We at the Park Rag have been critical of the school district in the past. The 2015 bond was a disaster. The school district has hurt substitute teachers (and our kids) by hiring a temp agency to manage substitutes and caused a substitute teacher shortage at the worst possible time. They inexplicably tried to keep teachers’ kids out of schools and then apparently didn’t tell the truth when called out. And let’s not forget the magic rock.
That’s not to say that they haven’t had their successes. Teachers got a raise. We made it through the 2020/21 school year with in-person classes and minimal disruptions. The new bond proposal focused on facilities and passed overwhelmingly. We still have some great teachers (though some have left) and a cadre of wealthy above-average Lake Wobegone kids to keep our rankings relatively high.
But when Parley’s Park elementary came under the supervision of officials from the Health Department, after superintendent Gildea instructed teachers and staff not to enforce a legal mask mandate, our limited remaining trust in the school district administration was lost.
Regardless of your feelings about masks, the Republican-led Utah Legislature made a law allowing local health departments to determine school rules under certain circumstances. The Summit County Health Department used its authority, granted by the legislature, to make rules intended to protect students and staff. According to news reports, Dr. Gildea actively prevented those rules from being implemented.
As an aside, KPCW has done a fantastic job covering this story (Michelle Deininger at KPCW has been amazing on this coverage). We would also be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Summit County attorney Margaret Olson for calling it as she sees it when she said “…it’s apparent that things went terribly wrong.”
The superintendent has floated various explanations. In our view, none of them can possibly excuse this behavior. If Dr. Gildea was unsure of the law, it would have been trivial to call Summit County and resolve any questions as soon as she became aware that the mandate might need to be implemented. The superintendent has wavered between claiming that the mandate is legally unenforceable to saying she was misunderstood and that the school needs a “reset.” At some points, she appears to have contradicted herself within the same day.
Dr. Gildea’s response might best be characterized as panicked, defiant, and incoherent. The school board, on the other hand, could best be characterized as absent. That’s right, not a word about the situation. Not an explanation, not an apology, not even some boilerplate that says “we look forward to clearing up this misunderstanding and want to make it clear that the health and safety of our school community is our top priority.” Maybe they’re tired of all the criticism, or exhausted from pushing the bond through, or just sick of doing a thankless and unpaid job. Unfortunately, however, it’s a job they signed up for, and they owe the community an explanation. If none is forthcoming, people will assume the worst.
While the past is concerning, the future is equally worrisome. Our community just handed an open check for $79 million to the Park City School District. The district believes they have a mandate for an additional $40 million more to add on to our schools. Do you want someone you don’t trust administering that? The district previously was cited for awarding inappropriate contracts that violated Utah state law. Are we OK if that happens again? Given recent events, would we expect anything different? What else could happen? These are the questions asked when you lose trust.
It hit home late last week. My wife and I were discussing the issue while our seven and nine-year-old ate breakfast. They are the consumers of school and they have a right to know what is going on. One of the kids looked up, his eyes in shock, “Mrs. [insert his teacher name here] didn’t do what’s right?” We were mortified and quickly explained that it wasn’t his teacher. Yet, should we be less mortified that we were discussing his teacher’s boss? Sometimes kids bring out the truth. We as humans all have flaws, but when you run schools, you can’t defy the Health Department. You can’t have the Summit County Attorney speaking about criminal liability in reference to your school superintendent’s actions.
As the old saying goes, “never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity”. Unfortunately neither malice nor stupidity, regardless of which was responsible here, is acceptable in a school superintendent (or board).
So, now what?
The question to ask is whether we need a different superintendent. The people responsible for that answer are our elected school board. If you asked them, they would tell you they can’t speak on the issue of personnel matters. However, if they aren’t actively discussing this question, we likely need a different school board, too.
We expect a lot out of our kids. We expect them to be honest. We expect them to tell the truth. We expect them to follow the rules. We expect them to stand up for what is right.
Don’t we expect the same things from those who are responsible for their education?