Complacency at East leads to ‘Nightmare on Fifth Street’
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org October 23, 2012 5:00PM
Concerned residents who could not get into the East Aurora School Board meeting, stand outside the School District administration offices on Fifth Street as the board voted to rescind a policy on transgender students on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 25, 2012 6:03AM
For the past couple months, leaders of the East Aurora School District have found themselves embroiled in back-to-back controversies that, frankly, make it look like they are all asleep at the wheel.
The first drama broke out in September, when the longtime director of finance took a quick retirement after it became public there were serious issues coming out of his office at the administration building on Fifth Street. In addition to huge discrepancies in employee insurance premiums that took everyone by surprise, no one seemed to be paying attention to hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card purchases made by administrators; or thousands going out for late utilities fees.
So far, Jay Augustine’s secretary, fired the end of September, is the only one who’s taken the fall on that one ... unless you count the antiquated computer system being blamed for the lack of oversight. Despite the assurances of Superintendent Jerome Roberts and School Board President Annette Johnson that all these problems are being addressed, this was an ugly public relations debacle.
Then came “Nightmare on Fifth Street, the Squeal.” Last week, the board unanimously passed a cutting-edge policy dealing with transgender students — only to rescind it a few days later when, after taking heat from conservative groups, they realized the new policy had not been adequately vetted — or even read — by the board.
Talk about an October Fright Night. Hundreds of angry protesters showed up Friday when the board unanimously voted to rescind the measure. Not only did school leaders get the evil eye from civil rights and gay/lesbian groups outside Aurora, they were lambasted by local taxpayers, parents, students even district employees whose initial pride in the board’s stand was replaced by embarrassment and disappointment.
The villain in this tale of horror, according to the board, was Assistant Superintendent Christine Aird, who formed the policy and brought it to members for approval. She’s been placed on administrative leave for “pulling the wool over our eyes,” according to Johnson, and not following the correct process. In other words, Aird got the temporary, maybe even permanent, boot for failing to do her job when board members obviously didn’t exactly do theirs either.
The new policy, introduced in July, was not some complicated piece of legalese that needed to be deciphered by a team of attorneys. It’s only a few pages. And when it was handed out this summer, its heading — TRANSGENDER AND GENDER NONCONFORMING STUDENTS — certainly caught the eye of our reporter. She not only read the whole thing, she realized it was so controversial that when it came up for a vote this fall, she knew there would be a good story if East passed it.
There was drama all right — but not the story line anyone expected.
Johnson says this latest fiasco was the result of “a perfect storm.” School leaders had been working overtime to get the district up to date on curriculum, technology and procedures that had been ignored for the past 30 years. Busy trying to make up for lost time, they got caught off guard by the financial mess. Then, dealing with that fiasco, they didn’t pay close enough attention to the transgender issue to realize Aird’s version did not follow the Illinois Association of School Board’s procedures.
Says the board president, “We got caught.”
Johnson insists tremendous progress has been made in correcting the problems and that the district will exit these nightmares much stronger and more vigilant. There’s “too much complacency” in school districts among administrators and board members, added Johnson, an accountant who owns her own small foods company. “In business, if you make a major mistake like that, you’d be gone ... Everybody needs to step it up.”
After Pat Lorance, who attends East Aurora board meetings religiously, listened to a couple dozen speakers from Friday’s overflow crowd address school officials, she had a question of her own: “Where are all these concerned citizens when regular meetings are taking place?”
The good news is, tales of horror — in this case, getting kicked in the teeth twice — tend to wake you up. Which brings me to the moral of this story: Sometimes it takes a whack to get on track.