Dianne Hardisty offered an interesting historical perspective in her Jan. 11 article, "Confidential documents protect public’s right to know." She likened some of her experiences to those portrayed in the recently released movie, "The Post."
She referenced confidential documents related to water contamination in Norris School in 1984 — a time I was the district superintendent. Packed board meetings, retiring superintendent, unhappy school community, unhappy Health Department were only a few of the issues facing the rather young (at the time), new superintendent.
It didn’t take me long to determine that whatever leadership skills I thought I might have in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic had nothing to do with the role this new superintendent had to fill. Trying to rebuild trust between school leaders and their staff, their community and the Kern County Health Department was Goal #1.
I had taken no class in my academic career that prepared me for the heat that evolved from a community that felt their school leaders had taken action (or no action) that endangered their children. What I relied on is what my parents taught me and what I learned in church.
Transparency wasn’t in our lexicon 33 years ago but open, honest, straight-forward actions spoke much louder than any administrative jibberish I might utter. In addition to the water issue there was one major cultural dynamic shift occurring within the district, of which I was not aware, but soon discovered required much of my attention.
The cultural shift occurring in the mid-1980s was that Norris was transitioning from a sleepy rural community, framed in agrarian principles and traditions, to a suburban community consisting of successful business men and women who wanted more from their school for their children. This struggle for leadership and control, “old vs. new,” may have been under the radar but it was very real and had the district not had the problem with the water, some other tectonic event would have changed the district forever.
One event, at which I can laugh now, was not very funny then. As promised, the district dug a new water well and all tests (and there were many) on the water provided satisfactory results.
Then three days before school is to start, we suddenly smell hydrogen sulfide in the water. My first call is to County Health Department. This agency had some skin the game during this time because of their responsibilities for safe drinking water. I was assured that hydrogen sulfide in the water was not dangerous or harmful to consume, all I had to do was add a little chlorine in the tank.
What? Like a geyser in Yosemite, I erupted (pun intended) With all the problems caused by water, to the smelly water we were now producing, I had to add a chemical we put in swimming pools? “I’m not touching that water till I get a letter from the Health Department telling me exactly what to do and how often to do it! Oh, and it would be helpful if you indicated that chlorine in the water was not harmful when consumed at proper levels.”
We had to re-build the trust between school, community and agency. We needed the Health Department support and we got it! Our journey together was not without potholes and speed bumps, but they certainly played a large part in the healing process our district experienced.
Another dynamic occurring during those first 12 months was the role of school board, the superintendent and the media. The first action we took was to adopt a board policy as to who would be the spokesman for the district. The board quickly and gratefully said all contact with the media on any subject would be the superintendent. One voice and one message was critically needed at that time.
Fast forward five or six months and suddenly some board members expressed concern that maybe I was talking too much to the television/press/media. I had to remind my bosses that if they truly wanted to heal the district I had to be available to talk with anyone who had a concern, whether it be a parent, board member or media person.
I needed to help them better understand that what they see on television, or read in the newspaper, isn’t everything I said.
To accomplish this task, at the next interview by a local television station, I videotaped an entire 10 minutes. Later that evening I recorded the 45 second blurb on the news broadcast.
At the next board meeting we showed both to trustees. I had to build trust with them as well and remind them the media gets to pick and choose what parts of the interview to use. The media has the responsibility within limits of words, time and space to accurately reflect the facts from the interview.
I deeply regret and pain and suffering many fine men and women in the Norris community suffered during those stressful years. I am most appreciative I had the opportunity to help heal a community, build a strong educational program and share a wonderful 16 years with trustees, staff, parents and kids of Norris School District.
Al Sandrini is a retired superintendent of the Norris School District and former executive director of the Small School District Association.