School Board Must Respond To Citizen Concerns

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

There are times when a thoughtful, frank discussion about sensitive issues that have a broad impact on the quality of life in a community are necessary. The conversation is going to hurt feelings, offend people in positions of influence and authority, and demand leadership from those responsible for solving the challenges.

We are having one of those discussions now about the persistent losing records of many of our athletic programs at Benson High School. The impact reaches far beyond the athletic fields, rinks, and courts of BHS.

How the discussion evolves will depend on the seriousness with which it is carried out and the character of those taking part.

It takes courage to stand up at a public meeting and challenge the status quo when you know there is going to be significant blowback from the people whose performance is questioned. When you know what you say is going to get printed, read, and reacted to in ways that put you down personally, or affect how your kids could be treated in school and sports, it takes a depth of character to speak up that we respect.

Angela Nissen has been an articulate, respectful spokesperson for concerned citizens and parents in addressing the school board at meetings Oct. 16 and Monday night. She was the only one allowed to speak Monday night, but others spoke up at the Oct. 16 meeting.

No one doubts the sincere desire of the coaches to win, to motivate and instruct their players, and create a rewarding experience for students. What they are questioning is the results.

This isn’t a blame game. Citizens are asking for performance and accountability evaluations. Businesses in the private sector do this all the time. It is meant to assess potential problems, develop a system-wide plan for overcoming them, and then implementing it in hopes of achieving a turnaround.

It all starts with leadership. It begins with honestly asking what’s wrong. You are not going to like, or necessarily agree with, the answers you get. Listen. Don’t reject. Perception is reality, and if you aren’t willing to accept what people are telling you, you don’t have a chance of fixing the problems.


Common perceptions for lack of success

Depending on whom you talk with there are a variety of reasons why BHS is experiencing poor athletic success. We are not saying all these explanations are legitimate, but if people are talking about them, then those in leadership positions had better listen.

Here are the most commonly repeated reasons:
- With class sizes falling there are too few students and too many sports and activities.
- There is a lack of consistent, ground up coaching of the necessary skills athletes need to perform and give them the best chance of success. If a varsity coach wants a successful team, he or she has to be watching closely and influencing what is happening in programs starting at the elementary level.
- The administration and school board are either complacent, willfully ignoring the problems, unaware of them, or afraid to act to make necessary changes.
- There are too few gifted athletes that excel raising a team’s chances of success.
- There are concerns that coaches play favorites not based on skills but based on relationships they have with school or family. These associations lead to athletes getting playing time and preferred positions not based on the talent that helps a team win.
- There is bullying as well as verbal belittling that rather than inspire causes athletes to fear making mistakes instead of playing to their potential. Bullying and intimidation of students from a position of authority are not limited to the playing field or practice; it can happen in the halls.
- There are lackluster, abbreviated practices in some lower grades.
- Parents have unrealistic beliefs in just how good their child is causing them to complain when their child doesn’t get playing time. Parents aren’t pushing their kids to work harder to be better athletes.
- Student-athletes don’t practice enough in the off-season and don’t work on physical conditioning.
- In years when a team could go .500 it struggles to win a single game. In years when it should excel, it underperforms. Why don’t teams that have success in junior high also have success in varsity sports?


Consequences of inaction

We know that the extended losing records are having an impact on morale among students and parents. It troubles those of us who no longer have children in the school, but who are loyal fans. Parents of other schools who are asking, “What is happening in Benson? You guys used to be competitive.”

Without a commitment to change from the school board and administration, we have been told some athletic programs could see their numbers fall even lower jeopardizing the ability to field an even remotely competitive team.

We know that the losses are having an impact on the ability of businesses in the community to attract and retain employees. People who are working in Benson have enrolled their kids in nearby schools where they feel there is a better chance of athletic success. Some people have bought houses in these other communities though they work locally. Some parents have considered moving to give their kids a better chance to be part of a winning program.

It is imperative for the future of our community that we make Benson Public Schools a sought-after destination.

A good part of getting young people to go out for sports, to get them to stay in shape, to practice in the offseason, and to attend camps is getting them inspired and motivated. It starts at an early age when kids in elementary school and junior high are looking up at the varsity players and programs they idolize. It seems there is not much of that happening.

At some point in the not too distant future, the school board would like to go to the voters with a referendum to help finance maintenance of its facilities. It will cost millions. Voters were just highly supportive of the operating levy referendum with it providing funds for basic educational needs in the district. It would be a mistake to get a sense of optimism from that vote.

How the school board and administration respond to the questions surrounding our athletic programs could inspire voters to support our schools, or cause them to become further disenchanted, dooming any chances of a building levy passing. The administration and board of education are setting the foundation for that success or failure by their actions, or inaction, today

Unfortunately, based on the school board and administration’s handling of both the Oct. 16 meeting and Monday night’s meeting, we have yet to see the leadership that is required.

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