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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

Response / What Really Happened in Blissfield

In “A Tale of Two Districts” (Educational Leadership, December 1993/January 1994), Fritz Detwiler implies that had Blissfield followed a democratic process, produced elaborate charts analyzing signatures on the petitions, and waited for the publication of his four newspaper articles, the school district would have been successful in implementing the Communities for Developing Minds project. He further implies that if others follow this eminent process, the organized opposition to any education reform can be defeated.
These conclusions are too simplistic, border on being self-serving, and are at the expense of the Blissfield, Michigan, Community Schools. As the superintendent of Blissfield during this time of crisis, I can assure you that our inefficacy was multidimensional and more complex than one would conclude from reading Detwiler's article. The view from inside a conflict is very different from an outsider's perspective!

A Brief History

The core of Detwiler's assumptions is in his statement: “No substantive public discussion or survey of public opinion of Communities for Developing Minds ever took place.” This is misleading.
Blissfield board members and staff were involved from the initial meeting, just as in the Adrian School District. Not only did we provide written explanations to the public and to staff members, but at board meetings we also offered extensive presentations using multiple presenters. Further, at a number of lengthy public forums, individuals for and against the program had the opportunity to speak their views in an orderly and equal manner. Our board president very effectively monitored this procedure. These meetings, however, took place before the rigorous attacks. In addition, an in-house committee of competent teachers and administrators was ready to go any place at any time to provide information about the project. I would suggest that this was a democratic procedure.
Had we ignored a democratic process in our school operations, our district could hardly have enjoyed such a reputation for quality education. For example, the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities accredited us K–12. (Only a few districts in Michigan and none in our county could claim this honor.) Also, our middle school had received accreditation from the State of Michigan, with approval pending for our elementary building. Of the 3,500-plus school buildings in Michigan, fewer than 50 met the state standards at that time, and none in a three-county area.
In addition, our student ACT scores were above the national average, and our dropout rate was less than 1.5 percent. Financially, we conducted business on the lowest operational millage and per-pupil revenues in the county. Our curriculum was up-to-date, and our teachers and administrators used cooperative learning, integrated learning, writing across the curriculum, thinking skills, site-based management, school improvement teams, and so on. At that time, they were working to introduce portfolios and multiple assessments.

Human Relationships Came into Play

So the question becomes: if we used a democratic process, why was the Communities for Developing Minds project rejected in Blissfield? The answers are extensive and intricate. Some are embedded in the human emotions and personal friendships that are unique to a small town. When feelings intensify during a conflict in values, irreparable damage among friends and families can result. If you push too hard, the town is torn apart for years to come. You may win the battle, but you lose the war.
In addition, the opposition in our community organized rapidly because many leaders in the campaign against the project had led a successful demonstration earlier in the year to defeat a state plan that would have located a low-level nuclear waste dump in our district. It was easy for them to unite again. They brought with them credibility, giving acceptance to their claims.
It was not necessary for us to construct elaborate charts analyzing petitions. We knew the people who signed them, since everyone involved in the campaign had worked and lived in the community for years. More important, though, we felt that we wouldn't solve an emotional issue in a small close-knit town with elaborate charts, especially when our opposition was using the techniques of the Religious Right.
In addition, because most board of education members had lived in the community all of their lives, they and their families were subject to intense pressure to vote against the project. Ultimately, overall concern for the community close relationships, and heightened emotions became the board's primary operating principles, not the facts surrounding a developmental change program. Do I fault the board of education? No! When everything is considered, I believe these dedicated, caring people did the best they knew how to do at the time. The experience was new and devastating. We had neither the time nor the resources to prepare for the intense pressure and the onslaught of misinformation.
Through it all, we learned a great deal about ourselves and others. Would we do things differently if we had to do it over again? Yes! Did we make mistakes? You bet!
Other reasons that Blissfield ultimately rejected the project can be found in the conflicts among state, national, and individual agendas, especially individual agendas that were absolute. Add the egos, power grabbing, and insecurities of the “key players” within a community served by approximately 17 churches, and you can imagine the clashes.
Although the district had built a great deal of trust in the community, we had trouble boosting the emotional intensity of our supporters, who didn't fathom that either the program or the opposition was anything to be concerned about. In other words, our supporters did not have the “fire in their bellies” that our opponents had. When they did see the attack as a serious problem, it was too late.
Another element that worked against the district was that the most intense display of challenges took place during the summer. We simply did not have the resources to fight the opposition and simultaneously open school in September without serious difficulty.
We did not, however, lose our millage requests because of the controversy surrounding the project. Anyone cognizant of millage issues and the political/tax environment in Michigan would know that to be true. When we asked for millage during the turmoil, there was no financial crisis. If millage issues are going to pass, it is usually after threats are made to reduce programs and activities for children. When only 25 percent of your community has children in school, millage becomes a tough sell anytime, anyplace!

No Two Districts Are Alike

For 28 years I have been a successful administrator in rural conservative communities—the last 14 of those years as the superintendent in Blissfield, a fine community. I understand the real and political issues that surround the implementation of new and innovative programs. But Communities for Developing Minds was unique. It was developmental, it was difficult to explain, and it was not an existing model that could be investigated. These factors, in the eyes of our organized opponents, made it experimental. They became obstructionists and used very successfully in Blissfield the techniques described in many articles and in the Fundamentalist literature.
From our experiences, let me assure you, no simple solutions exist to the Fundamentalist challenges that many schools are facing today. There are guidelines you can follow (as described in Educational Leadership, December 1993/January 1994), but what works in one district will not necessarily work in another. The mix of human behavior sets the stage for success or failure. Thus, the comparison of school districts is very inappropriate. Above all, you cannot compare the success in a large-city school district with the failure in a small rural town. The differences are enormous. Although Detwiler is an excellent resource person with valuable expertise in the Fundamentalist movement, he does not, to my knowledge, have expertise in the administration, in the day-to-day leadership, or in the political arena that is unique to a rural school district.

Larry C. Wilson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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