A member of my Sunday school class – Sherri Buse – sent me a message the other day asking if I would attend a Baldwyn School Board meeting where she would be speaking. Typically, I am quite cynical when it comes to meetings involving government officials, especially those of the local variety. I don’t expect much to get done. And I expect that what does get done gets done in a way that I wouldn’t agree with it getting done. I expressed as much to Sherri. Surely my presence couldn’t be beneficial to her cause in any way, I argued, but she persisted. So I went.
In her pitch, Sherri said that she had some questions for the board regarding her children transferring from Tupelo schools to Baldwyn, questions that I would find “informative.” In my way of thinking, that‘s clear code for “It‘s going to hit the fan,” and reality television, occurring live just 50 yards from my office across Main Street is not something I want to take part in, especially when I have no dog in the hunt. Anyway, that’s what I told myself and Sherri, and still the gravitational pull of obligation to a friend sucked me in, that second Thursday in November, for a board meeting of the Baldwyn Separate School District.
Not wanting to attend alone, I coerced my co-worker Stuart Cockrell to come along with me. Knowing my primal need to interject my opinion into any situation, I gave Stuart very specific instructions. Should I so much as take a deep breath that even hinted I might say something, he was to punch me in the face and drag me from the room, claiming that I had had a seizure. He was agreeable to that – in fact, overly agreeable – but that’s a story for another day.
As the meeting opened, board president Johnny Agnew, owner of a local funeral home, called on Sherri to come forward. Now as an engineer by profession, I am accustomed to meetings involving mostly men. I find that males, when addressing a group, may offer a joke to kick things off, but for the most part they quickly get to the heart of the matter. “You, sir, are a liar, and here are nine indisputable proofs of it” is a statement that might find its way into the first couple of paragraphs of a man’s address to a school or town board.
Sherri, being a female, took a completely different approach, one quite foreign to analytical types like Stuart and me. She pulled a chair up cozily close to the board room table where sat the four present members and Superintendent Ronnie Hill and opened with “What’s your passion? Your passion to be a part of this school board? Mr. Agnew?”
Stuart, also an engineer, fidgeted and cut me a plaintive, “what-am-I-doing-here” look. I countered with a nervous smile and suppressed a fidget of my own as Sherri proceeded around the table asking each board member, in turn, a series of warm and fuzzy questions to which she received more than a few “We’re doing it all for the children” responses.
I did find some humor in the board’s answers to one of Sherri’s early questions regarding their qualifications for being on the board. Most, if not all, cited as a primary qualification that they were “citizens.” Citizens? Now any way you look at it, that’s not a very high bar. But at least we can take some solace, I guess, in the fact that we don’t have illegal immigrants serving on our school board.
And so, the questions continued round and round.
Not to mislead, Sherri was clear in her purpose: to have the board answer why she should move her children from Tupelo to Baldwyn in light of the fact that the Baldwyn Separate School District is currently on “academic watch” based on the latest state test scores. She said her circle of friends, Baldwyn people all, had unanimously advised her to keep her kids in Tupelo whenever she would bring up the subject of transfer. That was the root cause of her concern: why Baldwyn people would tell other Baldwyn people not to put native-born Baldwyn kids into Baldwyn Schools.
Generally, guests are offered 3 to 5 minutes when addressing the school board. Sherri and the board chit-chatted for about 25 minutes.
What was the result, you ask? I’m not real sure, but frankly, I heard some very positive statements about responsibility and doing what was necessary to correct test scores from three of the four board members and from Superintendent Hill. The superintendent said that it was he who was ultimately responsible for the performance of the district and that he was actively taking steps to turn around the problem areas. No matter where you are, that’s the kind of thing you want to hear from your school superintendent.
Board member Johnny Davis said it was the board’s job, too, to get things corrected and expressed an optimistic assessment for the possibility of a quick turnaround. Bryan Hogue and Johnny Agnew also offered insight into their personal commitment to see the school improve.
Only Mary Catherine Smith stood out, surprisingly, with pessimistic, almost antagonistic responses to Sherri’s questions. “If you don’t hear anything but bad, you should keep your kids in Tupelo,” she bluntly told Sherri at one point.
Nonetheless, three board members and a superintendent did say the right things, and they said, more importantly, they were going to do the right things to move Baldwyn back into the “desirable” school district category.
You might argue that Sherri did not ask the “Perry Mason” questions – the “traps” about how money was being spent, about superfluous administrative positions, about a lack of text books, or other confrontational lines of inquiry – that I would have probably veered into, or Stuart, or maybe most men. But that approach would have likely degraded the exchange into unproductive, defensive posturing.
Fortunately, Stuart and I weren’t doing the talking – thank goodness – and three board members and a superintendent got a chance to say something positive – about why they were serving, and where our schools are going, and why you should put your kids in school here. So they did. And even a self-aware cynic like me left the meeting more optimistic about Baldwyn Schools than when I went in.
Sherri was right. I did learn something. I learned that there might be a chance to get our school back on the right course, that is, if someone will occasionally pull up a chair at the table in the board room for a little chat.