The following letter was sent to the Amherst School Committee on May 10, 2023.
The article in the May 9th edition of The Graphic school newspaper illustrates a consistent pattern of bureaucratic response to a situation where LGTBTQ students are being harmed. A situation like this requires clear and immediate action on the part of the leadership of the institution. Instead, the article recounts numerous examples of “my hands are tied, there is nothing I can do” responses. This is not leadership. This is documentation that administrators are avoiding taking action.
This is also a clearcut example of bureaucratic inertia, instead of strong and effective leadership that rectifies the harm. What is missing is action on the part of the Superintendent, that immediately safeguards the students are risk. To date, this has not occurred.
Leaders do not let complexity, or the possibility of messy conflict, impede them from taking action, especially when students are being harmed. Careerists, on the other hand, find plenty of excuses to avoid taking action.
As the top administrator, the Superintendent has not acted to safeguard the students who are being harmed. When leaders fail to lead, a vacuum is created where staff realize that they can pretty much do what they want. Over many decades of consulting work, I have seen how people often choose to work for ineffective leaders. They do so because weak or ineffective leaders do not hold people accountable. In such organizations, staff know that they are left free to operate as they like, as long as they do not directly challenge the key administrator’s power, There are plenty of public school systems where this is the long-term culture.
In order to hold staff accountable a leader must be willing to engage conflict. I remember national data from back in 2005 where the biggest challenge in corporations was the pattern of managers avoiding giving direct feedback to those they supervise. Few, if any, leaders enjoy dealing with conflict. However, it is not possible to hold people accountable without giving them direct feedback about what they are doing well and what they are dong that does not meet an expected standard.
Effective leaders”inspect what they expect.” When staff do not abide by policies or directives, an effective leader sits down with them and lets them know that they have a short period of time in which to demonstrate compliance with those policies or directives. Effective leaders in public school settings do not let union grievance procedures stand in the way of correcting staff behavior that is harmful, or out of compliance with school policy.
In this case, where students are being harmed, an effective leader will intervene as soon as she or he learns about the problem. Key administrators will be given clear directives about how to immediately safeguard students at risk. Any staff who are alleged to be causing harm to students will immediately be insulated from contact with those students. An investigation may take some time, but the first priority is to safeguard students and provide help for them to recover from the harm.
The pattern described in The Graphic is not one of effective leadership. How can it be when students are still at risk? As the stewards of this community school, I look to you to safeguard out students. I realize that you cannot involve yourselves in day-to-day administration of the school. What you can do, though is inform the Superintendent that his current failure to demonstrate leadership will be a key datapoint in his next performance evaluation.
Michael Burkart is a resident of Amherst.