who has no vote, the school board lent Conklin little to no support, though School Board Chairwoman Sue Dickinson suggested to Conklin to write her own version of a policy or guidelines Conklin would find acceptable.

“My feeling was that when I looked at the guidelines, it actually created that scenario that the teacher would not be comfortable to bring forward an appeal process,” Conklin said Tuesday, before the meeting. “I didn’t like the policy or the guidelines. The more I thought about it the more I thought about how bureaucracy is created by the layering of policies, and I thought, I really don’t want to be part of that. And if you really think about it, if you step back and think about what happened to ‘Mockingbird,’ in a sense the appeals process really worked.”

In a sense, yes, but only by chance, not by design. In the case of “Mockingbird,” Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Jacob Oliva stopped the student production last October when it was in rehearsals, citing the word nigger as inappropriate for use on stage. Oliva and Superintendent Janet Valentine picked an informal and school-based committee that backed his decision, though none of those steps was publicized. The matter would have died had the decision to censor the play not been leaked to the press. Public outrage at the decision led Conklin to appeal the committee’s decision. An appeals committee then found “Mockingbird” to be an appropriate play for staging, and suggested “that the district develop policy and procedures for school productions.”

The school board is now rejecting that suggestion, too. (The play, however, will be staged after all: it’s scheduled for four performances at the Flagler Auditorium, Feb. 24-26.)

The proposed guidelines, Conklin said, “would have been much more suppressive than the policy that we have now, that simply needed to be well define,” because the guidelines, too, shifted power to the principals, who would have had all discretion to convene or not convene committees in case of controversy. Matanzas High School Principal Chris Pryor last month bitterly opposed procedures that would “second-guess what the principal is saying.”

So here’s what the school board agreed to do. In the existing policy on challenged materials (policy 414), the opening line–“The following procedures shall be followed when the appropriateness of books or materials is questioned” was changed to replace the word books with instructional (“The following procedures shall be followed when the appropriateness instructional materials is questioned).

In the policy on instructional materials selection (policy 410), a line was added to more clearly define the meaning of instructional materials to read: “Instructional material includes textbooks, workbooks, software, movies, performances, multimedia, and other items that are used as tools for instruction.”

School Board member Andy Dance also suggested making a change to the district’s copyright policy, so that whenever a teacher puts in a request or a purchase order to get the rights to a copyrighted work, the principal must sign off. That change would be designed to prevent a teacher from acquiring rights to a play that a principal would find objectionable. It would also be another quiet tool for principals to use, without publicity, to prevent plays they don’t like from being performed. Dance’s turn-about on the board has been sharp: when controversy originally arose over “Mockingbird,” he lent his public support to the staging of the play once he saw that public sentiment clearly was in favor of staging it. He has since retreated to a harder line, preferring to defer to principals’ judgment.

It isn’t the first time Dance has gone where prevailing winds are: he was also opposed to continuing a school tax and favored instead replacing it with an economic-development tax favored by the chambers of commerce, until he detected that public sentiment was staunchly opposed to the latter and more favorable toward the school tax. Dance then switched sides. On the “Mockingbird” issue, Dance’s switch essentially left Conklin isolated, as school board members Trevor Tucker and John Fischer are with Pryor’s take on a principal’s role: the buck stops with a principal.

Despite the “tweaks,” as she described them, to two existing policies and the apparent repeal of the proposed guidelines on drama productions, Conklin said: “I don’t know if this is the best way to go, either.”

After the meeting Tuesday, Valentine, the superintendent, said new guidelines for theatrical productions would still be developed and presented to the board for approval. That may yet bring the matter of principal power versus broader input back to the board: that’s where the issue had been hung up earlier last month.

The changes to the policies themselves have not yet been formalized: the district must advertise the change for at least 30 days, giving the public a chance to weigh in on the proposals–a process that seldom gains attention: the actual policies and the changes are not, in fact advertised. A legal advertisement noting the title and number of the policies being changed runs in the News-Journal for one day, notifying the public that the changes may be examined at the district office. The board then approves the policies, usually without discussing them again, as part of its “consent agenda,” where it votes on a dozen or more issues wholesale.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 Responses for “More Power to Principals, Less Transparency as Board Kills Policy Inspired by Mockingbird

  1. True Art says:

    How pathetic. The school board won’t stand up to it own employees. Is the superintendent in charge or not. Maybe the schoolboad and superintendent should resign and Pryor and his cronies can run the district the way he sees fit not the way that the elected school board does. I can’t wait to see how for back this county gets set maybe they’ll start teaching that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe.

  2. Merrill Shapiro says:

    It is entirely wrong and incorrect to claim that School Board members Dance, Tucker and Fischer are saying, without reservation that “the buck stops with a Principal!” They are saying that the “the buck stops with a Principal” as long as the Principal says “No” or approves pablum for the students. But if the Principal approves something a little edgy, something challenging our young people to think, something that might give them a new and different way of looking at the world around them and a parent calls Dance, Tucker and Fischer to complain, you can be sure the “buck stops with a Principal” concept will evaporate instantaneously!

    We elect our school board members to lead, not to follow their supporters. We hope, through the example of our elected officials, to engender an understanding and appreciation of such leadership in our students.

    The only bright spot in this sad debacle is School Board Member Conklin who, in the mold of Harry Truman, fully understands where the buck stops!

    There is a great deal more to be learned from this shameful episode and I can write a book about it. But I’ll stop with a plea to to keep us all informed as to when the taxpayers of our community have an opportunity to beg our leaders to lead!

  3. JR says:

    The really sad part of this debacle, Mr. Shapiro, is that To Kill a Mocking Bird tells what should be told about racial injustice best. The school board is too wrapped up in policy minutia and political correctness to see it. They suggested — over, and over again — that someone preface the play by talking of the historical and political context. Why, when the words of Atticus to Scout tell it best, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

  4. Liana G says:

    I am a little perturb that folks are against giving more authority to school principals – individuals with the experience and education – to make decisions in the best interest of their schools; but feel that a school board made up of persons with no background in education, and who are not in the trenches daily with a school full of kids, should make those decisions instead.

    Am I to take it then that the position/title of a ‘school principal’ in nothing more than a ‘glorified watchman guarding the chicken coop’? As a parent I would like for school principals to make decisions based on situations unique to their school because I would like to be able to pick up the phone and have a meaningful discussion with any of my kids school principle knowing it won’t be a complete waste of both of our time. I would like to be able to hold school principals in high esteem and admire their efforts and dedication but that is difficult when they are perceived as ineffective.

    So I am very pleased that they are now truly equipped with the ability to work with and support their staff, parents and students without having to seek approval from the school board / district every single time. This is not absolute authority but the authority to make and support decisions that are beneficial to their individual school needs. Besides, according to Ms Valentine – “new guidelines for theatrical productions would still be developed and presented to the board for approval.”

    Do we as a society no longer admire and value a person’s ability to think and act decisively? This totalitarian control mindset is very frightening.

  5. Jack Cowardin says:

    The irony of this saga, it seems, is that there is a parallel to the drama teacher/director, the principal that was concerned over parental backlash in producing Mockingbird with the ‘n’ word, and the school boards hearing that has now sanctioned the play for performance with same path Ms Lee’s novel took in it’s initial release, which was muted as the book was remaindered in the small 5,000 1st edition. But once the Pulitzer Committee awarded Ms Lee’s brave revelations, the public took notice and the book started selling after being picked up as a Book of the Month Club edition. But until the visualization of the movie production and Mr Peck’s Academy Award performance in 1962, did Harper’s masterpiece become iconic. In both scenarios, discouragement came first, notice and approval then followed, and with the movie, the public became enriched. Let’s let FPC’s production complete the process for our community that needs to ‘see’ and experience Mockingbird and be gratified and thankful we allowed the play to go on.
    In the future, our principals should be the first line of defense in censorship. Hopefully, when productions are requested that form grey lines they will defer or request opinions, even relieving themselves of controversy by using the appeal process. We shouldn’t expect to see Holden Caulfield or Lolita on stage, but drama with a message and a reminder of histories we do not want to repeat are important for our youth to experience.

  6. Jim Guines says:

    I cannot understand why the board does not use its lawyer to process its presentation of policy which it is voting on. The lawyer is the key staff person on this issue, The person presenting the policy to the board sometimes causes the confusion and I am not ssure the board understands the intent of the policy that it is votin on..

Leave a Reply

FlaglerLive's forum, as noted in our comment policy, is for debate and conversation that adds light and perspective to articles. Please be courteous, don't attack fellow-commenters or make personal attacks against individuals in stories, and try to stick to the subject. All comments are moderated.

Read FlaglerLive's Comment Policy | Subscribe to the Comment Feed rss flaglerlive comment feed rss

More stories on FlaglerLive

FlaglerLive Email Alerts

Enter your email address to get alerts.


support flaglerlive palm coast flagler county news pierre tristam
fcir florida center for investigative reporting

Recent Comments

FlaglerLive is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization | P.O. Box 254263, Palm Coast, FL 32135 | Contact the Editor by email | (386) 586-0257 | Sitemap | Log in