The wrong focus

Last month, the superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System and another school employee attended a New England Patriots football game as guests of an insurance company that hopes to do business with the district.

Last week, the school system board accepted the superintendent’s apology. But they did so in a way that puts the focus in the wrong place: on personality and personal characteristics rather than on words and actions.

When a student is called into the principal’s or superintendent’s office for violating the rules, the conversation is not about whether the student is a good person or has integrity. It’s about whether rules were broken and the consequences the student may face for breaking them.

The same should be true when the board discusses a violation of district policy by the superintendent, a public employee.

When some school employees first questioned the appropriateness of the superintendent’s acceptance of the gift, he was adamant.

“I would caution anybody to be really careful about suggesting anything inappropriate on my part, the bottom line is, they are getting very dangerously close to a personnel matter. They want to be really careful about potentially suggesting my reputation is anything less than aboveboard.”

Avoiding ad hominem attacks is good practice in schools, as it is in politics and just about everywhere else. In this case, the public official in question made it personal when there was no need to be. He responded to questions about what he did by making statements about who he is.

The superintendent did change course from that initial reaction. He told the board last week, “My initial attempt at responding to the questions wasn’t the right way to do it. You deserve better than that.”

But the board’s move “to give a full vote of confidence in the integrity of the superintendent and accept his sincere apology” recommitted the error of making the conversation about his personality and not about his actions.

It’s appropriate for the board to accept his apology. But discussions of personal integrity are not a defense, and they have no place in these official proceedings.

Just as when a student is accused of breaking the rules, the board should have made a determination as to whether he violated policies and what consequences are appropriate.

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