"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reflecting on our public school through time

I remember when former Morris mayor Chet Birch talked about "the people up on the hill." Those people, in his view, sort of wanted their own sanctuary. They didn't want to be bothered. Chet's reference was to the public school. This was that grand old edifice along East 7th Street. Today that spot is as barren as all get-out.
Chet was expressing frustration about how ensconced the school was. It was like a fortress in terms of trying to shut out public opinion.
Chet could be like a lightning rod at times. As he was comfortable being a public figure, he knew there'd be slings and arrows headed his way. Life in a small community can be a messy proposition at times. Lest there be any doubt about Chet's character and vision, he was a most devoted family man. He had a son in my high school graduating class. He was concerned that people at the public school were too separated from the kind of accountability that the rest of us live with.
It was very risky in that era to become known for criticizing our public school about anything. Paranoia was part of the requirements for being employed at the school. School employees showed the kind of clannishness that might typify a third world society or even tribes living along the Amazon River.
Ever heard the term "culture shock?" As I recall, it refers to how Peace Corps workers come back to their "real" world and find that basic human traits are the same as in the most so-called primitive societies. I say "so-called" because when I was in college, cultural relativism reigned. You couldn't say anything that would imply judgment - terms like "advanced" and "less advanced." Forget it. We're all equal. That whole mindset was part of the paternalistic brand of political liberalism that reigned on college campuses, especially state colleges.
I suspect it's different now.
The Viet Nam war, which caused a lot of us to actually start rooting for the communists (not to kill but to at least prevail), has been long over. Communism and socialism have died on the vine. For now, at least. Capitalism is quite capable of failing too, as we saw in this nation back around 1930. Think the stock market will be our bulwark for all time? I have to laugh. Just read David Stockman.
Had Chet Birch's words resonated a little better, certain adjustments might have been made sooner. We had a public school system that had become staid, complacent and hugely defensive by the mid-1980s. Eventually there was an eruption of dissent from outside its walls. Like all community controversies, it had been simmering under the surface. Finally, things got so bad there was an open revolt back in about 1987 or '88. It was unfortunate and unnecessary. Chet's words should have been heeded sooner.
There was a nucleus among the teachers who had become highly aggressive in terms of union contract negotiations. Supt. Fred Switzer was very frustrated with the time all these negotiations sucked up. Yes, he told me directly about that once. Morris legend has it that he actually ended up striking a Faustian bargain of sorts. One of those union-centered people had to be mollified or appeased a little. That individual was given an administrative-sounding title and an allegedly soft job description. In exchange he'd back off from the rabid dog stance he might take in negotiations.
The appeasing didn't work out in the long run. School extracurricular languished worse than ever. It was a matter extending beyond wins and losses. If you were here, you'll remember what I'm talking about.
The slide seemed to coincide with a lapse in traditional values. To a certain extent, traditional values had come under siege throughout American society in the '60s and '70s. For example, no more "valedictorian." The term "valedictorian" was something I learned paging through old high school yearbooks at the dentist's office.
The malaise of the '70s - not that Jimmy Carter actually used that term, he didn't - was going to fade, no doubt. But as with all societal trends, the changes don't happen immediately or uniformly.
I noticed when visiting small high schools in the area that the "traditional" homecoming was totally in bloom, having escaped the shackles of cynicism of the 1970s. Morris was behind. School activities here in Morris were not embraced in the traditional way, rather there was a feeling of going through the motions or dismissiveness. In athletics the problems seemed accented. The pushback, of course, was that "sports is secondary" and "winning isn't everything." Both of those assertions are true to an extent. But Morris had seemed to fall into a real malaise.
We sat here complacently as Wheaton got the reputation of having the best county fair. Wheaton had a girls basketball team that beat our Tigers 99-15 once. Wheaton is a little town on the prairie. It shouldn't be like this. A rebellion in Morris began pushing our public school in a more positive direction. Petitions had to be circulated publicly.
An enraged school employee was allowed to do his thing at a winter sports banquet/program. Show me any other school in the country that would tolerate that. Oh well, Joe Wilson got by with shouting "you lie!" at a State of the Union speech.
A schism grew in the Morris community. I would suggest the insurgents were motivated by pure principle. I would suggest their adversaries were motivated by self-interest and fear of change. It is a distinguishing feature of government employees that they fear change.
Things settled down eventually. Today when Morris and Wheaton play in girls basketball, it's just a typical game - either team could win - rather than a political spectacle. That's nice.
How bad had it gotten? I remember a friend in financial services who said he sensed "unbelievable" resentment toward the Morris school from the surrounding small towns. Why? There was a perception, he said, that extracurricular sports in Morris were handled "like an extension of phy. ed class."
Eventually we had to start wooing students (i.e. their parents) from those small towns. Open enrollment helped bring some free enterprise incentive to our public schools.
Dennis Rettke became superintendent in Morris. It was an unenviable situation he stepped into. He brought in a coach named Chris Baxter who he felt might shake things up in a positive way. Mr. Rettke was forced into expedience. The school had to start proceeding with baby steps. Baxter never really got a chance here. He and Mark Torgerson were 50/50 for getting the head boys basketball job.
Baxter was a new face and didn't have any intangibles going for him. First he was denied the boys job. He then indicated interest in the girls job, or so the story goes. Based on the union-negotiated provisions, he actually should have gotten the girls job. He didn't, all because of the swamp of community politics. He did eventually get the girls job. Plus he had been the head volleyball coach, where initially he carried out his mission of upgrading. Coach Baxter got dragged down. I feel we never got to see the real coach Baxter. I think that's rather a shame.
Today, it seems our extracurricular is going quite fine. However, one more year of our basketball teams making a quick exit in the post-season, and there might be some grumbles. We'll see. Meanwhile, that spot "on the hill" that ol' Chet cited, where the grand castle of our school once stood, seems almost blighted. Maybe the UMM soccer fields could have been established on the playground property. The big problem with UMM expanding to the west, or course, is the cemetery.
Those soccer fields could be used by the community's youth too. It would be a great way of taking attention away from football. The more things change, the more they change.
 
A personal impact
My career as a journalist was hurt tremendously by the convulsions our school and community went through. I was known to have a favorable view toward Mr. Baxter. I had no personal friendship with him and had no special affinity with him in my work. My actual writing probably suggested I had some deference to him. Joe Exner said "he follows a different drummer."
True. Baxter came here from the small-school model where the talent pool is obviously smaller. You have to work harder. For the record, he came here from Cyrus. Cyrus! Today Cyrus is a nice little bedroom or retirement community. It's a distant memory, that of Cyrus having a public school through grade 12. I covered graduations there for the Morris newspaper. I'll never forget seeing a Japanese exchange student showing emotion on occasion of graduation. I had done a feature article on her. The "Cyrus Panthers" are quite gone with the wind. So are the C-A Spartans. Life isn't the same around here.
The Baxter vs. Torgerson decision became incredibly political. Once all that was done, a consensus grew in our community that we had to put all the unpleasantness behind us. This is how controversies end in small towns. The leaders insist we all must move on. I made the mistake of continuing to make "a little comment" now and then. I became stigmatized. As a result, I largely marked time through the next 20 or so years of my career. The mainstream wasn't comfortable with me.
People even learned to say there wasn't any problem at the school in the first place. A well-known local employee of a bank even defended the behavior of that person who had made that winter sports banquet an abomination. He said "you have to let them (school staff) have their autonomy." I'll even type his name here: Dick Felstul.
"Autonomy."
To the extent blame is affixed, I think it would pre-date the actual unpleasantness of the mid to late 1980s. I think it would go back to the days of that "hill" where school staff learned a little arrogance.
You have to go to the top to affix blame. A big part of the administration's job is to solve small problems before they become big ones. Shall we consider Mr. Switzer? I don't know, because he had union intransigence to deal with. Many of those problems appear solved today. Or at least they're kept below the surface where they belong. No more boycotts of the Dairy Queen.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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