I propose that we start with a question: who are we, and why are we here? On the surface, the answer is easy. We are the Board of Education, and we are here to vote the voluntary school up or down. I think a more nuanced response to the question might be useful in figuring out how we should vote on the voluntary school.
As the board of education, we are elected BY the community to act FOR the community in making important policy for our schools. We are not, as Onnie reminded us last week, professional educators. We are lawyers, a real estate investor, an investment advisor, a retired arts administrator, an executive director of an educational non-profit, and a university dean. None of us is employed by New Trier or spends our days here. Our main lives are elsewhere. But all of us are deeply interested in public education and the place of schools in making our community what it is.
Parenthetically, it is important to be said that that every member of this board has been doing his or her level best to come up with the best decision possible on the voluntary school. While I have disagreed with some of my fellow board members on the voluntary school issue in the past, I have never doubted the good faith of each and every one of them. I thank my brothers and sisters for their commitment to New Trier, and the hard work each has devoted to this topic.
Back to the issue of who we are, and what that might say about our role in the voluntary school decision.
As Board Members we could choose to make all decisions for New Trier ourselves. If we did that we would obviously be relying solely on our own expertise. In that scenario Hank's role and that of the rest of the staff would be to carry out our decisions. The alternative scenario would be for us to delegate many or most decisions. Obviously the latter option is the alternative we have selected. We have neither the time nor the expertise to make all the required decisions ourselves.
Having decided that Hank and his staff should make many decisions, the question becomes the role they should play in THIS decision. What should we do with Hank and the staff's opinion? I don't mean the reports here: those were their best efforts to describe what a voluntary school would be like. I mean the staff's OPINIONS about whether a voluntary school would be a good idea.
Again we have alternatives: we can ignore Hank's and the staff's opinion; we can take them into consideration in the same way we treat anybody else's opinion; or we can give them special weight because they spend their professional lives in the schools, thinking about these issues, and working with the students. This is sometimes referred to as giving "deference" to those who have more information and expertise. I think we should give deference in this case.
"Deference" in the context of this decision DOES NOT mean asking Hank to make it for us. The buck stops with us, not Hank. We must take full responsibility to the public for the decision we make. But "deference" in this context DOES MEAN explaining to the public why Hank and the staff are wrong in their opinion if we vote in opposition to his recommendation. We can not hire experts - including the people who teach our children - and ask for their opinion and then override it without giving a reason satisfactory to them without doing damage to the fabric and climate of the school.
I suggest our role tonight is to REPRESENT the people of this township, not to become their educational experts. Our job is to make good quality decisions in the name of the people after having asked the experts, including Hank and his staff, for as much relevant information and advice as is possible. We have done that as to the voluntary school, and we will act tonight.
Two years ago I said that I thought the voluntary school was an intriguing possibility. The reports we have considered this winter and spring have taken the bloom off the rose, but I still think the idea is intriguing. I am clear that the better choice is to remove the voluntary school from the table as an enrollment option, but I do not do so joyfully. I wish it could have worked. Unfortunately the data show otherwise.
I think the process of thinking about whether we should have a voluntary school has been good for New Trier. It has been very hard work, mostly for people other than myself. I am grateful for the effort of the staff, Hank, Onnie and Chuck on the review committee, and all others who made the presentations possible. I thank Onnie, Mark, Phyllis, and David for encouraging us to consider the possibility of having a voluntary school. As a result we have learned a lot about ourselves. In fact, I think we have accomplished SOME of the strategic planning we haven't quite managed to do in its own name through the study process of the voluntary school. So while I conclude we should not adopt the voluntary school, I think the study of whether we should adopt the voluntary school has been worthwhile and will continue to pay dividends for New Trier in the future.