Column: Don’t gang up on public figures before all the facts are in

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 3, 2002

What is it about school administrators that draws so much animosity? They just can’t win, no matter what they do. Hardly a week goes by without someone accusing them of one thing or another.

Over the past few years I’ve heard many of these sorts of complaints: Superintendents make way too much money. Principals act like dictators and have too much authority or they aren’t doing enough to keep our schools safe from drugs and guns. Administrators are evil agents of a &uot;secular&uot; government and are enemies of religious expression; they are undermining our society’s values. Principals are more interested in conformity and quiet classrooms then they are in teaching individuals. Or the reverse: Schools have become chaotic as nobody enforces rules. Administrators are so interested in budgets, policies and programs that they have forgotten what it’s like to be in a classroom, actually teaching students. They aren’t even human.

Although I agree with some of the complaints above (okay, I admit I made up the last one), I am often overwhelmed by the level of bitterness that some people display in their attacks on superintendents and principals. It often looks more like a war &045; fought with a take-no-prisoners attitude &045; than a debate or discussion about the issues that concern us. Some people seem more interested in seeing the situation as &uot;us vs. them&uot; than in actually solving the problems that schools face today.

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The latest skirmish in the war on school administrators took place in the United South Central (USC) School District. Superintendent Frank Lorentz resigned after unspecified &uot;charges&uot; were brought against him. It’s too bad that nobody is talking on the record about the substance of the accusations, and who the accusers are. In cases like these, with the truth unavailable, people in the community are free to imagine anything they like &045; probably all sorts of sordid and nasty things.

Now I have no inside or secret knowledge of what is going on in the USC District. I don’t know what the accusations were, and whether Lorentz is guilty or innocent of any wrongdoing. I trust the school board members enough to have faith that they would bar him from contact with students if he were any sort of threat to anybody. And I am skeptical of the real motives of the &uot;concerned&uot; citizens who seem to have convicted Mr. Lorentz without waiting for the facts.

My own view is that this situation was inevitable. It really doesn’t matter what Lorentz is accused of doing; something would have been found eventually. There is just too much anxiety in the communities that make up that district for anyone sitting in the superintendent’s office to be safe from attack. And Lorentz, as the CEO for the district, has been in the public eye a lot over the past year. First they had the spectacular failure of the bond referendum to pay for a new school building. And then they suffered through bitter labor negotiations, with the district eventually gaining the upper hand with its employees. And underneath it all there are the ongoing problems with the rural economy.

A great deal of the &uot;animosity&uot; toward administrators, particularly toward superintendents like Lorentz, has more to do with their status as &uot;outsiders&uot; and the levels of anxiety in a community than it does with whatever they have been doing. It’s a dynamic that Kathleen Norris refers to in her book &uot;Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.&uot; A superintendent’s job puts them in the same position as other professionals in any community, especially clergy (a field I know somewhat better, being married to a pastor). Pastors and superintendents are usually outsiders in the communities in which they work. When we attack them, or publicly humiliate them, we don’t have to worry about offending anyone we might be related to. They’re convenient scapegoats for whatever is bothering people.

School administrators may sometimes make bad decisions, or have lost their way as they allow the bureaucratic mindset to govern their decision-making. Ignoring their mistakes helps nobody. But they are human beings who deserve to be treated fairly. The next time any of us start pointing fingers at a superintendent, a principal or any other administrator, let’s make sure we remember that.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.