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Published August 02 2009

Forum editorial: West Fargo schools in trouble

Problems affecting West Fargo schools are deeper than routine growing pains. The once well-managed school district is giving new meaning to systemic dysfunction. Anger and mistrust is polluting relationships among teachers, administrators and students. Candid communication and mutual respect must be restored if the district is to meet the challenges of modern public education in a growing district.

The trouble has been a-brewing for a long time. It seemed to start with the hiring a couple of years ago of Dana Diesel Wallace as superintendent to succeed Chuck Cheney, whose status had approached sainthood. Anyone following his storied tenure would have had a tough time measuring up.

Diesel Wallace, however, brought to the district a new brand of no-nonsense, professional education administration that immediately upset the phony small-town sensibilities of some teachers and school district residents. It took awhile for the new super to adjust to the district’s identity crisis.

Then came the Mavis Tjon fiasco, wherein administrators and the School Board threw a veteran teacher to the wolves by declining to modify a destructive politically correct classroom discipline policy. The board’s mistake precipitated legislation that essentially eroded local control of such policies. West Fargo’s ham-handedness affected negatively every school district in the state.

The recent failure of the district’s school building bond issue underscored the depth of unrest. It was the first time in recent memory school voters did not support spending money to improve schools. It was an unmistakable signal that taxpayers don’t trust board members or administrators to manage the district. And the rejection came after a School Board election in which new members had promised change.

Finally, the board’s refusal to discuss the curious dismissal of a clearly talented and successful school newspaper adviser revealed a depth of arrogance that rankled even the board’s reliable allies. Again, board members retreated into “policy” in order to be less-than-open about the reasons for the dismissal. Policy, not law. They could have modified a policy.

When challenged by students and teachers regarding the adviser’s fate, the board opted for the choice of scoundrels: blame the media and anyone else rather than concede the mistake was theirs.

The failures and foibles of the board and administration are self-made. Autocratic board leadership is willing to support administrators even when they are wrong – a transparent circle-the-wagon tactic. It hasn’t worked because, above all, patrons of the West Fargo district value their schools and want them to be the best. As long as leadership is weak or arrogant or unresponsive, the best will be elusive.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.