Break the cycle of distrust
To the Editor:
The Warwick Beacon headline (Thursday, April 6, 2017) Distrust undermines school culture captures the essence of the problems facing the Warwick School System.
One way to define culture is how work gets done around here. And the way the school administration and the School Committee are getting work done is disappointing at best and dangerous at worst. We are witnessing the effects of a toxic culture mired in a cesspool of distrust.
One quote, in the distrust article, is revealing. It reports an unnamed administrator posting to parents over Facebook, “Relax. When is the last time a school caught fire? How about never.” The fact that one person in Mr. Thornton’s administration would have the audacity to make such a dismissive statement to worried parents and teachers speaks volumes about the attitude of school leadership and the culture of the school department.
The individual writing this dismissive statement does so because he/she believes they can. And they believe they can because leadership allows it, or at the very least creates an atmosphere that tolerates it. What leaders permit they promote.
Leadership starts with Mr. Thornton, but it also extends to the members of the School Committee, especially its chairman. Trust comes from transparent communication, respect for the teachers, students and parents, and the ability to execute on core tasks such as a fair and timely contract, special education programs that serve the students, safe buildings and effective execution on the school consolidation initiative. When those responsible do not perform effectively, trust suffers. And when trust suffers, teachers, students and parents are the victims.
Re-establishing trust is difficult, but not impossible. Einstein is credited with saying, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” And that’s the challenge we face in Warwick.
To solve our problems and rebuild trust – and we can do both – intervention is needed and necessary. I applaud the efforts of members of the Warwick City Council: Mr. Rix, Mr. Ladouceur and Ms. Travis. I also applaud the efforts and courage of Ms. Bachus, School Committee member, for her courage to stand up for students, teachers, parents and for effective management of the Warwick schools.
To effectively solve any problem, we must first understand the problem and the cause.
Is the problem ineffective school leadership? If it is, then the School Committee must determine if Mr. Thornton is capable of doing the job he is charged with doing. If he is not, he needs to be replaced.
Is it that Mr. Thornton lacks the talent in his subordinates to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. If it is, he needs to replace under-performing subordinates.
Is it an ineffective School Committee? If it is, the voters need to be educated about their ineffectiveness and take appropriate corrective action in the next election.
Is the administration trying to do too much too quickly? Is it because the School Committee’s expectations and timelines are unrealistic? Or is it that Mr. Thornton and his team lack the ability and experience to execute? If it is, then they need to slow down, prepare a realistic prioritized plan, and execute against the plan. The current plan appears to be neither prioritized nor effective.
Answering these questions will clearly slow down some initiatives such as consolidation. But if we don’t do this, how much money will we spend on work and rework? The opportunity cost for poor performance is growing.
We simply cannot keep moving forward making one mistake after another. Mistakes are cumulative and, left unaddressed, will spiral out of control. Unfortunately, we may be at that point right now.
It would be ideal if the School Committee could take charge and effectively address the myriad of missteps that brought us to this point. But we must also be realistic and accept the fact that they may not be able to do this. And because they may not be able to do this, intervention is needed. We deserve nothing less. That’s why I applaud the efforts of the City Council members mentioned and Ms. Bachus.
No one likes to have the finger pointed at them as the reason for poor performance or for creating and perpetuating the atmosphere of distrust. Calls for any one’s resignation at this point, however, is premature and disingenuous. It creates a bunker mentality and distracts us from understanding the nature and causes of the problems. We end up focusing on the wrong things. Sometimes good people get caught up in a bad process. And when that happens, progress eludes us.
To rebuild trust and create a culture of cooperation, performance, and effectiveness, requires understanding the problems, the causes, and devising reasonable and practical approaches to solving them. It’s time to stop, press the reset button, and address the issues effecting the way work gets done in the Warwick School System.
If we don’t do this, we may very likely be reading about another calamity befalling the Warwick School System next week.