The president of the Harford County Board of Education wants the Edgewood Community Council to halt the “negative press” in their community newsletter. Will the ECC comply?
In a recent email copied to several recipients, School Board President Mark Wolkow writes to the Edgewood Community Council with some general advice on how to improve the ECC newsletter, which is typically sent to 1200-1500 area residents. Among Wolkow’s suggestions are that the newsletter should contain positive stories and “eliminate any trace of negativity”. Wolkow argues that there are plenty of other outlets for that.
Wolkow doesn’t cite any examples of “negativity” but back issues of the newsletter are available here and they’re hardly brimming with hit pieces. There is a piece calling out parents for their lack of involvement in the PTA at Deerfield Elementary School and another one (written by me) about the elected school board which the ECC supported and Wolkow strongly opposed. But most stories in the ECC newsletter are either informational or upbeat and in fact, each edition is written under the banner: “Edgewood: Better with Everyone’s Help!”
No matter, when it comes to news from the schools Wolkow seems to say that his help will come at a price. He writes: “I will commit to seeking a way to get good news stories published; however, I will only encourage the ECC NL [newsletter] as an outlet if the negative press is halted.” Wow.
So the Edgewood Community Council can only get good news stories from their school board representative if they agree to censor anything “negative”? Wolkow’s ultimatum to people who are doing excellent work in their community is chilling all by itself. His explanation then makes you wonder if the drive for good PR leaves room for much else.
Wolkow writes, “In my personal opinion, one negative comment about the community or a school offsets 100 positives.”
If all stories have to be “positive” and none can be “negative”, where does reality fit in? Wolkow doesn’t seem to give the people of Edgewood much credit for being able to handle anything but happy-talk.
For sure, it’s up to the Edgewood Community Council to decide how they’ll respond to this attempt to manage their message. But I hope this group of civic-minded volunteers will stand their ground. Allowing public officials to pull the strings on freedom of the press may serve public officials, but it doesn’t serve the public. As far as “negative” stories are concerned, stamping them out won’t make any underlying problems go away. To the contrary, silencing the community may deprive decision-makers of information they can use to find solutions, especially if one of those problems happens to be that community members feel disconnected from their public schools.
Here’s the relevant text of the email from Wolkow:
With regard to the ECC NL[newsletter], my suggestion is that the ECC have a discussion at the next meeting to develop a purpose and/or goals for the NL, then discuss how best the NL can meet those goals/purpose. [Newsletter editor] Art and I had several conversations about this at the outset of the NL, and I was reluctant to indicate what I thought it should be, since I am not a member of the ECC Board. But I’ll give you my opinion now, simply because I have a strong view of what it can accomplish, and maybe it can help with a future discussion. Feel free to use (or not use) these, as you see fit:
> To make a positive difference in the Edgewood Community
> 1. To deliver information about upcoming events of interest to Edgewood area residents
> 2. To deliver short, positive, news and feature stories about organizations and people in the Edgewood area
> 3. To provide a short, well-formatted, easy-to-read, document that people will want to read
> That’s it. It is a great niche. If you keep it to 2-4 pages, all the better. If you can actually send it as an email rather than an attachment, all the better. Eliminate the letters (lots of other venues for that). Eliminate the political input (lots of other venues for that). Eliminate any trace of negativity (tons of other venues – in print, electronically, and in person – for that). If you want busy people to read it, you have to keep it short.
> All – Regarding our schools and our Principals, you will not find a bigger supporter than me. I am unabashadly proud of what we have accomplished, and not one of our schools is following a cookie-cutter approach. Anyone who steps foot into our buildings knows that. I know, because I’m in the buildings all the time, and have conversations with Principals, staff, and students. [ECC President] Jansen, if you believe that we’re “doing what we’ve always done”, then it is clear to me that you have not been in the buildings nor talked at any length with people who are. I suggest that you become as informed as possible about the schools – especially if the ECC wants to be a partner to make them better. I will offer this right now: Come take a tour of any of the buildings with me and the Principal on any day of mutual convenience. I’ll make the time.
> All – We have more work to do in our schools. EMS has made incredible progress. But we have some serious challenges. The good news: teachers are learning every day, based on data, how to better help our children learn. The bad news: many of our students do not come to school ready to learn. That means they will need additional help; additional support; to be successful… and the economy and local budget situation will not give us the luxury of additional revenue to help with the solutions. That’s why we need to work together – all of us – to make every student successful.
> Here are just a couple of things that parents and community members can do… perhaps these could be discussed at an ECC meeting:
> 1. Visit a school and offer to volunteer in the building. (Don’t be put off by the security – that’s all for our children’s safety)
> 2. Offer to be a mentor – most of the schools either have a program in the building or a partnership (e.g. boys2men at EMS)
> 3. Support orgs that support the schools (e.g. join a PTA; come to the Greater Edgewood Education Foundation gala in October; come to the inter-school volleyball game in November; help out the Booster clubs).
> 4. Offer to help Bangtam Miller with her tutoring program… she’s already helped 5 area residents get their GEDs!
> Good News from Schools – This is a tough one. Our schools don’t have people or organizations set up for PR. Heck, the entire schools system depends on Teri Kranefeld and two assistants for the entire communications department. We were turned down for funding an additional position… several times. We’ve had the conversation about getting good news out many times, and I hope that it is something we can figure out how to do without putting yet another burden on school staff. Bottom line: Educators are into teaching, not tooting their own horns… and sometimes that works to their detriment. I will commit to seeking a way to get good news stories published; however, I will only encourage the ECC NL as an outlet if the negative press is halted. In my personal opinion, one negative comment about the community or a school offsets 100 positives. That is why people have negative impressions about schools in general, and Edgewood schools in particular… mostly due to the Aegis.
> I care deeply about Edgewood schools. My daughters both spend their entire k-12 experience in the EHS feeder system. It’s one of the reasons I serve on the Board. It’s one of the reasons I spent the last hour typing out this note. But if I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s how you do things, not what you do, that makes the biggest difference. Process matters… it matters a lot. So let’s go forward not in a haphazard way, but in a positive, creative, and productive way.
> Mark Wolkow
> President, HCPS Board of Education