Unnecessary acrimony: the Christmas music flap in Wausau
This from today’s Wausau Daily Herald:
WAUSAU — Members of the Wausau School Board likely will meet in the coming weeks to discuss a directive sent by district officials to limit religious music performed during December holiday concerts.
Following a Daily Herald Media story that reported the Master Singers choir group would disband as a result of the limits, and that Wausau elementary schools pushed their holiday concerts to the spring, School Board members say they have yet to meet and discuss the issue.
Phil Buch has directed Wausau West High School’s choir programs since 1981. According to the Daily Herald Media report, Buch made the decision to temporarily disband the Master Singers, an elite high school group, after a Thursday meeting with district officials.
Buch said district administrators gave music educators at Wausau schools three options for December concerts, which typically contain a significant amount of religious music: choose five secular, or non-religious, songs for each religious song performed; hold a concert and have no holiday music; or postpone any concerts in December.
The Wausau School Board may want to move their next meeting to a larger venue, instead of further aggravating their many likely guests by cramming them into their small board room and possibly leaving scores of people seething out in the hall. They might also want to plan for a long public comment period, unless the administration backs off and makes peace with a sizable, activist chunk of their constituency in the meantime — something that would be well worth doing.
I don’t even want to wade in here on the actual decision or its merits, but it has the potential to become a national embarrassment for Wausau over the coming days. That’s because whether it was right or wrong, the original basis of the discussion has become secondary. “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial objective was to drain the swamp,” as they say.
This didn’t need to happen. Working with public communications and policy, I try to get people to ask themselves a couple of questions before they do or say things:
- Where do we want to go?
- What will help us get there and what might prevent us from safely arriving?
Those questions can form the beginning of a plan, but as simple as it seems, it’s frequently ignored and this particular situation is a great example. This was a policy decision, but it is not clear that it was actually made by policymakers, the elected members of the school board. It looks like there was an insufficient effort to gain input or support from those expected to implement the decision at the individual schools and then those folks were left in the unenviable position of being a primary point of contact for the inevitable public fallout. This flies in the face of something that the school district lists as one of its key interests:
“Inform and engage the community in shaping educational strategy and formulating responses to change.”
Is this change? Yes. Is it shaping educational strategy? Yes. Was the community involved in formulating a response to change? No – but they’re sure responding to it now. The initial story in the Daily Herald drew more than 300 online comments, which is huge for their site.
So, the district came up with a solution to something that a lot of people don’t yet see as a problem. They insisted on nearly immediate implementation. The administration apparently sent an attorney with a restrictive formula of secular to religious-themed music in holiday concert programs to tell educators — including a highly regarded music instructor with more than 30 years of experience — about how things were going to be. The music scholar objected very straightforwardly and he disbanded an extra-curricular choir, rather than deal with the new rule about how it will be allowed to perform. Want to guess who people sided with?
As Tip O’Neill used to say, “Political costs are real costs.” A significant amount of political capital has already been spent on this one and even if the district wins its point, it’s not likely to be worth the cost. (O’Neill also famously said that “all politics is local” and that seems to apply pretty well here, too.)
So, let’s go back to where we want to be when this is over and I’ll toss out a provisional policy goal; something we should have already heard very clearly by now, but I’m not sure that we have. We want to have a public school system that is welcoming to people of all religious faiths (or none) and that doesn’t alienate minorities by forcing them to endure or participate in religious activities. If the current practice is doing that, then it would be good to provide some examples and illustrations that people can relate to – some evidence – that there is actually an issue. We want to show people what is inappropriate and why. This is the “inform” part of informing and engaging. I’m open minded enough to believe that there really could be an issue and that a remedy might be in order. But I’ve yet to hear a solid case for the district’s edict of a 5-to-1 ratio.
As for “engage,” the community is definitely ENGAGED. Unfortunately, it is not engaged in dealing with the issue that the school district administration sought to address. It is more engaged with trying to figure out how to repudiate or replace the people who blind-sided them with a decision that seemed to come out of left field or to get their children into parochial schools over something as relatively insignificant as the choice of songs at what many still see as the Christmas concert.
This issue is now ripe for pandering and holiday concerts aren’t the only thing that goes on in December. It’s also when candidates gather nomination signatures for school board seats that are up for election in April. Wausau’s board has already had an Americans for Prosperity-sponsored candidate win a seat on the current board and this is a great way to get more. The school district should be grateful that they don’t have a bond issue up for a referendum.
All of this gets to the “What will help us get there?” question and the context is now much larger than what kind of music is selected for holiday programs that may not even be happening this year. The answer is pretty simple: “Not this.”
Walk. It. Back.
The district needs to respond quickly and effectively, recognizing that giving a relatively negative story the entire weekend to fester out there is not the best place to be working from. The court of public opinion has been in session for days and the district has barely shown up.
- Prepare and distribute a public statement as soon as possible. (A perfect answer on Wednesday or Thursday won’t be nearly as valuable as a good response the first thing Monday morning.)
- Express regret for the turmoil that the decision has caused and admit that it should have been handled differently. (Enunciating these self-evident facts will help defuse the situation.)
- If it’s not too late already, give the people back their holiday concerts with no changes for this year. (You may as well concede that whatever benefits the new policy could have brought are now being overshadowed by the hard feelings of attempting to implement it under conditions that have made it exceedingly unpopular. It is therefore having the exact opposite effect of its original intent. This issue is not a crisis and there is no need to make it into one.)
- Express a coherent policy goal and why it is worthy of widespread support by reasonable people of good will. Outline how it can be thoughtfully considered by going back to the drawing board with the issue and developing policy options with a broad group of stakeholders that includes music educators.
So that’s my free advice and it’s worth every penny. And if the House Republicans should choose to take a little of that to heart as they try to extract themselves from a far more serious and dysfunctional situation that they have placed themselves in, then that would be just fine by me, too.
UPDATE: An online petition has gathered more than 1,300 signatures and counting:
How to get your school district on FOX News:
UPDATE: The Wausau School District Board of Education has set a special meeting for Thursday, Oct. 10, 6:30 p.m. in the Wausau East High School auditorium to discuss the holiday music flap:
UPDATE: Packed house fights Wausau School District’s religious music rules; board reverts to prior policy:
Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly on FOX News on the Wausau School District holiday music flap:
Wausau Daily Herald editorial: Hearing was Democracy in Action –
UPDATE: Wausau School District releases a list of Master Singer songs that sparked a firestorm of controversy:
What it looked liked (Wausau Daily Herald Photo)
UPDATE: School Board sets performance review of Superintendent:
And The Daily Caller weighs in:
UPDATE: Wausau School Board looks for outside investigator on music uproar: