Manufactured Consent: Pushing Past the Propaganda
I recently wrote about and detailed the growing momentum, as the Rochester Teachers Association (RTA) moved ahead with a vote of no confidence in Rochester Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. The rank-and-file secret ballot vote will occur throughout each RCSD school circa February 10th. The totals will be tallied and then brought back to the RTA representative assembly. Needless to say, plenty of public activity has occurred since this announcement. The events surrounding and accompanying the vote of no confidence provide a context and road map for those in other cities entering similar struggles.
Brizard delivered his “State of the Schools” address on Thursday, Jan 20th. Teachers, parents, and concerned community members assembled a massive protest outside the event to voice opposition to Brizard’s leadership style and his unilateral agenda. Interestingly, there was a significant discrepancy between various media sources on the amount of people present and their composition. Several news sources cited “hundreds” and several cited “more than 500” teachers, parents, and supporters present at the protest. Of these various sources, some mentioned the full composition of the crowd, detailing that there was teachers, parents, students, and community. Others left out one of more of these stakeholders while reporting on the protest. These details remain important because the aggregate size of the crowd throughout the night was easily over 1,000 individuals. Also, one of the strengths in this crowd was that it included teachers, parents, students, and community. I spoke with a number of parents and teachers present at the event. One parent said,
This proves that people know what time it is. Brizard’s dismissal of anyone not in his camp while trying to privatize our schools has got people from all different sections of Rochester concerned and active.
The speech itself by Brizard felt much like a pep-rally exercise in self-congratulation. While it wasn’t entirely surprising, many of the members of the crowd still expressed disappointment that throughout the entire speech, there was not one acknowledgment of the fact that there has been serious disagreement from sizable portions of schools, parents, and community. By continuing to ignore and dismiss the rising tide of criticism, Brizard and his administrative team has seemed to dig themselves further into a hole. I spoke with a teacher after the event who stated,
There was absolutely no engagement with the clear evidence that there is a growing divide between our ideas for schools and his. It was as if the staff of schools, parents, students, and community who came here to voice protest didn’t even exist. This dismissal has been one of the major problems in district and it only got deeper tonight.
Many have seen this growing divide as increasingly problematic. Following the “State of the Schools” address, the Rochester City School District was scheduled to vote on the closings of two community neighborhood elementary schools, School 2 and School 6. The same week, on January 24, Superintendent Brizard and his administrative staff visited School 6, one of the schools they had been directed to meet with by the Board of Education. There was strong parent and staff criticism of the Superintendent’s plans, as well as alternative proposals that would allow the schools to remain open.
It was interesting that during this meeting, the Superintendent and his staff presented the same proposal and gave the same justifications for why these schools had been selected to close in order to provide “swing space” for the Rochester Schools Facilities Modernization Program. One grandparent poignantly stated during the meeting:
It seems like you have your mind made up regardless of what we say to you or what type of ‘conversation’ happens tonight. You came here because the Board told you that you had to but you’re trying to move with this plan regardless of what feedback you get tonight. It seems like you playing games with us and we don’t appreciate it.
On Thursday, during the Board meeting there was a strong parent, staff and community presence. Due to strong organizing and vocal opposition, the Board did not even vote on closing School 2 and School 6, stating that both schools would remain open. This victory was powerful for parents, staff and organizers who had worked hard to combat this attack on community.
After the Board meeting the next day, Brizard held a private news conference to announce what options, according to him, were left.
Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard said the district has four options: lose $325 million in Phase 1 construction funds, close a different school to create swing space, lease another space at a significant cost to the district, or use 690 St. Paul St.
All options discussed were punitive. The leasing of space option was presented as excessively expensive and “would require layoffs”. The “we’ll have to find another school to close” options would pit parents, schools, staff and community against each other in a divisive motion. There are still environmental questions regarding the safety of 690 St Paul St, being that the building was declared a brownfield in 2009. Many are not convinced that State Environmental official reports often held up by district leadership are to be trusted.
Following this push back from Brizard’s office, the Parent and Community Coalition for Educational Change issued a press release. This coalition of parent, educator and community education advocacy organizations includes the Community Education Task Force (CETF), Coalition for Common Sense in Education (CCSE), Metro Justice, Alliance for Quality Education, and the Green Party. In our press release we stated our “absolute lack of confidence in the leadership of Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard.” It was a strong swell of support from like minded, allied parents and community. This event undoubtedly spread the message and communicated our reasons for opposing Brizard’s privatization agenda.
Interestingly, Brizard shot back a response to the media through the district’s public relations wing very quickly. He attacked the legitimacy of the Coalition as well as attacked those of us who are retired educators. The following statement was released to news media and to all district employees:
From: Petronio, Tom [Thomas.Petronio@RCSDK12.ORG]
Sent: Tuesday, February 01, 2011 11:44 AM
Subject: From the RCSD: Statement from Superintendent Brizard
Statement from Rochester Superintendent of Schools Jean-Claude Brizard re: Parent and Community Coalition for Educational Change:
I am committed to the children of this city and to working with those who genuinely want to improve the education of our students.
The group protesting today does not represent parents nor does it represent the Rochester community. It is interested only in maintaining the status quo and returning us to a system in which no one was accountable to the families we serve.
I have confidence that we have meaningfully increased literacy and math performance and graduation rates. I have confidence that we are putting children first and not tossing them out to the streets and increasing the incarceration rate. I have confidence that our reform effort, modeled after the best practices in our nation, is bearing fruit.
I have no confidence in former employees who did little for children and enjoyed a system that put adults first.
If you read the written statement of no confidence and watch the video that was excellently captured at the event by Rochester Indymedia, you’ll notice something interesting about Brizard’s response. First off, he did not address any of the substance of our statement nor did he focus on the issues in any meaningful way. Second, his personal attacks on the character of both the Parent and Community Coalition for Educational Change and the individuals in our organization was unfounded, duplicitous, and deceitful. Quite frankly, this can best be described as Brizard desperately lashing out against the growing tsunami of discontent in the community, as we have clearly begun to make it clear that he can not operate without any regard for the thoughts of students, parents, affected communities and schools.
Fortunately, Dan Drmacich of Coalition for Common Sense in Education wrote a guest essay in support of the Coalition’s joint resolution of “No Confidence”. This was a much needed injection of truth into a thickening battle for the control of this narrative. Drmacich’s experience and perspective as a retired principal strengthened our stance in the public arena, as many teachers, students and community members recognized the validity of his statement.
Throughout these events in the school system, the local corporate media has frequently attempted to carry water for Brizard and his agenda by faithfully playing the role of “damage control specialists”. This type of intentional equivocation and lack of journalistic integrity leads to informal interviews with Brizard such as this one in which local editorial board contributor Jane Sutter stated
Rochester schools Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard visited the Editorial Board today. I asked him how he plans to react to the “no confidence” vote that’s scheduled for next week by the teachers union. He said he doesn’t know yet how he’ll respond but he expects the measure will pass. He noted, correctly, that union President Adam Urbanski looks for solidarity, and teachers for the most part will do what the union wants.
He says there are teachers who support him but they are afraid to go public. I don’t doubt that. As for the vote, “does it bother me? Yes? Is it going to stop me. No.”
Fortunately, Brizard has recognized he’s got a communications problem with teachers, and he’s starting more outreach. He also chalked the vote up pretty much as par for the course, citing similar votes that reform-minded superintendents in Baltimore and Seattle had taken against them.
It sounds like he is taking this issue seriously and ramping up more meetings with teachers in small groups. The bottomline is that if he doesn’t get the majority of teachers in his corner, the reforms will go nowhere.
But Brizard also has a problem with communicating with parents. I’ve heard from several parents who are outraged at the district’s lack of communication about choosing schools for kids heading to seventh grade or high school next year. I was amused to see the district sent out a news release on Wednesday saying the information is coming on Friday — right after the Flower City Parents Network sent out a newsletter complaining about the problem. Brizard said the information was delayed from December when the school board didn’t vote on closing high schools and opening new ones. I don’t blame parents one bit for being upset. At least Brizard acknowledged that parents should have been told about the holdup.
I like the fact that Brizard and his lieutenants plan to attend a lot more parent meetings, get into churches, etc. But all that effort will be for naught if he doesn’t fix these communication problems. Plenty of parents already vote with their feet by moving to the suburbs; he and his staff should be doing everything they can to win them over.
I especially enjoyed the part about how “…union President Adam Urbanski looks for solidarity, and teachers for the most part will do what the union wants. He says there are teachers who support him but they are afraid to go public.” Once you cut through the heavy political spin throughout the entire article, this portion sticks out. Brizard has continually attempted to depict the vote of no confidence as Adam Urbanski and the RTA leadership imposing their will upon the rank-and-file of teachers. However, this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. The impetus for the decision to move with the vote of no confidence came from rank-and-file RTA members who I personally know continually reaching out and advocating for the RTA to move forward with the current set of actions. Also, when Brizard claims there are still teachers who support him but are afraid to come forth, one need only bring up the fact that the vote of no confidence on Feb 10th, 2011 is a secret ballot vote. So if Brizard’s claim or in anyway substantiated, then the proof will be in the pudding come Thursday.
There is palpable excitement and energy in the air for change as we approach our vote on Thursday, Feb 10th. Teachers, the unions, parents, students, and community are increasingly joining together despite what Brizard and his cronies in the media would like us to believe. I will certainly keep us all informed of the events on the front lines as they transpire this week.