Monday, May 25, 2009

PIAs and the PC

MCPS school board member Pat O'Neill's comment about "pain in the ass" parents is taking on a life of its own. A couple of local newspapers have run stories about the Parents Coalition and about Pat O'Neill's statement, and the Parents Coalition itself is experiencing an interesting kind of insurgency that may eventually put them back on the right track.

The Gazette had a story about some people who took O'Neill's comment about some parents being a pain in the ass personally.
A recent comment by a veteran county school board member about "PIA" parents, or pains in the ass, has sparked a debate between elected officials and the parent-activists who felt the remark was directed at them.

The topic of overly combative parents has been an ongoing discussion among some school system staff. The parents, employees say, often do more harm than good because their endless pursuit of information takes time away from moving forward with the education of the system's 140,000 students.

Historically, the staff complaints were voiced privately and rarely reiterated in public. But during a May 12 school board meeting in Rockville, underlying tensions bubbled to the surface.

On that day, board members were discussing language in a policy to require that principals provide opportunities for a "broad range of stakeholders" to be part of school improvement teams, which include parents who recommend ways to better the schools.

The school board's two newest members — Philip Kauffman (At-large) of Olney and Laura V. Berthiaume (Dist. 2) of Rockville — had expressed concern that the improvement teams don't include a diverse group of parents. Some parents, Berthiaume added, might be excluded from the teams because they don't know the teams exist.

School board Vice President Patricia B. O'Neill took it a step further.

"I'm not aware of groups being excluded," said O'Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda. "I am aware that if I was a principal working on this, I might not pick the PIAs, the pain in the ass people in the school, to be at the table doing that, because they may only be representing their own views and not the greater interests of the school."

The remark evoked chuckles throughout the board room. "Maybe we should put ‘No PIAs'" in the policy, O'Neill added. Parents, members of school board debate derogatory comment

Now, I'll bet she had somebody in particular in mind when she made that comment -- you can be sure it didn't just come off the top of her head, Pat O'Neill is a smart wheeler-dealer with a lot of political pull in this county. She knows how her statement will be interpreted, I'll bet she's ready, willing, and able to back it up.

I wonder who she might have been thinking of ...
Janis Sartucci, an outspoken member of the county's Parents Coalition, an advocacy group, immediately posted the video on the group's Web blog and YouTube.

Coalition members say the group has about 345 participants; roughly 15 members blog regularly on the site. The bloggers regularly weigh in on everything from cuts to school programs to the system's supposed lack of fiscal responsibility. O'Neill has said the coalition's posts border on "cyber-bullying."

If you're interested in this issue, please go read the article, I'm only posting a tiny piece of it.

The Parents Coalition has a Yahoo group and a blog. Immediately after O'Neill's statement both of them posted statements by one member after the other bragging about how proud they were to be a pain in the ass.

Just for the record, let me say, some of my kids' teachers would call me a pain in the ass, I am completely sympathetic with those who bear that title. I used to go to the middle school after every Algebra test and double-check the grading. I often found enough errors to bring my kids' grade up, rarely appreciated by the teacher. In first grade they rated my kid's reading at the first grade level, and I hired two UMD graduate students to re-test him, and came back into the school with full reports rating his reading at a much higher level. That principal and reading coordinator were not happy to see me. I was a pain in the ass. I could tell you lots of stories, if you know me you know I'm not one to sit and let somebody else screw up my life or my kids' lives.

But look, in both those examples I'm a parent standing up for my own kid. I was not on a committee where we have to follow an agenda and come to consensus and form policies that affect all the children at a school or in the district. That's what Pat O'Neill was talking about. If you asked the other members of the MCPS citizens advisory committee that I am a member of, I think you will hear that I respect others' opinions and am willing to negotiate and concede when it is necessary, while still representing a clear position on the topics. That's what Pat was talking about. As a parent, you have every right to stand up for your child if you think the educational bureaucracy is working against them. This discussion was about including people on a committee to discuss school improvements, and what Pat O'Neill said was absolutely right, nobody wants to put members on that team who cannot work with other people, who see the school's mission purely in terms of their own child and their own ideological objectives.

The Washington Post has a little something about it. Somehow the mighty Post is afraid to say the word "ass." Hey man, it's in the Bible, okay?
Parent activists have been appending the title "PIA" to their names in e-mails and online postings in response to Montgomery County school board Vice President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), who last week suggested principals "might not pick PIAs" [translation: pain-in-the-you-know-whats] to participate in school governance.

Critics seized on the quip, uttered during a school board meeting and posted on YouTube, as further evidence that leaders of Maryland's largest school system systematically exclude anyone with a contrary opinion. Others applauded the longtime board member for stating a hard truth: Some parents are simply too contrarian to play a role in running a school. Parents Take Pride In New Moniker

The Parents Coalition would like you to think that the schools "exclude anyone with a contrary opinion," that that's what Pat O'Neill meant with her comment. Uh, no, that's pretty clearly not the case. Some people just don't play well with others, and nobody in their right mind would invite them to be on a team that is expected to get anything done.

Okay, that's not even the interesting part.

The Parents Coalition Yahoo listserve has, over the past few months, been getting an average of ten or fifteen new messages per day. The "pain in the ass" comment upped their count temporarily, and apparently attracted at least one new member, one Irene Williams.

On the morning of May 19th, she posted a long comment that began like this:
Hmmmm. I joined "The Parents Coalition" this week and now I am wondering if I made a mistake. Was hoping for an opportunity to network with real parents, brainstorm on genuine issues affecting my children and perhaps celebrate our successes (we do have a great school system, if I may say so and yes it also has issues). I am embarassed to say that all week it would appear that I have somehow strayed into a re-run of One Flew the Cookoo's Nest or something similarly bizarre, a handful of people apparently enamored of their own voices (perhaps born of privilege and entitlement) making repeated posts about what is wrong with the school system...

Ms. Williams then proceeds to rip the Parents Coalition a new one, discussing each of their pet projects and what is wrong with them, pointing out the misperceptions and misrepresentations, all in a chatty, educated but street-smart tone. Whoever Irene Williams is, she takes the chief noisemakers of the Parents Coalition by the ear and gives them a serious talking-to.

Later in the day she posted another comment that said:
I rise to salute all the hard working staff of our school system that a few on this list seem to enjoy sliming and maligning. As a parent, I also want to thank the MCCPTA and all the thousands of volunteers who do real work in the schools for free. Wallowing in vinegar is a strange way of getting honey ;-) I think the Board is doing a great job especially compared to other jurisdictions. Put this way, some places would kill for our problems. Enough of the unnecessary drama ;-) The school system is exactly why many of us stay in Montgomery County and I don't appreciate the misrepresentations, the falsehoods and the unnecessary drama from a handful of people who feel that the world is theirs to abuse.
We have a great school system and we should keep it that way. Let's talk about our issues without denigrating the hard work of those who keep the place going. That is my approach because my mama raised me right. Give you an example, after reading the shrill post about the school system asking for an additional $67 million (?), I called around and found out that indeed we are only talking about an appropriation authority, not extra money. Accounting is hard enough without someone muddying the waters with mischief. I know now not to take this individual seriously but do I have to worry about all 350 of you or should I simply go away and leave the playground for those who wish to play delusional games?

This lady is fearless, when her cold eye latches on you you will tremble.

Ms. Williams is a little wordy but she is a clever personable writer and the fact is she has the Parents Coalition dead in her sights. She's figured out exactly what the group is doing and she's going to give it back to them.

Oddly, after several of her comments there is a message to the listserve from a member who seems to be a site administrator and is trying to figure out who Ms. Williams is. He posts the entire header of her email, and publishes her IP address to the entire group, concluding that it's a FIOS account and that's all he can figure out.

Somebody writes to suggest that Ms. Williams is writing "through ignorance, mental imbalance, or perhaps more likely, the promise of personal gain..."

Somebody accuses her of not being a real person, whatever that might mean. Somebody says that somebody else is writing under the pseudonym "Irene Williams" -- there is a rumor that one member's IP number is the same as Irene's, with several carefully worded nearly-accusatory comments. There is discussion about how to ban people and whether to ban Irene Williams for calling people out by name, but the fact is they are all using her name, too, and they habitually name not only school officials but one another in their messages to the listserve. In fact, she scolds them for publishing unredacted documents with people's credit card receipts on the Internet, revealing private personal information. She has them in a situation where banning her negates every stated belief of the Parents Coalition.

Ms. Williams said she had received dozens of emails in support of her comments, and produced an extremely lucid list of suggestions for improving the Parents Coalition. I can't believe she cranks this stuff out as fast as she does, I'd spend days writing one of these messages. She is obviously not a nut, except in the sense that she is speaking out of turn to an audience that does not like to hear what she's saying. In other words, she is a pain in the Parents Coalition's ass. And they don't like it.

I call this the "goosey-gander" rule, the Parents Coalition likes to engage in confrontation and interruption, and now it's happening to them, what's good for the goose ... Sometimes known as the Glass Houses Effect. The loudmouths are so proud of their own pain-in-the-assness, but they are not so excited when it happens to them.

The idea of the Parents Coalition is great, in fact Irene Williams keeps going back to their mission statement, which is perfectly laudable. Unfortunately the group has become identified with a handful of malcontents. For instance, there is a discussion on the listserve between one of the loudest PC leaders and an official of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, where the official is explaining the PTA's position on something and the Parents Coalition loudmouth is insisting that it is just the opposite. Rather than working with the PTAs, which are really the official way for parents to participate in school business, even budget planning and policy-making, the Parents Coalition lies about them and accuses them of collaborating on "secret" processes that the PTA had nothing to do with. They have burned every bridge they have encountered.

Ms. Williams' criticisms have elicited a range of responses. Besides the defensive calls for her removal from the group, a number of reasoned replies have been posted to the listserve, suggesting that perhaps the Parents Coalition has indeed lost its focus. Members who have remained silent have posted comments, and several individuals have suggested ways to make the group functional again. In the meantime, Ms. Williams posted a very clear list of recommendations, suggesting ways that the group can focus on attaining its stated objectives and not get mired in attacking personalities in the community.

As a lifetime pain in the ass myself, I respect the need for people to speak up when they see something wrong. It may be that the authorities or your peers and colleagues do no appreciate what you're saying, whatever, you say what you believe and the world is a better place for it. But if you really want to make changes you have to work with other people. You will have to compromise, negotiate, listen to other points of view, consider the needs of other people. Simply expressing an opinion does not make you a pain in the ass, even if it is an unpopular opinion. Making accusations about people who are trying to do their job, lying about other people's motives, exaggerating and misconstruing will not move public opinion in the direction of your goals, no matter how loud you shout. The aims of the Parents Coalition are good, to promote transparency and accountability in the school district, and I hope the membership will find a way to steer away from the contentious approach that has been taken, toward a direction that actually gets results.

I'll keep you up to date as things transpire, at this moment I have the feeling there may be a shift of power inside the Parents Coalition which might result in better relationships with the system they hope to improve.

[Update: I had not seen the post at Maryland Politics Watch, where the Parents Coalition was caught making illegal robo-calls opposing Nancy Navarro's candidacy. Read the transcript and history of it HERE.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sartucci does not have a child in the system.

As for the county PTA, Sartucci files complaints regularly with Maryland PTA. There has never been an instance where Sartucci was ever seen as credible in her complaints against the county PTA. Maryland PTA backed the county PTA.
All public record.

Sartucci is a cyberbully that has now met her match in Irene Williams. Williams has called out Sartucci on all the bull and outright lies Sartucci puts up.

The Parents Coalition started out with their hearts in the right place but people like Sartucci took over and the PC steering committee was just lazy and let it happen. Now they get to see what a mess the PC group and listserv have turned into courtesy of, "I hate everyone" Sartucci.

For Sartucci, Karma can be a bitch. Even some meds and professional help may be in order.

May 25, 2009 10:35 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

I'd like to keep the comments not quite so personal, please. The last sentence goes up against the line, I don't think we need to talk about people in our community like that.

It is good to hear from those on the inside of these controversies, and I don't want to have to delete valuable comments. Maybe somebody inside the Parents Coalition can give us some explanation from their side...? Thanks.


May 25, 2009 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the Parents Coalition was caught making illegal robo-calls opposing Nancy Navarro's candidacy. How did MPW find out about that?

May 26, 2009 9:47 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

How did they find out? It appears somebody told them.

Here's what the post I linked to says: "Numerous sources have reported receiving anti-Navarro robocalls, even some living outside the district."


May 26, 2009 9:56 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home