By Lane Rosencrans
Williamson Strong Guest Blogger
On July 10, I asked Williamson Strong to publish a piece I wrote that shared my concerns with public education and the impediments our school board has created to finding meaningful solutions to these legitimate issues. At the time of writing this, that post alone has garnered over 18,000 views and has been shared over 3,000 times on social media. While my intent was simply to give a voice to those teachers, parents, and students who felt powerless to speak out, I had no idea my commentary would generate such an overwhelming public response, most of which was in the form of gratitude and support. This speaks volumes to the state in which we find ourselves in Williamson County right now, and I would argue, for several years. Teachers messaged me in shock that I would publish a piece so critical and actually attach my real name and picture with it (which was, by the way, my choice—Williamson Strong would have gladly allowed me to post it anonymously if I had felt the need).
What is wrong with our culture that something seemingly so simple had such an impact? I posit that the systemic fear running rampant in our county isn’t fostered by the school district itself; in fact, Dr. Looney has for years opened his door and given his cell phone number to teachers to welcome conversations. As a teacher, I never once feared how he would respond to criticism; however, the board is a whole different story. As it turns out, the fear of public dissent just might stem from local Williamson County politicians themselves.
Take, for example, Williamson Strong. The founding members are simply a group of concerned parents willing to step out and voice their dissent for the politics and policies that affect education in our county. In doing so—exercising their right to free speech and giving critical feedback to the public servants elected to act on behalf of their constituents—they have been targeted and branded with derogatory names such as thugs, witches, and roaches, simply because they chose to challenge the status quo. Yet, ironically, Ms. Curlee still believes that she is being “attacked” or persecuted anytime someone is remotely critical of her motives and/or methods. Most recently, Kathy Danner, one of the two District 4 County Commissioners, said this of anyone seeking a position in the newly-opened School Board seat: “I also will share that it will not help them [candidates] to be affiliated with Williamson Strong. I’m very disappointed in the direction that group has taken and being associated with them is frowned upon by most of the County’s elected officials and by the 4th district parents that I have heard from.” She continued by saying, “I want to make sure that people know that being affiliated with that group [Williamson Strong] is going to instantly create bias in voters when the nominee has to run for office in less than 6 months of being in office. There has also been one applicant that has posted on their [Williamson Strong’s] Facebook page and that is not going to help them if they run for office in the 4th district.”
This veiled threat to anyone seeking board leadership automatically fosters a sense of fear and intimidation; if Williamson Strong is a group of voters and parents willing to express disapproval with board policies and election tactics, and the Commission sends warnings to would-be candidates to not align themselves with Williamson Strong, then the message that resonates loud and clear is: do not rock the boat. If public dissent makes one a social pariah the way they’ve attempted to frame the women behind Williamson Strong, then it is no wonder that parents and teachers don’t speak up more. Who wants to subject themselves to that kind of scrutiny or slander? Furthermore, if parents are being treated with such disrespect and criticism, then what on earth makes people believe teachers would be bold enough to vocalize their concerns and disagreements? Let me be clear: the investigation into the Hillsboro meeting that the board launched this year drove home a very chilling message. When teachers, outside of school hours and off school property, are subject to an investigation for simply discussing their views that differed from the majority of the school board it not only creates a culture of fear among teachers, but it exercises a will of deliberate intimidation. The investigation exonerated those administrators, teachers, and Dr. Looney of any wrongdoing, but trust me—the wounds it created are long-lasting. Nothing short of a public apology and repayment of county dollars spent on such an endeavor will be enough to start repairing the lack of trust this investigation created and subsequently wedged between the system’s educators and the board. Yet, in one fall board meeting, they asked why teachers want to leave the county. Look no further than the mirror, folks.
The board took meaningful steps in the right direction during Thursday night’s work session, but I fear it is too little, too late. For the most part, we’ve succumbed to the Bystander Effect and allowed a small group of people to argue on our behalf. This mentality has fostered a hostile district work environment, cultivated a culture of fear among teachers, and allowed neighboring counties to court our superintendent.
So I ask: what will it take to corral the madness, ignorance, and paranoia that has taken root in our county since the last election? It takes VOICES. It takes courage. It takes votes. It’s no secret that the last election cycle had a poor voter turnout. Let me be the first to put our elected officials on notice: as a whole, the residents of Williamson County slept complacently through that one. It won’t happen again. The circus that that has ensued this last year has put our school system and our economy in jeopardy by casting undue negative press and scrutiny. The Williamson County Chamber of Commerce took a brave and bold step in releasing a public statement of support of Dr. Looney. Business owners, parents, and teachers—follow their lead. Speak out. Everyone has a stake in this issue because our school system is the bedrock, heart and pride of this county and its economy.
Don’t let anyone—especially elected officials who are called to serve the public—intimidate you into quiet complacency. Our students deserve better. They deserve adults who will act and speak on their behalves and best interests. Let’s be bold for them.