In the December 2013 issue of WIRED magazine, Paul Farmer, the founding director of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit organization that delivers health services to the rural and urban poor throughout the world, talks about the importance of the “human element” in designing global health systems.
In order to not waste money, time, and energy, one needs to address the important questions to those who are directly involved, he explains. Ask, “What do you need? What obstacles are in the way for achieving that need?“ Then his job is to work directly with these same people to help them design and plan to meet their goals and to help them obtain the resources they will need for that accomplishment.
What he does not do is come in and say is, “I think you need this and this is how we are going to do it.” Why? Because he is not the one who is being directly affected. He does not know the issues first hand. What he is good at though is asking the right questions and helping the group look at what resources they have, what they need, and supporting them in developing workable, realistic solutions. What resources they can’t get themselves, he gets for them.
The kind of leadership Paul Farmer provides is what many had hoped for from Jeffco School Board members John Newkirk, Julie Williams, and Ken Witt. Their campaign pamphlets and websites implied that was the kind of leadership they were bringing to Jeffco Schools. However, that intent was almost immediately called into question with the hiring of a school board lawyer without the knowledge of the minority board members.
When the results of a community budget survey on school needs were ignored by the board majority in favor of WNW’s own set of priorities, an additional red flag was raised. When the negotiation process between the BOE and the teachers’ union yielded a mediator’s report that the board majority dismissed, there was more concern. The AP History content issue, not on any goal list, pushed community members even further to question the style of leadership provided by WNW.
The conflict in Jefferson County Schools is not about teacher pay. It is not even about the AP history. It is about leadership that believes that it has the answers without needing to ask the questions. That approach strips staff, students, and other community members of true engagement in the process of meeting the goals of the district.
Board members are not elected to be rulers of a kingdom. Board members serve as one part of a greater school district community that includes its employees, students, parents, and other community members. That is why both Jeffco employee associations worked with former Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, the BOE, and community members to navigate the financial crisis in a manner to lose as little staff as possible when the district was in financial difficulties.
The collaborative answer was for the staff to take both a pay cut and a pay freeze. This is an example of the kind of leadership that considers the “human element” Farmer discusses. Newkirk, Williams, and Witt need to take a look at the leadership style of Paul Farmer and compare it to their own.
Then they should ask themselves the question, “How can I work effectively and in partnership with the Jefferson County school community so that we can reach our common goals for the school district without this turmoil? What do these groups need and how can we help them?” Board majority members can then bring to the table each member’s background and expertise, and like Paul Farmer, work as a facilitator of solutions.
To do otherwise is to call into question the intent and motives of the board majority to further their own personal agenda, one that does not seem to serve the greater Jefferson Schools community.