In the field of education, “it’s about kids” is a passionate mission for some school leaders. But for others, it is only a catchy slogan; like “no child left behind.” The only way to tell the difference is to listen and watch - to see who walks their talk – and who does not.
Unfortunately, it is my studied opinion that Kentucky’s Education Commissioner-select, Barbara Erwin, falls into the latter category. Her rhetoric is first-class. But upon inspection, critical claims about her character and integrity become suspect.
The Kentucky Board of Education meets tomorrow, but there are no apparent plans to discuss new revelations about Dr. Erwin’s application since last month’s meeting in Bowling Green.
“Education must empower and inspire each of our students to attain excellence, learn with passion and live with integrity.” I didn’t write that. Barbara Erwin did. But her actions make it hard to believe she will inspire any students toward integrity.
-- As an applicant, Erwin claimed she presented at the Triple I conference in Illinois in 2006. She didn’t.
-- She said she served on the American Association of School Administrators Executive Committee for ten years. She didn’t. It was three.
-- She told the state board she had never been involved in litigation, or pressured to leave. Wrong again. She was being sued by one of her board members in the federal case Schild v. Erwin, when she left Scottsdale for St Charles.
-- She told her current school board in St Charles, Illinois that “in good faith” she would serve until August 4th well after she knew her term in Kentucky would begin on July 16th.
-- The search firm Ray & Associates told the board she had solved a persistent mold problem in a St Charles high School. Not true. The problem had been solved a full six months before her arrival.
-- And that doesn’t even count a groundswell of concern raised in four different states over her temperament in office, a handful of other typos and misstatements, or the fact that a state’s attorney in Illinois is engaged in an on-going investigation of alleged willful violations of the Open Meetings Act.
The confidential candidate file prepared by Ray & Associates – which the board relied upon - is a very one-sided sales job that is much more of a promotional piece than it is a critical, or balanced, look at Erwin’s record. It accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative without one sentence of concern that a board member might look into.
A substantial and diverse group of Kentucky organizations have either raised doubts or called on the board to reconsider her hiring, including the Courier-Journal, the Herald-Leader, the News-Enterprise, the Family Foundation, the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky School News and Commentary, KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” host Al Smith and others. Bob Sexton of the Prichard Committee underscored the tough spot board members find themselves in as a result of the search firm’s casual methodology.
Due to incomplete information and some unnecessary haste, the board now goes into tomorrow’s meeting with a new Commissioner who has spawned lots of doubts. Board member Joe Brothers told the Kane County Chronicle, “Obviously there’s been issues raised, but [Dr. Erwin will] exercise due diligence as well as the board to resolve and alleviate any apprehension.” Incredibly, there is no indication from the board agenda that they are going to do anything about it.
KDE communications director Lisa Gross told Kentucky School News and Commentary late last week, "The board discussed all relevant issues during its executive session with Barbara Erwin at the meeting in Bowling Green in May. There are no plans to add formal discussion of any further issues to this meeting's agenda. However, the board members can raise any issues (related to Dr. Erwin or not) at any time during the meeting."
The march of historical events presents leaders with many opportunities and challenges. It is at these times when the public learns who just talks, and who “walks the walk.”
To paraphrase Dr. Erwin, it’s time for board members to take “an honest look in the mirror” and muster “the courage to admit mistakes” when everybody’s watching and somebody’s definitely going to be embarrassed. This is when today’s educational leaders must stand up and show “the confidence to stay out of step when everybody else is marching to the wrong tune.”
“Education must empower and inspire each of our students to attain excellence, learn with passion and live with integrity.” She said it. But as Education Commissioner - a vital position for Kentucky’s future – Erwin will do no such thing.
In the midst of the on-going investigation in Illinois, the St Charles school board decided its best course was to pay her off and let her leave early. Kentucky should do the same thing.
See also in this morning's Courier-Journal under the headline, "State school board should 'walk the walk,' drop Erwin"