“Let’s disagree without being disagreeable”

Published 1:06 pm Thursday, December 16, 2021

Increased information requests causes school system to need another employee

COLUMBUS—Polk County schools have been getting so many freedom of information requests, most recently over books in the library, that administration is asking for an additional employee. 

The Polk County School Board met this week and heard from Superintendent Aaron Greene. 

Greene said public schools and local school board meetings are increasingly becoming political battlegrounds. 

“Public schools must serve all students, no matter their backgrounds, beliefs or future goals,” Greene said. “We literally try to be all things to all people. It is impossible, but we try.” 

Greene asked that Polk County Schools ensure these information requests and the increased scrutiny on educators and operations is intended to move the district forward and improve, not be part of a larger political agenda. He said with so many districts facing the same requests, talking points and book lists and hearing that people are being advised by individuals and groups outside of Polk County to make the requests, it certainly gives the appearance of political maneuvering. 

“We will try to take each concern, request and conversation as being well-intentioned and geared towards improving student outcomes,” Greene said. “We are trying to give people the benefit of the doubt.” 

Greene said Polk Schools is very thin at the administrative level and have fewer people in the district office than it did 25 years ago, yet the workload has increased. 

“These types of public info requests and challenges take time and effort to address, time and focus that should be on the important day-to-day work of educating children and operating our schools,” Greene said. “After COVID and the increased workload associated with coming out of the pandemic we have been struggling with all that is required.” 

Greene said because of the increased requests for information, he will be coming back to the board with a request for an additional staff person at the district level to ensure the school system gets things done and done correctly. 

“This will mean those fiscal and human resources are not applied directly to students and classrooms,” he told the board. 

The more our community becomes divided and adversarial, the more difficult it will be to serve students and families effectively, Greene told the board. He said parents and community members have a right to know what is going on and the school system has processes for handling requests for information, voicing concerns and for challenging instructional materials. 

“We are going to disagree, but as President Lyndon Johnson said, ‘if we must disagree, let’s disagree without being disagreeable.’”

Greene said he feels it is important for the board and the public to know the recent attacks on public education, the continued lack of annual education funding and employee compensation and the questioning of educator motives and intentions have left staff frustrated, feeling unappreciated and in some cases, ready to give up. 

“We cannot afford to drive these wonderful people out of education over politics or conjecture,” he said. “These fine people have dedicated their lives to doing all they can for students and families, and I am extremely proud of them and to serve alongside them. Let’s show them we support their efforts, their experience, wisdom and expertise and treat them as the professionals they are.” 

Greene said they try to do things the “Polk County” way and shy away from controversial initiatives that may not reflect our community’s preferences. 

“My hope is that we can end the Facebook fussing, the divisive commentary and the jumping to conclusions about the work of our educators,” Greene said. Some things are being brought to us only because of what was said on the preferred national news echo chamber, or posted on someone’s Facebook group.  In my 27 years as an educator in Polk County I must say I am grateful to be a small part of this wonderful school district and community.  I am confident if we can work together, show each other some grace and patience, and keep our focus on kids instead of politics, we can continue to do the great work that has been done for our families and community for so many years.  We ask for your help in that endeavor.”

Following is Greene’s full speech given at Monday night’s school board meeting: 

Increasingly public schools and local school board meetings are becoming political battlegrounds.  The types of commentary and requests we are receiving are common all over the state and nation.  Historically public schools have found themselves in the middle of social debates and sometimes in political crosshairs.  This is not new, but does pose significant challenges for districts.

Public schools must serve ALL students, no matter their backgrounds, beliefs, or future goals.  We literally try to be all things to all people.  It is impossible, but we try.  We have always worked to partner with parents, families, and community to collaborate for improvement of the educational experiences provided to students, and to examine the areas and issues that are difficult to agree upon.  We will continue to do so.  

I want to ask that we ensure these information requests and the increased scrutiny on educators and operations is intended to move the district forward and improve, not part of a larger political agenda.  With so many districts facing the same requests, talking points, and book lists, and hearing that people are being advised by individuals and groups outside of Polk County to make these requests, it certainly gives the appearance of political maneuvering.  We will try to take each concern, request, and conversation as being well-intentioned and geared towards improving student outcomes.  We are trying to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Historically our resources are spent on our schools.  As the Board is aware, Polk Schools is very thin at the administrative level.  We have fewer people in the district office than we did 25 years ago, yet the workload has only increased over time.  These types of public info requests and challenges take time and effort to address, time and focus that should be on the important day-to-day work of educating children and operating our schools.  After COVID and the increased workload associated with coming out of the pandemic we have been struggling with all that is required.  Now, with increasing requests for information and more supposedly on the horizon, I will be coming back to the board with a request for an additional staff person at the district level to ensure we get things done and done correctly.  This will mean those fiscal and human resources are not applied directly to students and classrooms.

The more our community becomes divided and adversarial, the more difficult it will be to serve students and families effectively.  Parents and community members do have a right to know what is going on in our schools and how we do the work.  We have processes for handling requests for information, for voicing concerns and objections, and for the challenging of instructional materials.  We simply ask this be done in partnership with the district and in a reasonable way.  Let’s evidence for our students that we can discuss our differences in a civil and productive way, without tearing each other down or judging each other.  We are going to disagree, but as President Lyndon Johnson said, “If we must disagree, let’s disagree without being disagreeable.”

Public schools will always have specific laws, rules and guidelines we have to follow, and there will always be standards and curriculum we are required to teach.  We realize there are some who disagree with our approach or the rules we must follow, and some feel they should not have to comply.  It is certainly their right to disagree and to educate their students as they see fit.  We want to serve all the students of Polk County, but for those who feel strongly about certain topics or decisions there are options.  Families can choose to homeschool, attend private or religious schools, access voucher money for private school tuition, or explore charter schools that have more flexibility than traditional public schools.  Simply put, your child does not have to attend public schools.  For example, the books being challenged currently are not required reading in classrooms.  When students are required to read or use a resource, parents may request a different book, assignment, or set of materials if they feel what is being used to teach the standards is not appropriate for their child.  We have honored these requests and will continue to do so.  

One of the reasons Polk Schools has been so successful is because we have outstanding educators and we give them the autonomy to plan and deliver their lessons as they see fit.  No matter what we “prescribe” to our staff they are the ones with students each and every day.  We trust them to do their job in a professional way and to navigate more difficult areas delicately.  If they have issues we address them and support our staff.  To my knowledge we have handled any legitimate concern brought to us and will always work to do so, but I must admit I do not read Facebook so I may be uninformed about other things being discussed in the community.  I say it over and over – bring legitimate concerns about your child and their education to us and we will address them.

I feel it is important for the Board and public to know the recent attacks on public education, the continued lack of annual education funding and employee compensation, and the questioning of educator motives and intentions have left staff frustrated, feeling unappreciated, and in some cases ready to give up.  We can’t afford to drive these wonderful people out of education over politics or conjecture.  These fine people have dedicated their lives to doing all they can for students and families, and I am extremely proud of them and to serve alongside them.  Let’s show them we support their efforts, their experience, wisdom, and expertise, and treat them as the professionals they are.

We try to do things the “Polk County” way, to shy away from controversial initiatives that may not reflect our community’s preferences.  There is no way we are going to make everyone happy or get everyone’s approval on all we are required to do.  We work hard to make good choices on the decisions that are left to us.  We will continue to work to improve, and to be open and honest with parents and community.  

My hope is that we can end the Facebook fussing, the divisive commentary, and the jumping to conclusions about the work of our educators.  Some things are being brought to us only because of what was said on the preferred national news echo chamber, or posted on someone’s Facebook group.  In my 27 years as an educator in Polk County I must say I am grateful to be a small part of this wonderful school district and community.  I am confident if we can work together, show each other some grace and patience, and keep our focus on kids instead of politics, we can continue to do the great work that has been done for our families and community for so many years.  We ask for your help in that endeavor.  Thank you.   – Aaron Greene