August 27, 2014
JCPS Needs Its Diesel
In some ways, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Donna Hargens reminds me of Nurse Charlotte Diesel (Cloris Leachman), who presides over The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous in “High Anxiety,” Mel Brooks’ 1977 spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thrillers.
Diesel smokes a cigar with psychiatric staff as breezily as she drives a fork deep into a dinner table to punctuate a point. They’re dealing with “dangerously sick people,” after all. So it comes as no surprise when we learn that Diesel is a dominatrix. In a hilariously PG-rated BDSM scene, Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) protests, “Too much bondage; not enough discipline.”
“I know you better than you know yourself,” she inveighs. “You live for bondage!”
Taxpayers — not so much. And that’s why I was very, very nervous about a public notice proposing to raise property taxes for the schools. We’ve seen that movie before — six times in six years. The timing is inopportune. Wounds are still weeping after a state audit released three months ago exposed a bloated bureaucracy among a plethora of antiquities and excesses at JCPS (see LEO’s May 28th “One shining audit”). And the political climate is hostile to another tax hike. Approving board members seeking reelection in November would be stigmatized into oblivion.
With a heavy heart, I began writing this column two weekends ago. I knew Hargens would release her recommendation to the board the following Wednesday (a week ago today). Fearing she would approve of a seventh consecutive increase, my first draft exhorted her to be careful what she wished for. The loss of crucial political capital would exceed any revenue gains. “Skip the hike and the hangover,” I wrote. “Give us more fiscal discipline and less bondage.”
I’m rarely a comfortable passenger on the tax-kicking bandwagon or as a critic of JCPS (see LEO’s “Clarity on Soulful Public Educators,” May 1, 2013). Hence much to my delight, Hargens wisely advised no tax hike for this fiscal year. Way to drain poison pens and deflate disparaging rhetoric, Doctor.
This was a much different column a week ago. If it had been published then, as originally scheduled, it would have been a wasted argument in favor of a decision that Hargens made regardless. When the column was withheld, I was apoplectic. Now I’m elated it waited. Timing is everything.
I should have done something that defines healthy relationships and communities — by giving Hargens the benefit of a doubt. In the three years since she arrived at the asylum — and inherited a swollen mess created by her predecessor — she’s earned that benefit. Hargens is making tough, smart choices amid dangerous and difficult times. Schools don’t cause the worst woes that increasingly disable individuals, families and social services, but schools must address them because that’s where they present.
The district’s tentative budget, which, according to a news release, “will increase before- and after-school instruction for struggling students, add school-based mental health and behavioral supports to struggling students, and provide new technology for students and staff,” includes expenditures that will save money.
Equally encouraging, JCPS responded to the state audit swiftly, outlining its plans regarding 200 recommendations on June 24 — a month prior to deadline. Some of those plans were already in progress, yet C-J columnist Bob Heleringer, a chronic critic of JCPS who is also a proud product and booster of Catholic schools, couldn’t resist this cheap shot:
“And how about this gem from board Chairwoman Diane Porter: ‘This guidance (the audit) is coupled with several things we are already doing to ensure transparency and efficiency.’ Translation: Taxpayers, get lost.”
A decade ago, Jon Stewart made headlines when he commanded the demagogic co-hosts of CNN’s “Crossfire” to “stop hurting America!” Now is the time for all stakeholders in the success of JCPS (i.e., everyone) to step up to the plate and support those who are exhausting every effort to make a difference. It’s never been more daunting to be a bus driver, student, parent, teacher, counselor, principal, superintendent or board member. They deserve our constructive criticism, cooperation, respect, support and gratitude.
Nationwide, the bench of talented and gifted superintendents is as shallow as Beargrass Creek during a drought. That’s why we’re lucky to have Hargens. With the recent hiring of Helene Kramer as executive director of communications, JCPS finally has the media SWAT team it needs to correct misguided or malicious critics at every turn. May our expectations be as high as the stakes.