Copeland is Back, But Where’s Jenkins?

Let’s start by giving the Madison School Board credit for voting unanimously to reinstate Sennett Middle School Principal Jeffrey Copeland in a special meeting last night.

Copeland, in his brief tenure at the school in September, had quickly won the respect of teachers and parents and probably students for setting high standards, backing up teachers and generally creating a solid learning environment. So, the MMSD administration fired him.

They fired him for comments inadvertently left on a voice mail in which Copeland candidly complained to a staff member about the quality of teaching candidates, specifically regarding their ability to communicate. While Copeland didn’t say so explicitly, in context it sounds like a candidate’s command of English was the issue here. Copeland is quoted as saying that the job candidate, “could barely communicate with me” and that “they’re just giving people damn jobs.” I’m at a loss to understand why that’s inappropriate, much less cause for dismissal.

So, while the Board did the right thing in the end, the whole incident raises troubling questions about what’s going on in the Doyle Building.

First, even if you think Copeland’s comments were inappropriate, there is a graduated set of responses to it. For example, you might start with a conversation about making sure you’ve hung up the phone. Instead, the District went straight to DEF CON ONE. They fired him.

Second, again even if you concede Copeland made a mistake, why didn’t the District balance that with all the things he was doing on the ground to actually improve the school? Where was the sense of balance and proportion? In short, where was the judgement?

Madisonians would be excused for not recognizing this man. He’s their schools superintendent.

Third, and I’ve asked this question before, where was Superintendent Carlton Jenkins? It’s telling that the letter to Copeland dismissing him came from one of Jenkins’ subordinates and Jenkins’ name does not appear in news stories about any of this. If he played any role at all in last night’s meeting it was not noted in this morning’s story. He apparently didn’t even issue a statement.

Fourth, and most importantly, what does this all reveal about the thinking within the Doyle Building? It reveals a hyper-sensitivity to anything that might be construed, even in somebody’s wildest dreams, as racist. It reveals an attitude that places standards of student behavior and good order in our schools well below other priorities. It reveals a value system that puts students in the driver’s seat and devalues and disempowers teachers.

The problems we have in our schools don’t originate with the students. To the extent they misbehave or act out, well, they’re kids. The problem is not with the teachers. Most of them are dedicated to their profession and to their students. In most cases, I would guess that the problem is not even with the school principals, though many of them probably feel their hands are tied from above.

And, much to my surprise, the problem may not be as much with the elected School Board as I had previously thought, though I hope this whole incident causes them to rethink the tone they have set.

The problem starts with the central administration and at the very top with the mysterious Carlton Jenkins.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

7 thoughts on “Copeland is Back, But Where’s Jenkins?

  1. I have seen Copeland described as a friend of Jenkins (they worked together in Atlanta). So it is possible Jenkins has purposely stayed at arms length to avoid introducing personal bias.

    It is also possible that Jenkins doesn’t have the spine to stand up to the true believers in the MMSD admin. How deep does the rot go? Angie Hicks is likely the tip of the iceberg.

    Will the local media dig into it? Again there is the spine problem.

    Also apropos of nothing I can’t believe the national and local media (looking at you Channel 15) is still celebrating cutting down trees for Christmas. “What a magnificent tree! Let’s kill it!”

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  2. The school board hired Jenkins, they’re supposed to supervise him, they don’t get to wash their hands of his problems.

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  3. Increasingly, superintendents that are not home grown or not fully committed to linking their destiny to the district’s/community’s destiny engage exactly as you are seeing Jenkins working. Always defer to the media relations team, have an assistant or deputy superintendent be the face of nearly every problem facing the district and keep one’s head down. This is a well known strategy among superintendents that move from state to state – drifters in the slang of search firms. The questions are:
    1. Did the Board understand this was part of the plan. In most cases at least the Board President does but getting them to admit it is tough.
    2. How long with the minions taking the hits continue on? Usually, most are on the track to become “drifters” or are so they will take the hit.
    3. Eventually the mistakes of the superintendent add up. They also often do not understand the community because they aren’t of it nor have little interest or professional gain to develop it. They are drifters and will be moving on soon.
    4. The superintendent owns the decision to terminate and now see Copeland reinstated. They may be friends. More likely, a better term would be ally.
    5. School boards that hire these drifters understand what they are getting and often like them as they are disposable, give the board more ability to govern and micro manage, and a foil as things inevitably go south.
    6. The district used to bring in home grown or Wisconsin focused superintendents. The last one from Green Bay still lives in the region, but was over their head from the start. He now places superintendents with a search firm and keeping the status quo moving forward – something Madison rejected.
    7. The UW Madison connection can’t be underestimated either with the school of education offering retirement posts to ex Madison superintendents. Chatter coming from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy is the district is struggling.

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