The Ontario school system is giving students a poor lesson in how to deal with conflicts. The clashes between some Ontario administrators and board more resembles a school yard fight than professionals focused on education. That has to stop.

Tension between educators trained to teach kids and citizens representing the community on school boards isn’t unusual. When handled well, such tension produces the best results for kids, for employees and for the community. School employees need to be questioned and challenged about policies. Board members need to recognize these employees typically have years of training beyond what they have.

In Ontario, the back-and-forth over months has sapped energy all around. Personality clashes have been disguised as legitimate debate over school policy. But the string of complaints and allegations, the barbed public comments both ways, and the body language show otherwise. It’s become a contest over who is the strongest person, never mind the students.

And that’s the shame. This sort of beefing doesn’t serve a single student, when every action by the board, every action by administrators, and every action by teachers and others needs to dial in on one question: Does this make our school system better? Too many times, these significant distractions don’t have a thing to do with getting kids a better education in Ontario. They don’t have a thing to do with driving up test scores. And they do little to rescue one more student from academic failure.

This is all superheated now because of the extraordinary challenges placed on the school system by the pandemic. This has distorted normal teaching, normal school days. This has left the community deeply frustrated by students stuck at home – too often alone. That has not been the fault of anyone in district executive leadership or of the five people sitting on the school board. It is a reality.

And today’s social media environment doesn’t help. Comments on Facebook and other channels stoke the fires of confrontation, usually based on bad information or raw opinion summoned up on a keyboard without ever having “attended” a recent school board meeting.

The lesson eluding the school system is how to deal with high stress in extraordinary times. Make no mistake. Students are watching this closely. They are living the results. They are learning – and perhaps the wrong lesson.

Let’s change that.

There appear to be three options before the staff, the board and the community.

One is to let this cage fight go on until there is a clear winner. In this choice, those on both sides continue to slash away, trading barbs, questioning motives, unyielding in opinion. Someone will win – but it won’t be the students.

The second choice is for the school board to act on its concerns. If the majority of the school board truly feels the district is wildly off track, the members have a duty to act. They hold ultimate responsibility and they hold a powerful tool – the ability to replace the superintendent. That would seize the day, but if done without compelling reason, such a choice would likely damage the district in ways that would take years to repair.

The third choice is to resolve these matters. Smart adults can find ways to make clear their feelings and concerns, take the poison out of the air, and turn to issues that need consensus. This will take courage and honesty by everyone.

This will require not playing to the grandstand. This will take a genuine effort to say collectively: We are better than this.

Some school board members have been toying for months with spending up to $40,000 for a community survey. Instead, the board should invest money in mediation, bringing in someone with the best credentials for resolving these kinds of conflicts.

The competing interests need to come to the table willing to talk, willing to vent, and willing to agree that the current path serves no one. They all need to close the door on the past, to join hands to start fresh, to try.

Clearly, the last option is the best option for the Ontario School District and its students. We need all the adults in the room to put down their armor. We need the adults to exhibit for watchful students how tough conflicts are resolved with no losers, with a laser focus on what produces the best education, not the best politician. - LZ        

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