The Echo Chamber of Public Input

The Fayetteville school board and district leaders fully supported a plan that was soundly rejected by the voters this week.  How did school officials so badly mis-read what voters wanted?  It’s especially puzzling how school officials could have seriously misjudged their constituents given the years of deliberations, countless hours of public meetings and charrettes, and even a commissioned opinion poll.

Unfortunately, these countless rituals of public input are exactly what misled school officials to support an unpopular plan.  They were misled because these rituals of public input are better indicators of the views of the self-selected, small minority of people with the most intense (and often the most extreme) preferences than they are indicators of what the electorate would want.  School officials mistook the opinions of this self-selected few as the voice of the people. 

School officials also hired consultants to lead these public conversations, but in doing so they were steering discussions in a pre-determined direction.  Bringing in education consultant Tony Wagner and requiring all school employees to read his book steered the plan toward a high school divided into small learning communities.  That idea didn’t come from the voters.  It came from certain school officials, was made the topic of discussion in schools and community events, and then was echoed back to school officials. 

Similarly, the design “charrettes” led by consultants from New Orleans were not truly open brain-storming sessions about a new high school.  If they were, how did several small break-out groups independently arrive at the same Trail of Tears design concept? 

There is nothing inherently wrong with holding public discussions on important decisions or with bringing in expert consultants to inform and direct those conversations.  The problem is in falsely believing that what results from those discussions is in fact the opinion of the community.  They are more like echo-chambers, repeating back the preferences that school officials had going into them.

But school officials saw the community discussions as a sign of general public support for their vision.  They even went so far as to describe the plan that was developed from these events as “The People’s Plan.”  And then when asked why voters should support the millage, the advocates and editorial writers told us that it was The People’s Plan and had come from us so we should support what the community had developed.

This People’s Plan campaign strategy almost felt like bullying.  If you weren’t among the tiny, minority of atypical people who could spend evening after evening in community discussions, you had lost your chance to have a say.  It was time for you to get in line and support what the involved people had already determined.

Perhaps for this reason opponents of the millage stayed generally quiet during the campaign.  Yes, there was a handful of active letter writers and a Facebook group with fewer than ten members, but there was no organized opposition, no “vote no” yard signs, and a string of elite (even if tepid)  community endorsements.  But in the privacy of the voting booth, people clearly felt free to open-up and clearly say no.  Once the result had been announced, opponents discovered that they weren’t so isolated, and Facebook pages began to light-up with people explaining their reasons for opposing the millage despite their commitment to education and their understanding of shortcomings of the existing facility. 

The solution is not to hold even more public input rituals to scale back the cost of the project but leave all other decisions in place.  Presumably, the $116 million price tag followed from all of the design and policy decisions that had preceded it.  If all of the design and policy goals could have been met for a lower cost, why wasn’t the initial millage for a lesser amount?

Instead, the solution is to stop the echo-chamber decision-making of meetings, charrettes, and consultants, and start with real leadership.  School officials should step-up and tell us what they think would be educationally desirable at a reasonable cost.  Of course, it is difficult for them to gauge what the community would consider a reasonable cost without public input, but the election result has given them better feedback than any town-hall discussion or charrette ever will.

Superintendent Vicki Thomas is particularly well-positioned to offer her vision of our educational future.  She bears no responsibility for the development of the failed millage plan and can start with a fresh slate.  We hired her to lead our schools and leadership is what we need.  She has enough information from voters and past public meetings to assess the community’s priorities.  Now she can give us a new plan and convince us that it is what she thinks is best, not what she thinks we told her to say.

3 Responses to The Echo Chamber of Public Input

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Finding out what public opinion will support in regard to education policy wouldn’t be so taxing (sorry) if school board elections weren’t specifically designed to ensure minimal public participation. If candidates for school board actually had to compete to win their positions, they’d have to say what they thought and differentiate themselves from their opponents. Every school board election would provide new data points for mapping out public opinion.

  2. Elections are probably the broadest source of public input. But you are right Greg that they are made much narrower when those elections are held on off-election days (i.e. not when presidential, congressional, or gubernatorial contests are also decided).

  3. allen says:

    Yes, after busting your hump and spending more then a few of your own dollars getting elected to the school board the very first thing on your to-do list is to spend a hours listening to folks who probably didn’t vote in the election and aren’t all that well-versed on the issues hold forth on what will ultimately be your decision anyway.

    What else but a political compromise could produce such an inherently ugly and predictably ineffectual organization as a school board?

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