School board drama and animal totems

Walking out to the car in the dark before the five-hour school board meeting was officially over, a bushy-tailed fox ran in front of me from the bike rack to the soccer field. Going old school, new age Crested Butte on Tuesday I tracked down what a fox animal totem might mean:

Foxes are known for being devoted parents who take good care of their offspring. The fox totem animal is giving you the gift of being a caring and nurturing parent to your children. Sometimes this totem animal reminds you to put your other responsibilities aside and devote more of your time to your children.

The conservatives at Monday’s school board crowd are probably rolling their eyes and putting down the paper to switch on Newsmax but I found that fox totem pretty appropriate after that meeting. There were close to 200 people attending the meeting in person and close to 300 at times on Zoom. There were no doubt deep divisions as evidenced by the 30 or 40 percent of the crowd that refused to wear a mask in the multi-purpose room despite a mandate for masks inside school buildings.

But almost everyone who spoke during the lengthy public comment periods did so from their hearts, and whatever side they were on they spoke their truth that came from advocating for what they considered the best interest of the children. The fox totem in action.

The sloth
And I say almost because early on in the comments a political wanderer from the Front Range hoping to gain the Republican nomination for governor, Danielle Neuschwanger, took her three minutes to make a sound bite video that was immediately posted on her social media. She advocated for a curriculum based in patriotic 1776 history and made the school board aware that they would likely be subject to lawsuits from disgruntled parents. We have that already BTW. A local sixth grader made the point that in 1776 the patriotic Front Ranger wouldn’t be allowed to run for political office or even vote because of the simple fact she was a woman. Oh, and after her big Facebook speech she took off without bothering to listen to anyone else. She demonstrated her political skills reflective of the lazy sloth totem.

Despite that blip on the radar, the meeting process was generally a study in good, local representative government. The school board gave every single person an opportunity to speak. Despite the occasional smattering of negative reactions, the audience was generally civil and respectful. While there were times I was wishing people would get to the microphone and say simply “I agree with….” that’s not how interactive public government usually works so I appreciated the passion and sincerity expressed by people on both sides of the issues.

It reinforced my belief that despite uncomfortable subjects, this community can have the hard meetings. I will say that too often a fear factor seemed to be in play with the substance as the listening part of the meeting was not as deep as the speaking side.

The bats
The animal totem that symbolizes fear is the bat. There were some bats at the school board meeting Monday. Both sides are vocally worried that the other side is actively working to influence the school board — and guess what? Both sides are right! Welcome to democracy.

It seemed to me that sometimes speakers on either side were tripping over terms that meant different things to different people. The Critical Race Theory tag is one example. One side appeared to put anything bad and challenging of their beliefs under the CRT flag and were clearly worried their kids would be scarred for life by anything resembling CRT. While a bit confusing, I took it that the “conservative” side was concerned that local teachers have been taking classes that demonstrate how they are supposed to indoctrinate the students into believing that all white kids in grade school are racist bullies and all kids of color in grade school are oppressed and victims. I asked the administration this week if that was the case and was told it is not. Whew!

Some on the other side relegated CRT to the narrowest definition of a college law course and dismissed any educational concern by conservative parents as unfounded. That’s not really fair. While technically correct, the facts on the ground these days, like it or not, is that CRT has been redefined to take in a lot more than legal race theories. So to not really listen to what someone is saying because they use the CRT moniker is lazy. The “progressive” side seemed to fear that the extreme right wing camel has more than its nose under the proverbial tent and the school district is already on the cusp of being a branch of QAnon. And while some of the action taking place at the moment certainly confirms a “right wing” effort to influence the school district, it is a good thing in the sense people can now be aware and proactive in making sure that doesn’t happen if that is their goal.

The GWSD is not drastically changing its history curriculum to only teach America’s past from the perspective of those who suffered most from certain atrocities. Both sides agree that the history of slavery, the Jim Crow era and racism should be taught in the school. Seems to me that rather than just citing that the incidents took place it would be helpful and educational to also include the impact of the incidents on those most impacted by the incidents. So teaching the what, the why, the how and the outcomes seems appropriate.

It didn’t happen much when I was in school but looking back, I would have liked to understand the personal effect of those major decisions on real people and think it would have helped broaden some of my understanding and empathy for the people back then and their descendants today. That is a good thing when it comes to learning and puts into better context how we got to where we are as a country and people in 2021.

The horses
Horses represent stamina, wisdom, and intellect. District superintendent Leslie Nichols received a lot of love and support Monday for her stamina, wisdom, and intellect. Having the hard conversations in public with board member Dave Taylor is always interesting to watch. Leslie’s primary point was to get away from the sound bites and explain that while not always successful, the goal of the district was to create “educational equity” for all. She made clear that every student should have the opportunity for educational excellence. Every student deserves to receive an education and she said the mission of the Gunnison Watershed School District was to ensure every student is successful no matter the kid or how success is defined.

Leslie wants every child to feel like they belong and emphasized that was integral to achieving educational excellence. What’s not right about that? She admitted that too many times there are incidents within the school district that are ugly but the GWSD strives to positively reach every student. She said that takes relationships and every teacher was working really hard to find the best ways to teach every kid. She made it clear she didn’t want her staff boxed in on what or how to teach. And she made clear that even the thought of banning books available in the library was anathema to the values of the district. Absolutely.

A number of current and former Crested Butte Community School students advocated their support for an open learning environment. They voiced the freedom and wildness that the horse totem represents. They wanted to learn how to learn. They made clear they valued the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of ideas and to then think for themselves. Admitting that being confronted with new ideas can be uncomfortable, most of the kids who grew up or are growing up here said that discomfort was part of learning and…growth.

The wolf
Wolves teach cooperation, protectiveness and the value of extended families. While concerns over “CRT,” staffing shortages, the mask mandate and a lawsuit filed against the district resulted in a really long school board Monday, it also showed how a community could debate the issues for the most part like a somewhat torn but functional family.

I heard Rebecca White’s sincere concern that too many kids in the country today are learning principles undermining what she sees as the country’s values. But she called for this community to “hang together” and keep talking. I heard Kelly Jo Clark’s advice to not be afraid. She said learning through an accurate lens can prevent mistakes from happening again and that acknowledging racial differences is nothing to fear. Another parent pointed out that while for some people being nice should be enough, her daughter of color was dealing with real issues at school that weren’t disappearing because most people were nice.

The lion
The conversation is far from over and I have no doubt both sides are organizing to push their agenda. Monday it seemed that the agenda discussion was difficult but civil. There will come a point when the school board has to take an official stand to make clear where they are directing the district to go based on clear definitions of their intent. I trust the board majority will support the current administrative direction that encourages broad learning opportunity for all of our kids. That may take the courage of the lion but it has to happen.

The concern here is that some will continue their efforts to burn down the village to save the house. The recent lawsuit decision makes clear the district judge is convinced Leslie Nichols has the authority to issue a mask mandate and that masking helps control the spread of the virus. We’ll see if the plaintiffs have the wisdom to stop the madness of attacking the school district their kids are part of and work toward constructively participating in making the district a positive place for all kids.

The fox…again
The fox totem might be right. Another interpretation found on Tuesday was also appropriate: The symbolism of a fox could serve as a signal in your life to broaden your perspective. It could help you see a situation for what it means and not how you wish it would be. With this realization, it teaches you to be adaptable and fluid.

—Mark Reaman

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