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.

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