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On my Facebook page’s link to the post What Does Democracy Mean When The Outcome Of The Election Is All But Certain?, Dave Schemel wrote: “This Democracy is a corporate illusion,” to which Stan Dyer responded: “People have no one to blame but themselves when they believe democracy fails them. For one thing, it should never be considered a “large” turnout because more than half of the eligible voters find time to cast ballots. For another, we can’t put all of the burden of change on the backs of elected officials. Many changes can be enacted by ourselves in our own lives. We all have the power to treat each other equally, to recycle, to promote alternative energy, to talk to our neighbors about positive change, to lend a helping hand, to volunteer, to be a positive influence, etc., etc., etc.. Kennedy said it 50 years ago, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

I responded to both: “Well said, Stan. I do think there are roles for government that people can’t effectively perform without it, due to the nature of public goods and transaction costs. But government is our agent, and when it does not act according to our will, that is ultimately our own responsibility. When people refer to the influence of corporations over our democracy, what they mean is that because candidates know that elections hinge on expensive advertising, the need for corporate money to win campaigns makes office-holders beholden to them. But, to the extent that that’s true (which is considerable), it’s true because too many people allow themselves to be too swayed by that expensive advertising, and are not diligent enough about understanding the issues and knowing the facts.

“The failings of our democracy are not caused by those who benefit from them, but by those who participate in them. Perhaps, to some extent, the failings are in human nature itself, or perhaps just the current state of human consciousness. If corporations can undermine democracy so easily, by paying for expensive ads that people allow themselves to be swayed by, then the absence of corporate influence would only mean that electoral decisions are being made on equally shallow bases, even if influenced by other mechanisms.” Or, I would now ad, “even if surrendering their sovereignty to other overlords.”

I’m facing an example of this vis-a-vis Jefferson County Public Schools right now. Several months ago, I formed the South Jeffco Community Organization, and suggested as a first project the development of a robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring program for South Jeffco kids. It made sense to try to organize such a program in cooperation with Jeffco Schools. Cindy Stevenson’s first reaction, in a Columbine Courier article on the project (http://www.lcni5.com/cgi-bin/c2.cgi?038+article+News+20100420190738038038001), was mildly dismissive (in what I’ve come to know as her style of always sounding open to ideas that she is going to do everything in her power to obstruct).

I’ve since spoken at a School Board meeting, met with Holly Anderson (area superintendent for South Jeffco), met with SJCO members, worked with another SJCO member who compiled a list of volunteers, and complied with requests to distance myself from the project so that Jeffco Schools could avoid any appearance of political favoritism (by actually engaging in politically motivated disfavoritism). But it became increasingly apparent that Jeffco Schools was shining us on, in the end telling us to write a letter to our volunteers suggesting they contact their local schools and offer to volunteer in the classroom, something we and they could have done without Jeffco Schools’ involvement.

In an exchange of emails with Cindy Stevenson, she continued to barrage me with empty assurances, insisting that Jeffco Schools loves having volunteers in the schools, has many, and so on and so forth. But the vision she kept anchoring these assurances in was one of a small trickle of volunteers into the occasional classroom, helping out teachers in very marginal ways. My vision of a robust school-community partnership was clearly not anywhere within the range of possibilities she was willing to entertain (a range basically limited to her own preferences and predilections only).

Rather than play the role she had written for me, of letting her politely stonewall me while wasting my energy accomplishing nothing, I started to challenge her, referring to “the dysfunctional status quo” and “the Kabuki theater of faddish professional development workshops”. As a result of challenging her, I received an aggressive letter from a school district lawyer, stating that Dr. Stevenson will not work with me as a community partner.

In the response I will send to School Board after the election, I write:

[I[f the Jeffco Schools administration refuses to work with me as a community partner, volunteering my time and energy in the hopes of improving our schools, on the basis of my . . . criticisms of some aspects of how Jefferson County Schools is being run, that is a decision over which I have no control, except to insist that it is a violation of the district administration's essentially fiduciary duty to its stakeholders (Dr. Stevenson manages the school district in trust on our behalf), and to strongly urge that the administration either change or be changed. Dr. Stevenson's strong-arm attempt to exclude the participation of an interested and knowledgeable Jeffco parent, on the flimsy basis that that parent had the gall to be critical of her, merely serves as further confirmation of the accuracy of my observations, and the legitimacy of my concerns.

In a democracy, constituents have a right to take an interest in, comment on, and even criticize particular policies and particular government officials, when it is their considered belief that those policies are contrary to the interests of the people on whose behalf they have been implemented, or those officials are acting in interests other than the interests of the principal whose agent they are. Despite Dr. Stevenson's insistence to the contrary, I have every right to make such observations about Jeffco schools, and about Dr. Stevenson herself, without losing my status as a member of this community, and a parent of a Jeffco Schools student....

In accord with my past experience and observations, and numerous confidences shared with me by others, it appears to me that being directly or indirectly critical of Dr. Stevenson (or those she has hand-picked to serve her will), or placing the interests of students above allegience to her, is an invitation to be aggressively targeted. One might speculate that it is precisely this autocratic tendency which motivates her to be so opposed to implementing any truly robust partnership with the community.

As a Jeffco resident and father of a Jeffco student, however, I have a right and a responsibility to take an active interest in how my school district is being run. I will continue to be a vocal community advocate for the implementation of a robust school-community partnership, which I believe is very much in the best interests of our students and of our communities. And I will continue to advocate for fundamental improvements in my school district’s administration, reducing the degree to which internal politics undermines the effectiveness of the school district in delivering the highest quality educational services, and reducing the degree to which ritualism preserves a sub-optimal status quo. These are goals that all people sincerely committed to improving the quality of our schools should find completely uncontroversial….

The only issue at hand is the quality of our school district, and the only questions to be addressed involve the merits of what I am advocating, and the accuracy of my concerns about what internal district dynamics are obstructing consideration and implementation of such proposals on the merits. I am not asking for a seat at some internal school district table from which I can be excluded (as Dr. Stevenson seems to believe); I am taking my seat at the table to which I already belong, that of a Jeffco resident and parent. This is our school district, and Cindy Stevenson is our employee. 

Here’s the point: Cindy Stevenson does not succeed at being an autocratic local ruler because of corporate backers, or big money, but rather because of constituent complacency and inattention. It may be that Dr. Stevenson’s talents are more beneficial than her autocratic tendencies are costly, but that is a calculation that the public should consciously and knowledgeably make, not one they should surrender to Dr. Stevenson’s own political maneuvering. But the public is oblivious to what many who work in the district have long known: It is a crony-ridden fiefdom, with many talented people chased out and several egregiously incompetent or counterproductively overbearing ones retained and promoted due only to their personal loyalty to Dr. Stevenson.

Why would the people of Jefferson County surrender their sovereignty, surrender their school district, to an autocrat? Why would the school board that represents the people allow this to happen? The answer to the former question is that the residents of Jefferson County (or any other county) just don’t care enough to take an active role in the governance of their school district, and the answer to the latter is that, knowing that they just don’t care enough, the question for the Board isn’t whether the superintendent is an autocrat, but rather how effective an autocrat she is.

Jeffferson County Schools is a microcosm of the nation. We surrender our sovereignty by either apathy or ignorance (or, usually, both), because the former allows government to serve those who serve it, and the latter, even if not accompanied by apathy, only adds the challenge of disinformation and manipulation to the nexus of power. It does not return it to our hands. Recovering it again is no mean feat. It requires a commitment to well-informed robust participation, something that is currently in far too short supply.

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  • I should add that there are occasional successful local popular uprisings among Jeffco Schools stakeholders, such as the recent ones surrounding proposed school closings. These occur when local interests are severely threatened, and there is enough community spirit in that particular neighborhood to support such an effort. But they are like peasant uprisings in an essentially feudal system, rather than a sustained participatory role.

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