Friday, June 05, 2009

The Post Reports on Parents Coalition Eruption

Dan de Vise at The Post yesterday had a piece about the recent meltdown on the Parents Coalition listserve.

The story, for all practical purposes, begins with a comment last month by MCPS school board member Pat O'Neill about "pain in the ass" parents getting on school committees. Some noisemakers at the Parents Coalition felt she was talking about them, and though she'll never say, they're almost certainly right.

The Parents Coalition has a Yahoo listserve with about 350 members and a blog. They are a watchdog group that keeps an eye on the Montgomery County Public Schools, but they have become known as a gang of whiners, harassing the school district about trivial things, filing FOIA requests for every little thing that happens -- it is possible that their constant demands on the district cost taxpayers as much as they save when they find an unnecessary expense. And sometimes they do find something, but most of the noise they generate is puffed-up indignation over nothing. In general the idea of the Parents Coalition is great, and I see there are some good people over there, but the pains-in-the-ass have taken it over and alienated the school district, the PTA, and a big chunk of the community. Their approach to blaming and accusing people and organizations of incompetence and crookedness has not made the system more transparent, if anything MCPS has become more guarded under this assault.

I'll let The Post pick it up from there.
Irene Williams came out guns blazing. In a series of posts last month to the Internet list of the influential Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, she portrayed the group's leaders as "purveyors of evil," "cowardly bullies" and "inebriated beavers."

Never had a parent unleashed such a withering assault on the coalition, a network of parents who have been players in virtually every major controversy to vex the Montgomery school system, the school board and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast in the past two academic years.

The coalition might be the best-known parent advocacy group in the region. Its members represent several constituencies, including parents of special education and gifted education students and fiscal watchdogs. The group's defining victory came this school year when the school system scaled back the fees charged to families for course materials.

Coalition leaders have drawn attention to the misuse of funds collected from students for activities, the broadcast of a commercial radio service on school buses and, with their "Weast Watch" blog, the travel habits of Weast and his lieutenants. Attacks Against Parent Group In Online Posts Spark Debate

The Weast Watch web page can be seen HERE. There have been accusations that the PC is stalking Superintendent Weast, you go look and see if this web site doesn't creep you out. They keep track of everywhere he goes and everything he does. Weast is a powerful and well-known figure, and he seems to go out of the county a few times a month, often to high-profile speaking engagements. That is a good thing, we have one of the best districts in the country, and our Superintendent of Schools is highly regarded as an education expert.

The Parents Coalition only sees the dribbling of nickels and dimes. They want to have the best person in the field, but they don't want them to go out and give talks and meet with other top experts. Sorry, if you want mediocrity then vote in a school board that will appoint a mediocre Superintendent.
Privately, school system leaders have fumed about the group's vitriolic tone, hyperbolic tendencies and waxing influence on administrators' actions. Publicly, they have kept mum. The school system's harshest critics have drawn little criticism.

Williams surfaced in a May 19 discussion that criticized a school board request for $67.5 million in capital funds to build a school. Janis Sartucci, a Potomac parent who is among the best-known coalition voices, termed it "an amazing request in the middle of a financial crisis."

The new critic jumped in: "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," Williams wrote. In postings over the next few days, she lambasted coalition leaders individually and collectively as privileged white parents orchestrating a "narcissistic power play" against the school system, hobbling its operations "with a million questions a day that do not help a child one whit."

She accused the group of "stalking" Weast with its frequent postings on his travels, saying they bordered on the criminal.

We blogged about this HERE. Her writings were eloquent if inconcise, she hit the target over and over again, exposing the Parents Coalition's weaknesses and making positive and highly detailed suggestions for meeting their stated objectives without going off on tangents. If you weren't the one in her crosshairs, her writing was entertaining.

This was interesting -- turns out Irene Williams may be writing from inside MCPS.
Coalition leaders challenged the poster's identity, surmising the name was an alias for some school system insider, or perhaps for a rival parent activist seeking to dethrone Sartucci and other coalition leaders. (The group does not officially designate leaders.)

Louis Wilen, a coalition parent and information technology professional, said Monday that he had determined that Williams wrote several posts on a school system computer, based on coding in the e-mails. School system policy forbids employees to use computers for statements that are "libelous, slanderous, or that harass others."

Coalition leaders said they think the writer took the name from a retired teacher named Irene Williams, who died recently. They point out that language in the posts -- "appropriation authority," the MCPS "brand" -- sounds like the words of a school system administrator.

"No MCPS parent or even low-level employee talks about the MCPS brand," Wilen said in an interview. "It's Board of Education speak."

Are they saying it's a Board of Education member? I hardly think any of them would have the time. I will mention that the board member that they are apparently trying to implicate here was busy during this time with a major family medical emergency.

The Post reporter was able to establish a correspondence with Irene Williams, and found out some good details.
In e-mails to The Washington Post -- she declined to speak by phone -- Williams identified herself as an African American parent with children in county elementary, middle and high schools. She said she used her maiden name in posts to protect her identity.

"I do not work for Dr. Weast," she wrote. She said her posts occasionally criticize the school system, along with its detractors. She said coalition members privately thanked her for tapping into "simmering unease" in their ranks.

"I hope that my bias is obvious," she said in the e-mail correspondence. "I am worried about the kids that might be hurt because of what I view as the self-serving 'advocacy' of a few members of the Parents Coalition."

It is interesting that the Parents Coalition saw these messages as an "attack," and as harassment. There was satire, yes, and she named names, but the fact is she pointed out some real problems and offered real solutions. The PC had become a legion of whiners, alienating the groups they needed to work with, and it was time for somebody to point out the emperor's lack of attire.

De Vise talked with some of the "visible" Parents Coalition members.
In interviews this week, Wilen and Sartucci said they are fairly sure Irene Williams is either one or several school system employees, possibly highly-placed. They said she is pretty much alone in her opinions.

Sartucci said the coalition has fielded few other complaints from parents over its campaigns against course fees and misused activity funds. She and other coalition leaders challenged Williams to a public airing of their differences. Williams says she awaits an invitation.

Williams might have raised lingering questions about coalition leaders and their methods. But Internet e-mail lists have short memories. This week, the group had resumed railing against course fees, with Sartucci at the fore.

Well, not much about "course fees," ninety percent of the emails this week were about Irene Williams. There are messages saying that Irene Williams' posts were "disruptive," she is referred to an "an anonymous abuser." One member darkly noted that "it would be very significant if MCPS as an institution sought to torpedo parent activism through "Irene's" anonymous rants." This is a good point, except for the fact that the advice that Irene Williams gave was excellent. It would be significantly clever if MCPS policy-makers were using a ringer to comment incognito on the listserve of a watchdog group, and if that's what happened here it was obviously not intended to "torpedo parent activism" but to make it more effective.

One theme underlying these discussions is a distinction between "real people" and "fake people." Several messages allege that Irene Williams is a "fake person." I ... don't know what to say here. Somebody wrote those messages. Their name was probably not "Irene Williams," but who knows who anybody is on the Internet? Readers of this blog will be shocked to learn that my drivers license does not actually say "JimK" on it.

To further discount Irene Williams' advice, a PC member tosses this one out there: "The rantings of Irene sounded very much like an old friend of mine, a paranoid schizophrenic, when he went off his meds." Remember, these are people complaining about comments on public statements made by Parents Coalition spokespersons who really did deserve the criticism and had been been quoted in the press when a public official talked about parents being a "pain in the ass."

A couple of members have been trying to hold the line. One especially articulate member, who has come under attack from the others (and who is, apparently one of the list administrators and group's officers), said "It is disrespectful to me and everyone else to have anyone attacking anyone else, whether by name or by innuendo. That has been going on on this list for some time." True, that, Irene Williams didn't start it. Immediately a pro-whiner came back at her to say "The fact is that you repeatedly defended "Irene" and you and others attacked anyone who dared question whether she was real." Uh, Irene is real, people, you can discount her criticisms and question her identity but to deny that a real person wrote these messages ... reminds me of an old friend of mine, a paranoid schizophrenic, when he went off his meds ... Maybe her name is not "Irene Williams," but the person making the statement uses a fake name online, too (though she did sign her name to this one message).

One guy has an interesting point: "We were lucky that no one went online here with even worse mischief, then went public with it as well (well, ie even more public with it...). Can anyone join the list, post malicious material, and then speak to the press "as a member" and spread the same material even more?" Parents Coalition has a problem like this already, where some members speak for the group and it really is not advancing the group's goals. If they are a coalition of parents, then they need to be specific and careful about when the organization's name is going to be used and when members are speaking for themselves. If they are going to track the movements of the school superintendent, for instance, and complain that he meets with colleagues in nice restaurants or stays in a nice hotel when he travels, does the PC as a group want to be part of that? Or do they want to focus on educational issues as an organization and let members stalk county officials individually?

Wednesday one person posted a one-line message with some emails appended to it, including one from Irene Williams to some Parents Coalition members "to please beg your forgiveness, especially to those whom I hurt with my words." Later a message from Irene to the listserve was posted, saying essentially the same thing. Looks like she's quit the group and has gone away, and the same old noisemakers are back at it.

Listen, it doesn't matter if the writer's real name was Irene Williams, and it doesn't matter if she or he works for MCPS. In fact, it wouldn't matter if the writer had the knowing support of the Superintendent and all the school board -- the messages themselves may not have been nice but they were lucid and on-target. The Parents Coalition's response is paranoid and self-serving, the way they handled this points directly to the roots of their ineffectiveness in serving our community. Instead of considering and rebutting the criticisms, they responded with personal attacks, claiming Irene Williams had stolen someone's identity, that she was a mole from the school district, that she was mentally unbalanced, and never addressed the issues. Members considered it sufficient to discount her personally, and the points she raised will never be discussed.

This has been a fascinating study of chaotic dynamics in organizations. It looks like the system is returning to its original equilibrium state, having endured a period of volatility. It is possible the Parents Coalition will return to its stated mission, but I doubt it.


Anonymous lightning lad said...

"This has been a fascinating study"

I disagree.

I'm giving one star on my five star rating system for studies.

June 05, 2009 11:16 AM  

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