Quakertown Community School District has one iron-clad rule: Never, never admit a mistake (can you ever, ever remember one?) and always, always try to discredit anyone who questions you. So Business Manager Sylvia Lenz's reaction to the recent area-wide Tax and Spending Summit was predictable. Poor Sylvia. She thinks that she was treated unfairly. And she is acting like a petulant first-grader.
The July 30 Summit was wide-ranging, including an exploration of how our schools could make better use of taxpayers' money. But the discussion did not sit well with Lenz, who seemed far more interested in defending the same-old same-old practices that got us into the high-tax, multi-million dollar deficit problems we now face. Instead of participating with an open mind, she chose to go negative: "I'm very concerned about the number of inaccuracies I saw regarding the school district in this presentation".
Her comment was reported in the area newspapers, but no one asked her the obvious follow-up: "What inaccuracies? Please explain". So, on August 6, I sent her an email: "Sylvia - The story in this week's TFP quotes you as saying 'I'm very concerned about the number of inaccuracies I saw regarding the school district in this presentation', referring to the Richland Tax and Spending Summit. The story also said that 'Officials from QCSD claimed that during the presentation, numbers about some of their spending habits were completely false'.
If any portion of these printed statements are not correct, please advise what was actually said. If they ARE correct, please provide, for the record, every inaccuracy that 'concerned' you, and every 'number' about your spending habits that was inaccurate. In every case, please provide what you believe to be the accurate figures, and how you arrived at them."
Eight days later, Lenz still had not bothered to respond, so I sent the request again, this time with a copy to Superintendent Dr Lisa Andrejko, with the added message "SECOND REQUEST. Lisa - Perhaps you can make sure that Sylvia sees this. She has not responded to my initial request, sent over a week ago". Lo and behold, within 18 hours Lenz offered an answer. Make that a non-answer. It absolutely, perfectly, fit the Quite Commonly Secret District: "I received your email dated August 6, 2008. I attempted to address the issues during the Regional Summit on July 30 with the entire audience and press in attendance, but the host prevented me from providing clarification. I have no comments at this time."
Richland Supervisor Rick Orloff, the meeting chairman, disagreed: "Not true. She and or (director Nancy) Tirjan spoke for five to seven minutes. I was insistent that this was not going to devolve into an argumentative debate, that the purpose was to discuss cost saving ideas that could only be had through cooperative efforts." Supervisor Craig Staats agreed "When school representatives attempted to counter a point, Rick stated he didn't want to go there. He obviously did this in an attempt to keep the meeting on track and not get bogged down in a debate with the schools. We were attempting to keep the meeting focused on 'big picture' issues. The school representatives seemed ready to refute any detail relating to them."
Lenz is in a snit because she was not permitted to "provide clarification" when she wanted to do it, where she wanted to do it, how she wanted to do it. So she now refuses to offer any explanations for her accusations. Vintage QCSD. If there is a way to avoid answering embarrassing questions, or cut off dissent, these folks were the pioneers. At meetings involving our public schools, they decide what is on the agenda, and what is banned. They decide who can make presentations. They decide how long a member of the public can speak. They decide when, or if, to provide any answers. In fact, that extreme censorship is exactly the reason why this Summit was held!
Were you treated unfairly, Sylvia? Was it upsetting that you weren't allowed to make your speech to the press, and the residents? How does it feel now that the shoe is on the other foot? It's called a dose of your own medicine. You were treated exactly like your school buddies have treated anyone who attends school board meetings, and wants to offer an opinion that differs from administration policy. So if it was frustrating, Sylvia, will you be speaking up at the next board meeting, suggesting that it is only fair to allow members of the public, and board members who aren't in lock-step with the superintendent, to "provide clarification", just like you wanted to do?
Although the restricted-speech situations seem similar, there is a major, major difference. When the elected town leaders, and "reform" board members, were denied the opportunity to speak at school board meetings, they sought out a way to go public outside of the district's censorship. They wanted to be sure everyone heard what they had to say. Lenz did just the opposite. She used her anger as an excuse to refuse to provide answers to the community.
The 38,000 residents of QCSD deserve fair and factual explanations of how their tax dollars are being spent. They need to trust that when the woman who is responsible for a budget of more than $84 million makes the statement that she is "concerned about the number of inaccuracies" in a presentation involving her job performance, she can back it up with facts. To trust that she is telling the truth. But, instead, we get a childish response, and more of the same old Quite Commonly Secret District attitude - "I have no comments at this time". The same "no-comment" that we have been force-fed about hidden survey results, grade manipulation, Integrated Math, Sunshine Act violations, the board's attorney who doesn't call himself the solicitor, contracts improperly made in private, and almost anything that involves controversy.
Sylvia, drop the attitude. The only person you are discrediting is yourself. You owe the people who pay your $130,000 salary an explanation.