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Leave Bad Enough Alone

Accepting mediocrity helps no one

March 21, 2012, 12:00 am

On Feb. 27, the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education summoned its courage and did the right thing: It voted (narrowly, 3-2) to buy out the contract of Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez. 


The actual vote was a long time coming, although, to be honest, the last school board election, which voted in three new reform-minded candidates, was clearly intended as something of a referendum on the public schools and the leadership. 


Voters, it seemed, were upset at the performance of the school system—poor graduation rates, overwhelmingly failing efforts to meet annual improvement goals—and the way the outgoing board did its business: a lack of transparency and very poor communications with the broader community.


In a remarkable piece of political theater, the outgoing board even voted to extend Gutierrez’ contract as one of its last pieces of business, right before three board members were replaced by three newly elected ones who clearly had serious reservations with the adequacy of her performance. The schools-as-theater got even more absurd when the incoming board learned that one of Gutierrez’ employees had doctored the numbers given to the old board before it voted—actually omitting data that showed areas of failure by the administration. She didn’t think the board was looking for bad news, the employee explained.


So now the reformers have voted to buy out Gutierrez’ contract and—surprise, surprise—the editorial writers at The Santa Fe New Mexican, Santa Fe’s home-grown daily, are outraged! (No surprise there—The New Mexican has been an apologist for the superintendent and her poor performance for some time. Students don’t test well in annual yearly progress exams? Must be the fault of the exams! The numbers were fudged on that memo to the outgoing board? Don’t make too much of it; let’s move on!)


The New Mexican writes a mean editorial: There was no warning of this vote! It happened late at night! The people who voted to buy out her contract didn’t campaign on that platform!


Lame arguments, but at least they’re arguments.


But then the editorial writer at The New Mexican veers from the lame to the inane.


There are two problems, The New Mexican says, with terminating Gutierrez’ services.


First, none of the three school board members who voted to buy out the contract grew up in Santa Fe.


That’s right, The New Mexican is now in the camp of the “birthers.”


If you weren’t born here, you don’t belong here!


In a state that still approves of giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses, the newspaper of record wants to revoke the voting rights of school board members who weren’t born in Santa Fe.


But wait. It gets weirder.


The real reason not to buy out Gutierrez’ contract?


Efforts at school reform in the past didn’t produce great results. In fact, some were failures. Some superintendents brought in from outside didn’t stick. Others didn’t click. And others were OK, but not exceptional.


In other words, leave bad enough alone.


If the schools in Santa Fe aren’t graduating students, aren’t meeting mandated improvement levels, aren’t teaching kids the skills they need to go on to college and get good jobs—well, at least life in Santa Fe is good. We have a lot of artists. And Richard Florida says that’s good. And we’ve got great festivals—world-class, in fact.


So if the schools are terrible, and the educational opportunities offered to Santa Fe’s children rank at the bottom of the nation, well, what can you do?


Why bother trying? Why get rid of an ineffective leader who hasn’t produced? Why try to improve the status quo? 


After all, a truly ambitious new superintendent probably wouldn’t have been born in Santa Fe either.


So here’s Santa Fe’s new motto, courtesy of The New Mexican: “Santa Fe—we’re mediocre, and that’s great!”



Alan M Webber is an award-winning writer and editor and the founder of Fast Company magazine. He lives in Santa Fe.

 

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