Stop feuding, get back to governing

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Board must understand: It's OK to disagree; be civil; and don't take it personal.

"WHAT IS EVIDENT is that the complaints and circumstances leading to this investigation arose from a dysfunctional relationship among and between certain members of the Board of Education and some members of the Administration."

That's the most on-point finding by investigators with the Quarles & Brady law firm, who were tasked by the School District of Beloit with looking into whether member Pam Charles somehow was causing a racially-biased hostile workplace. The case started with written allegations seeking inquiry from fellow board member Dennis Baskin and from administrator Darrell Williams, who served as acting superintendent while Dr. Tom Johnson was away from the district on leave.

Investigators concluded there was no evidence to find Charles "guilty" of such allegations, instead attributing problems to what amounted to friction and score-settling.

IT'S ANOTHER EXAMPLE of how it can be difficult in this school district to figure out who are the adults and who are the children.

The level of dysfunction has been like a bad marriage - everybody talks, nobody listens.

Grudges develop and are nurtured, seeming to color every action and decision coming before the board.

This is distracting from the many pressing issues facing the School District of Beloit. Test scores remain below average. The racial gap among students is real. Poverty is a wide and tall barrier to learning. Teachers are voting with their feet, leaving the district in above-average numbers. Staff frustrations expressed at a town hall-style meeting remain a concern, especially when it comes to student conduct and disciplinary problems.

Staff told board members they received insufficient support, and it's not hard to see why. When there is "a dysfunctional relationship among and between certain members of the Board of Education and some members of the Administration," the task of shaping up classrooms is much more difficult.

THIS SHOULD SERVE as a wake-up call for everybody on that board and within the administration. A much more professional environment is required if the important business of educating young people is to be done well. Finger-pointing should end. Each individual should take ownership.

Look, the seven board members are elected at-large. They have different constituencies. They have different backgrounds and beliefs. They bring different experiences and viewpoints to the board. They will not always see eye-to-eye. The community is better served if board members discuss, debate and even disagree. That's democracy. It can be messy. No one should expect elected officials to hold hands in harmony all the time. Officials should have thick skin, and not take every disagreement as a personal affront. There should be no place for personal agendas and score-settling.

Taxpayers and voters deserve better. So do the kids. So does the staff.

Beloit does not need its own version of Washington or Madison, with officials choosing sides and bickering with and picking at each other to the exclusion of solving problems and getting things done.

Just stop.

A FINAL WORD: The district is working on a code of ethics and conduct for board members. We will reserve judgment until the matter has had more exposure, but we will observe it's tough to create and even tougher to enforce such rules with elected officials. What one may view as passionate advocacy another may take as pushing too hard or trying to bully other members. What one member may consider a principled stand against a majority mistake others could see as negative grandstanding. Still another may intend to bring performance problems into the open - after all, government belongs to the community, not district insiders - while others interpret it as airing dirty laundry. And it's easy to imagine a majority bloc on the board using such a code to batter or silence the minority. Any policy that encourages treating each other with respect, courtesy and professionalism is a reminder of the virtue of civility. But any policy that tries to muzzle dissent, keep differences secret, or punish a vocal minority viewpoint is anti-democratic and not in the people's interest. Ultimately, judgment of each elected official will be rendered by voters, not by board members or administrators.

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