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Letter to Ollie's Superintendent
Order School Administrator
School Administrator, September
It’s been a longtime tradition for a member of the school board to shoot off fireworks as the varsity football team in a small, rural community rushes down a hill toward the playing field before its home opener each fall. The practice violates state law, and the superintendent, who is new to the area, has brought the matter to the board’s attention. The board member’s response: “If there’s a fine, I’ll pay it.” The rest of the board takes no action. The superintendent allows the practice to continue. Should he?
Two issues are raised by this practice—knowingly violating state law and opening the district to liability if the fireworks injure someone or start a fire. If the new superintendent takes action to end the practice, he risks alienating the board, being viewed as undermining long-held traditions, and perhaps putting his position on the line. On the other hand, continuing the practice in the face of clear legal limits could cost the superintendent his administrative license. As the district’s leader, he was correct to inform the board of his concern. For his own protection, he should have done so in a way that was documented for public record.
In this small, rural community, it is likely that local police and fire officials have or have had children in the school or have attended home openers themselves. They probably are aware of the practice and chose to turn a blind eye. If this is the case, the superintendent’s position is even more difficult.
He should begin by seeking ways to retain the fireworks display while protecting students and attendees from harm. The first step is to consult with the fire and police chiefs about how best to ensure a safe and authorized display. Because police and fire departments share responsibility for safety, their participation is critical in finding a solution. In this way, the superintendent can actively support the tradition and the board, while serving to protect people and property from harm and injury. Alternatively, if there is no way to pursue this practice legally, the responsibility for stopping it is shared among community leaders.
If the practice needs to be discontinued, the superintendent must work with the high school principal and the community to find alternative ways to show enthusiasm and support for the football team at its opening game. Together, they can propose activities that will make this school and community event even more significant, retaining the spirit of the fireworks while avoiding the danger. This approach may not allay the resentment of the one board member who is personally invested in the practice, but it could offset some of the community’s sense of loss of an important tradition.
When I began my career in educational administration as a novice principal, my mentor, whom I revere to this day, advised me, “Don’t mess with the band or ball clubs.” That was in 1980, and while it was sage advice for a long career in the same district, in this particular case, even my mentor would be inclined to stop the football fireworks and prepare for fireworks at the next board meeting.
As the home field booth announcer for my grandson’s football team and as a former superintendent, I realize how high school football and its associated traditions readily become a symbol for and of the local community. Small towns seem to have a special affinity for football, and on a personal note, I love it. That said, the superintendent cannot stand by ethically or legally and let the opening game fireworks continue.
As the district’s leader, he has the responsibility to demonstrate respect for state law, and he knows that local policy or practice cannot override it. It is his job to provide a firm decision and clearly and widely communicate the legal rationale for doing so. This communication requires more than an e-mail. It means engaging the local traditional and social media, meeting with boosters and players, responding promptly to critics and complaints, preparing talking points for his leadership team and ideally engaging others to carry his message.
In addition, it is not up to either the superintendent or the board as to whether an individual board member chooses to pay the fine. In fact, the board was right to take no action because unless there is a written policy about the tradition, it is not their decision to make. The individual board member can choose to do what he or she desires but cannot act on behalf of the board or administration without their approval, and so the superintendent can and should end the display.
It is also not only an ethical imperative for the superintendent to communicate the decision widely through multiple media and ideally other messengers, but also to seek to understand the “why” behind the tradition. While it will take many conversations – and probably more than a few unpleasant ones – as well as document research, once the superintendent understands what drove this tradition, he will be able to propose acceptable alternatives, one of which might even be advocating to change the existing state law or striving to obtain an annual waiver from it. Regardless, acting ethically, communicating clearly, listening carefully and understanding deeply will demonstrate courageous leadership that will enable him to survive the fireworks and ideally give him a home team victory!
The superintendent is in a Catch 22. He knows this is against the law and yet his “bosses” refuse to do anything about it. He could have the district’s legal counsel talk with the board and emphasize the liability this activity is creating for the district and the board, not only from a legal perspective, but also the danger (and possible liability) it could pose to game participants and attendees. However, it appears legal perspectives have had little impact on these board members.
This is a classic example of the quagmires that exist with the present governance systems we have set up in school districts. As superintendents, the ability to influence and move boards toward reasonable and appropriate behaviors and decisions is complex and, at best, tenuous. This is why board/superintendent relationships are so critical. Often the most difficult of circumstances can be re-aligned if the superintendent can gain the trust of his/her board. Then changes often happen.
Over the next year as the new superintendent gets to know his board, he should find an alternative that is legal and perhaps even more exciting than fireworks. Perhaps he can recruit some influential community members, staff and students to reinvent this event. Sometimes as superintendents we try the legal route, the political approach or even influence through other board members to no avail. Ultimately, however, this board is breaking the law and the superintendent has got to find a way to convince them to replace this activity with something that is more appropriate, less dangerous and legal. He has a year to get the job done before the next football season begins.
The superintendent has to weigh a range of considerations: respect for local culture and community tradition, student safety, adherence to the law and school pride. As an outsider, he has good reason to step back and at least initially follow others’ leads about how the community celebrates the students and the school. Local high schools often serve as an anchor for many rural communities. Most of the adults may have attended the school themselves, and traditions can run strong and pride runs deep. Especially if the fireworks are being detonated away from the hill and the bleachers, in a way that runs little risk of putting anyone in danger, the superintendent may be right to judge that this is a fight not worth fighting (or winning).
Before reaching this conclusion, however, he should try to determine whether the board member is acting in his official or private capacity when shooting off the fireworks, and hence whether the school district would be held liable if an accident occurred. Assuming the district is not insured against damages resulting from an illegal act, the fireworks might pose an insupportable financial risk even if the likelihood of injury or property damage was small.
If the fireworks are being ignited at the top of the hill that the team runs down, there are fire safety concerns due to dry brush in the area, the school board member is untrained or reckless, or there are other reasons to believe that the state law offers sensible protection rather than needless regulation, then the superintendent should clearly not allow the practice to continue. He could instead solicit other ideas from community members about how to kick off the home opening football game (or even how to celebrate the school more broadly), and work with the students and adults to generate a new, safer, more law-abiding, but equally exciting tradition.
draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:
The Ethical Educator panel consists of
, superintendent, Andover, Mass.;
, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of
Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries
, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and
Glenn "Max" McGee
, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.