The Power of Story

The story we share matters. What story is HCPS telling?

In the event I do not receive the full five minutes to address the HCPS school board today, I’ve pasted my comments below.

I learned much as a Religious Studies major at USF, and I want to share an important lesson with all of you. Functionally speaking, all religions share four key attributes: belief in an ultimate power, sacred narratives, rites and rituals, and a community of believers. Today I want to focus on the power of story.

One of my favorite professors, Darrell J. Fasching, passed away suddenly this past spring. He was in relatively good health and it was unexpected. Dr. Fasching was an ethicist, primarily interested how the stories we tell provide us with meaning and shape the contours of our lives. In several of his books he states: “human beings are not only story tellers, we are story dwellers.” Therefore, we don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. I’d like everyone to think about the story our school district is telling, the story we’re living out at this moment in time.

If you ask me and many, many others, we currently find ourselves trapped in a distressing chapter, lost in a labyrinth, groping along walls, fumbling through darkness, trying to make our way back toward the light. The journey will not be easy, but I have faith in our ability to find a way forward.

The story that is being told by the district is one of successes: rising graduation rates, fewer failing schools, students earning concordant scores, industry certifications, passing numerous AP and IB exams for college credit. While these are all admirable feats, this story is lost in the clamor of concern over the school board strife and lack of proper financial oversight.

Fundamentally, I think the school board and district administration don’t appreciate or understand human nature. Humans have an evolutionarily predisposition to gravitate toward the negative aspects of life; it has helped our species not only survive—but thrive—over the last two hundred thousand years. Psychological studies have demonstrated that if people have a positive experience, they will tell three people; if those same people have a negative experience, however, they will tell eleven people. Human nature, then, is not on your side. Though you may have a communications team working round the clock to tell the story of the good things that are happening—and there are indeed many—they are being swallowed up by the black hole of negativity hanging over Hillsborough county.

The district administration tells one story, but I can tell you with great certainty that the employees are living in a vastly different narrative. While the district touts itself on Twitter, dismayed employees of all stripes are told that the district will not honor its contracts, will not honor its pay scales, will not honor its word. Thousands of people who work with our students each and every day in the school houses all across this county slog through the days. The morale is the lowest I’ve ever witnessed in my first 14 years of teaching, yet we put on a brave face for our students so as to shield them from the damage the financial cuts have been taking. Employees are constantly demanded to do more while receiving less, whether compensation or respect. And though we suffer the ramifications of your poor planning and choices, we must watch as the bureaucracy balloons, all while being told we have no money.

And if this story weren’t bad enough, there is a far more pernicious plotline developing, one about which most citizens and education stakeholders are completely unaware. Between the lines of our current story there is a subtext that tells a tale of coercion, collusion, and corruption. A narrative that peeks into the darkest corners of the district to witness pay to play politicians ensuring their campaign contributors get their slice of the public pie. For those who are closely following this storyline, they watch aghast as this very school board rubber stamps contracts worth tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes even millions. We wonder where the money has gone when in reality it is being siphoned off right in front of our very eyes, taxpayers being bilked in the names of crony capitalism and corporate welfare. Even today, the vast proliferation of for-profit charter schools continue; some of you undoubtedly attended the ribbon cutting this morning for the newly opened SLAM charter in Citrus Park. And then you came back here to approve two new ones in Riverview. Does the public know that Mrs. Elia did everything in her power to stem the tide against these for-profit charter charlatans? Does the public realize that we were winning litigation that would have closed the doors on these companies forever, only to call off the suit a few years ago because we were “taking the district in a different direction”? Surely those tens of millions of FEFP dollars could have ensured the contractually owed movement on the pay scale or bought a few air conditioners.

But as you know, I am ever the optimistic idealist. I believe we can turn the page on this dark chapter and begin to read the next one, which I trust will be positive. It begins with finding the collective will to make good on the promises you made to the employees. As those who oversee the budget, you should have been planning first and foremost to properly pay those who work with our children day in and day out. And if we have any hope to restore public faith so we can pass a referendum to generate new revenue, this dark chapter must conclude by removing from power those who have abused it, which is why I am asking with all due respect, Mrs. Valdes, for the sake of our citizens, taxpayers, employees, and above all, our students, that you immediately resign from the school board.

Let’s turn the page.

Thank you.

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