Is This a School Board Meeting or Fight Club?

Philly's suburban helicopter parents lack perspective.

There’s nothing quite like the first breath of cool, night air after a three-and-a-half-hour school board meeting. It’s a zen moment for those working in local news, and I found myself enjoying a particularly good one last week, sucking in that sweet oxygen and walking off the folding chair-induced pain in my ass, thoughts turning to what mediocre TV entertainment awaited me back at the apartment, when I heard a school administrator call my name after coming out of the building’s doors.

As he approached, I wondered what story tip or spin he might have in store for me at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Thankfully, it was just a joke.

“Four years of college for this … how about that?” he said, grinning.

Well actually, the four years of college were more for the beer, I thought. But I bit my tongue and exercised the cookie-cutter response for questions like those.

“Oh, it’s not that bad. It’s a great opportunity. I’m glad to have a job in journalism.”

I reflected for a moment, and came up with something more honest for him.

“If I’m still doing this in 30 years, ask me again.”

That seemed to tickle his funny bone—I imagine because he’s been going to these kinds of meetings for about that amount of time.

Truthfully, covering local news is a way more entertaining and informing experience than I thought it would be. In 2010 when I took a job as editor of Upper Dublin Patch, a news site covering the suburban Montgomery County community of the same name, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I was just out of college and like any J-school student, I’d been propelled through the four years by fantasies of bylines in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, in spite of all the warnings to run as fast I could in the other direction. But I dared to dream, and it got me through. Well that, and the beer.

But I’ve discovered that the real—let’s say joy—of the job has been gaining insight into how suburban Philadelphia conducts itself. As no doubt many readers are already thinking, I am of a generation that catches a lot of flak for being lazy, over-educated prima donnas. Well I’ll give you that for the most part, but I’ll see your lazy, over-educated prima donna and raise you a helicopter parent or two.

Over the past year I’ve chronicled many meetings and events, transcribing quotes of a cast of characters you may recognize—as your neighbors, of course. The overzealous mom, the guy who wants chickens and a goat in his backyard, the environmentalist who doesn’t want the new gas station everybody else wants because it means cutting down an endangered tree (if it wasn’t in danger before, it certainly is now), and my personal favorite and companion: the 100-year-old man who sits in the back of municipal meetings and grumbles under his breath about everything from what’s being discussed by the board to the merits of chunky peanut butter.

When it comes to school board meetings, the best and the worst are often on display. There’s little that makes a community prouder than the success of its youngsters, but there’s also little that can draw the ire of parents around town like an educator.

I suppose it’s only ethical to admit I might be biased (I “suppose” because I only pulled a B- in ethics), and reveal that I come from a family of four educators, including two parents who had full careers working in the Reading School District, which has become something like the Siberia of public education in the last decade or so. Conversations about the state of education were commonplace at the dinner table, and those stories of angry parents and piss-poor policies have become a reality for me. I often find myself calling my parents just to say, “Ahh … now I see.”

However, that was the inner city, a place where success is mainly measured by how many students you can get to the finish line. This is suburban Philadelphia, where success is often measured by how many students you get to the Ivy League.

The main problem I see is not parents with high standards. They pay the taxes, and often move to an area specifically because they have high expectations of the school district. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to give your children the best possible future, and expecting professional educators to help them achieve their greatest potential.

What I do have a problem with is a lack of respect and perspective I often see from parents.  Usually their tone says it in the first few seconds; that a scathing injustice has reared its head in the elimination of fifth-period pottery club, or a five-point drop in the district’s fourth grade PSSA scores. That it’s become obvious to parents that the teachers’ union passed a secret resolution declaring a 15 percent reduction in giving a damn, and that the board members are just in it for the kicks.

Are there teachers and administrators who’ve checked out? Of course. Are there board members who never checked in? Occasionally. But I think all sides would be better off if they realized that 95 percent of the people involved want the absolute best for the kids. And how fortunate it is to be in a place where both sides do care, which often isn’t the case for education in America these days.