An Explanation . . . Maybe a Little Late

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," February 1, p. 11A

Are you occasionally irritated by this and other newspaper columns?

Good. You're supposed to be.

This is column No. 35 in an every-other-Tuesday series that began Oct.12, 1998. Some 26,000 words later, half way through my three-year School Board term, may be a little late to start explaining it.

But let's give it a try anyway.

Most public officials of my acquaintance, from the schoolhouse to the White House, struggle with constituent communication. We are cheerleaders for democracy.

We try to encourage your participation.

State Senator Joe Bolkcom produces the innovative and informative cable program Iowa News and Views. Many officials have newsletters. School Board members serve on committees, attend meetings, make talks and hold meetings in schools.

E-mail and Web pages make the process easier for some. And this column is, in one sense, just one more example.

I suffer no illusions about my ability as a columnist or the number of readers.

Indeed, the column that suggested we could become the nation's preeminent writing district inspired one of our more experienced and able language arts teachers to use all the red pencils in her building editing my errors before throwing the column back at me.

Mostly sentence fragments.

More serious than the bad example I set for our students' writing is the occasional confusion -- even mild panic -- that sometimes follows a column. Are the provocative ideas in a Press-Citizen column about to be unilaterally and immediately imposed by me on all students, parents and teachers?

Reason is an endangered species in any environment. It disappears entirely in the presence of fear.

So I will repeat what we all know in our rational moments.

This is a column. It is only a column. It is written by me. As a columnist. It is neither inspired nor reviewed -- let alone written -- by seven board members.

The School Board only speaks through documents formally adopted at official board meetings.

Even if I do not aspire to their column-writing skills, I do admire the great practitioners of the art. Mark Twain. Lincoln Steffans. Finley Peter Dunne. H. L. Mencken. They wrote as if they believed the admonition that, "The purpose of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Chuck Baldwin, Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Donald Kaul, Ralph Nader, among others, carry on the tradition.

Columns are not news. They are not advocacy. They are not public relations releases. They are not education.

Columns are supposed to be creative, provocative, entertaining, maddening, insightful and innovative.

Mike Deupree, a columnist in another local paper, adds that columnists "tell people how to run their lives and businesses, second-guess, give advice, and make bold sweeping statements."

Coal miners used to take a canary into the mine. If the canary died it was time to get out. Donald Kaul tells me the ideas floated in my columns are like those canaries. Many will die in the community's environment.

Not only do these columns not constitute board opinion, let alone action, they do not even represent my own positions as a board member.

Board members are elected to make the tough decisions. We can't delegate that responsibility. But before a formal vote all of the present School Board members, myself included, want to hear from staff and administrators, parents, students and other stakeholders.

We need your expertise.

We want your opinions.

We're quite willing to change ours.

Even if I could -- and I can't -- I wouldn't want to impose upon this school district, without thorough evaluation, the provocative ideas of a columnist.

Especially if that columnist is me.

There is no subject more vital to our community's welfare than the quality of our schools.

It deserves our best research, analysis, dreaming, brainstorming and debate.

This column, like my School Board service itself, comes from my lifetime of affection for this community and its potential -- including my pride in our schools.

The columns' purposes are three-fold. (1) To encourage community awareness and discussion about K-12 education generally. To help keep the subject before us; (2) To help stimulate others' creative thought and innovation about K-12 issues and the options open to us; and (3) To provide yet one more avenue of communication from a school board member to the public.

Rather than canaries, I like to think of these columns as the grain of sand in the oyster. I provide the sand, you produce the pearls.

Their value is for others to judge -- and to bring about.

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.