Culture Clash and Accommodation
Frederick S. Buchanan
“Taking It a Year at a Time”
The Administration of John W. Bennion, 1985-94
[p.245]The months immediately following Don Thomas’s resignation saw the district in some disarray as its affairs were administered by a brief succession of temporary replacements. Everyone involved was pleased when in the spring of 1985, the board finally settled on a permanent replacement—the superintendent of the Provo, Utah, district, Dr. John W Bennion.
John Warren Bennion was born in Salt Lake City in 1936 into a home that exuded commitment to education. His grandfather, Milton Bennion, for many years had served as Dean of the University of Utah School of Education. His parents, Katherine Snow and M. Lynn Bennion, were deeply involved in the educational and cultural life of the community, his father serving 24 years as superintendent after having administered the LDS church’s seminary programs. The Bennions lived next to the University of Utah, and John spent his first six years as a student at the progressive William Stewart School, the “lab school” located on the university campus, after which he attended Bryant Junior High and East High School. Restless to begin his higher education, he left East after his junior year and enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Utah. His university experience was interrupted by a two and one-half year “mission” for the LDS church in West Germany after which he completed his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English (with a teaching certificate) in 1961.
Bennion’s first teaching assignment in the neighboring Granite School District was to organize and teach experimental courses in philosophy and social ethics, which his grandfather Milton had done at the University of Utah in the early 1900s. The data collected during this experience became the basis for his Master’s thesis in history and philosophy of education. In 1962 he received his Master of Arts degree from the Department of Educational Administration.
The following year, Bennion married one of his former philosophy students at Granite High School, Sylvia Lustig, and shortly thereafter accepted an assistantship to study for a Ph.D. in philosophy of education at Ohio State University in Columbus. Concerned, like his grandfather, that theory be relevant to real life issues, he eventually shifted his focus from the philosophy of education and decided to work toward a degree in the Department of Educational Administration. His Ph.D. was awarded in 1966.
From 1966 to 1968, he served as an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum in Elgin, Illinois. In 1968 he was appointed as Assistant Professor at the Uni-[p.247]versity of Indiana in Bloomington but left after less than a year; academic life was not how he wanted to spend the rest of his career. He much preferred to be on the front line administering public schools rather than teaching others how to administer them.
John W. Bennion, 1985-94
[p.247]In June 1969 he was chosen as superintendent of Brighton, New York, a small district with a heavily Jewish population and an unabashed commitment to supporting the public schools serving its 4,500 students. The small-scale enterprise meant that Bennion was able to develop a close working relationship with the principals, whose role he envisioned as being more akin to instructional leaders than system managers. Another benefit was that bureaucracy was minimal. Brighton gave Bennion the opportunity to try out some of his ideas on curriculum development, and he, his wife, and their two sons put down their roots as relatively permanent residents.
During his tenure at Brighton, Bennion was appointed to the superintendency three times by the board’s unanimous vote, and not once did the community fail to support the annual budget requests (and tax increases) he asked for. He also continued to communicate his thoughts on contemporary school issues. Reflecting his continued interest in philosophy as a means of understanding and dealing with the real world of teacher negotiations, curriculum development, and educational reform, he contributed an article to School and Society that spelled out his ideal relationship between the reflective, detached perspective of the philosopher and the “nitty-gritty” demands made by the school system.1
Bennion also administered the affairs of the LDS ward in Rochester, New York. Being bishop broadened and deepened his commitment to his religious community; he found opportunities to assist LDS people struggling with their religious orientation in a secular world far from the supportive environment of Utah. As a member of the LDS church, he was forced to confront the church’s practice of excluding males of African descent from the ranks of its lay priesthood. In an appearance before the New York State Civil Rights Commission to answer charges of bias relating to the employment of an African-American teacher, Bennion satisfactorily made the point that his actions as an administrator, not the belief system of the church to which he belonged, should be the criteria by which he was judged. The commission found no evidence of racism in his administration.2
For Bennion, ten to twelve years as superintendent in one location is probably a maximum. He believed that change of challenges and perspectives benefits both the institution and the individual. Accordingly, in 1979 he accepted a posi-[p.248]tion as superintendent in Bloomington, Minnesota. The family (now consisting of five boys) uprooted itself with some difficulty from New York, in the second year of a three-year contract. The minutes of the Brighton Board of Education recorded that “he will be greatly missed” and that he left with the Board’s best wishes.3 The process of leaving what had become a genuine home was more traumatic than the family expected, and they hesitated to put down their roots as deeply in Bloomington as they had in Brighton. After a year in Minnesota, Bennion was praised for centralizing the delivery of educational services and for increasing contact between principals and teachers. He was also cited for dealing with community problems, including enrollments that were falling fast, schools that had to be closed, and teachers laid off. In a “system fraught with difficulties for a school administrator,” he had “established himself as a good listener, as well as one who acts decisively once he has all the facts.”4
In spite of what appears to have been a successful first year in Bloomington, questions about the new assignment arose. Bennion realized that Bloomington, with some 16,000 students, had a more entrenched bureaucracy than he liked and less personal contact with principals and schools. Consequently, when the superintendency in Provo, Utah, opened up during the first year in Bloomington, Bennion decided to investigate the possibilities of returning to Utah. A visit to Provo and two interviews with the board convinced him that the district was interested in developing “high-quality educational programs,” and when the board expressed interest in having him come to Provo, he accepted. The family had scarcely unpacked their boxes in Bloomington when they were on the road again, enacting a sort of reverse diaspora, returning to their homeland after receiving higher degrees and professional experience outside of Utah.5
The Proving Ground of Provo
Given Bennion’s basic interest in curriculum, instruction, and staff development, he quickly found in Provo an excellent opportunity to try out some of his skills. In his estimation, curriculum development in the district had been haphazard, with pockets of excellence here and there in which good principals and teachers had taken it upon themselves to be innovative. On the other hand, the less capable principals and teachers were doing only mediocre work, with no sense of accountability Drawing on his experiences in Brighton and Bloomington, Bennion began implementing “effective teaching” programs in Provo. One surprise he discovered in Provo, which had not been mentioned in the board interviews, was that the district had a deficit of some $900,000. His plans to implement new programs were seriously threatened by the lack of resources. His immediate need was either to raise taxes or cut the existing programs.6
[p.249]After deciding to pursue a tax increase in October 1981, Bennion received a second surprise: in spite of much rhetoric about Utah’s commitment to children’s needs, most Provo citizens firmly opposed any tax increase. This outright opposition came to Bennion as something of a “cultural shock.” Among the largely Jewish population in Brighton the annual school budget had invariably been passed, usually by a two to one margin. For the first time in his career as a superintendent he now heard charges of “inefficiency, waste and fat” being hurled against the schools. More troubling was the outright “denial of real need in the district.” In Brighton the people had held him and the schools to high expectations, but they were also willing to match their level of expectation with high financial support, something Provo residents were not willing to do. As a consequence the leeway levy was defeated, with 54 percent of the voters saying “No to the tax increase.7
Bennion saw the lack of support as rooted in an almost endemic skepticism about government in general and public schools in particular. For Utahns, government seemed to be an alien institution out to get citizens’ money. Conversely, in New York and Minnesota “the attitude was more that the government is us and the means of collectively doing things that we can’t individually do for ourselves that are important for us.”8 Frequently at budget hearings in Brighton he would hear people ask “Are we doing enough?” instead of protests that “We’re trying to do too much.”
Bennion also saw the reluctance to support schools as tied to the economics of having large families, supporting Mormon missionaries, and paying tithing to the LDS church, in addition to a desire to have the material artifacts of the “good life”—campers, boats, and such. Given their financial priorities, Bennion believed many probably couldn’t afford a tax increase and that they used “inefficiency and waste” to justify their unwillingness or inability to increase taxes. A certain provincialism also operated in Provo—those who had experienced well-funded school systems outside the state were more willing to support increased funding, while those who had lived in Utah all their lives often did not realize the importance of smaller classes, improved libraries, and the materials and support services necessary to ensure an adequate school system. The people in Brighton, New York, would have considered Provo’s schools as “in many ways an educational disaster area; they wouldn’t tolerate them.”9
When a second attempt the following month to raise the tax base lost by a larger margin than the first (57 percent), Bennion realized something dramatic had to be done to break the logjam.10 If public funds were to be made available, voters had to be convinced that the schools were taking seriously the questions raised during the leeway campaign. At this time, the notion of “career ladders” was being discussed in Utah as a way of increasing teacher earnings, and Ben-[p.250]nion helped develop the legislation that was put into effect in every district in 1984. Before it became a statewide practice, however, Bennion recognized it as a way of resolving his funding problems.
One aspect of the career ladder proposal, known as the “Job Enlargement Component,” held that pay could be significantly enhanced if teachers were able to work longer than the traditional nine months. Standing alone, this might never have been accepted, but Bennion grafted the notion on to another innovation—the year-round school. He proposed that the Provo School District could save money by establishing a number of year-round schools in place of constructing new buildings. The money not used for bricks and mortar could be channelled into pay for those teachers who opted to work beyond the traditional academic year.
The Provo Chamber of Commerce was enthusiastic, and voters were asked to approve this “efficiency” measure. Citizens approved the new arrangement by a two-thirds majority, and Provo became the first district in Utah to establish year-round schools and fully finance the career ladder.11 The district and Bennion received statewide recognition. A joint project involving Brigham Young University’s college of education also showed promise as a creative approach to preparing teachers and administrators. In 1984 the professional journal Executive Educator designated Bennion as one of the nation’s top 100 public school executives. His work in Provo was apparently resonating with national interests.
When the Salt Lake superintendency opened up late in 1984, Bennion had already made a strong contribution to the Provo schools and was not looking for a new position. His reluctance to uproot his family once again added to his mixed feelings about applying. In spite of his reluctance, he did see some advantages to Salt Lake, including a much larger financial base. With this, he knew the district could supply some of the things necessary for an enriched programs, including computers, more textbooks, and other supplies. He also liked the district’s programs for accelerated learners, full-time elementary librarians, lower class sizes, and the higher salaries for teachers. It was still a far cry from what he had been accustomed to in New York and Minnesota, but it was considerably better than Provo, convincing him to become, initially at least, an “informal” candidate for the position.
For his first interview, Bennion went to Denver, preventing undue publicity and speculation. Later, one to one contacts with acting superintendent George Brooks and business manager, Gary Harmer, encouraged him to pursue the possibilities further. The board itself visited Provo and discussed Bennion’s performance there with the staff, board members, and parents.
One of Bennion’s major concerns was the lack of a cohesive district-wide curriculum—a natural result of the decentralizing tendencies inherent in shared governance. Bennion told the board that he would want more “continuity and articulation” in the district curriculum. He talked about “developing opportunities for teachers to enlarge their repertoire of teaching skills” and his desire to [p.251]promote the career ladder concept in Salt Lake City The board liked his perspectives, and eventually invited him to accept, as the unanimous choice of the board, the superintendency of Salt Lake City School District.
In March 1985, John Bennion assumed complete responsibility for the district schools—only sixteen years after his father had retired from the same position. In his acceptance speech to the board on 8 January 1985, Bennion joked that perhaps he, too, should retire immediately, after having received much praise in Provo. He also said he hoped to bring about “a genuine educational mecca in the Salt Lake District.”Little did he know then that in the ensuing years, “retirement” would indeed become more attractive and that the pilgrimage to mecca would be almost indefinitely postponed.12
On the Educational Frontier
When Bennion interviewed for the Salt Lake City position, he did not get the impression that the board had any particular problems they wished him to deal with. He was, of course, familiar with shared governance, and it was Bennion’s view that the system contributed to variance between schools’ responses to the state core curriculum—particularly in light of reforms Utah and other states were busy implementing in the aftermath of the Nation at Risk report of 1983. In essence, the report claimed America suffered deteriorating academic quality in public schools and that this “rising tide of mediocrity” had destroyed the gains made in the aftermath of the Sputnik-inspired reforms of the mid 1950s. Linking America’s trade deficit with Japan and declines in “the intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people” to the lack of high academic standards in the schools, the report called for a return to the basics, which it saw as the best way to meet the needs of the nation and its students.13
Bennion became superintendent just as the reform movement of the early 1980s got underway, and much of what he did must be seen in the context of this “back to basics” movement. He was not, however, simply indulging in a knee-jerk reaction to these “new” demands. To say the least, the connection between the U. S. trade deficit and its public schools is tenuous, and many educators rejected other conclusions of the Nation at Risk report as well. While we were students at Ohio State University in the 1960s Bennion raised questions with me about the problems inherent in having schools assume responsibilities for all of society’s ills. Sensitive as he was to the progressive notion of schools helping to bring about a good society, he was convinced that expecting too much of the schools resulted in essential basics being ignored. By “basics” Bennion certainly did not mean a return to rote learning. His notion of “basics” involved higher order thinking skills and dispositions. A major aim of schooling should be to promote in students the ability to think logically, clearly, and creatively so they [p.252]can deal with increasingly complex ideas. Without some proficiency in this area long-term success would evade students after they left school. At first blush, this may be seen as a typically middle-class formulation of the aims of education, but Bennion did not limit its applicability to the college bound or those from the East side.
Like Mortimer Adler in his Paidiea Proposal, Bennion holds that everyone could benefit from raising her or his intellectual capabilities. Thus, to deny minority students equal access to “critical thinking” was to practice an insidious form of racism. For John Bennion, “the real frontier in American public education” was the challenge to improve the effectiveness of education in the lives of the urban “at risk population.” He was intrigued to know whether a lack of “supportive home and neighborhood environment” could be compensated for by schools, thus “break[ing] the cycle of poverty, ignorance and despair” endemic in urban populations, including Salt Lake City’s. The possibility of facing these challenges in his home town had attracted him to the superintendency there in the first place.14
Bennion is enough of a realist to recognize that many of the problems that beset students do not originate in the schools. He is also something of an idealist (with a pragmatic bent), in his belief that if schools limit themselves to focusing on a few basics (clear thinking and creativity, for example) they might be able at least to start the process of critical thinking in the lives of individuals. That was his reasoned faith, and it was with this perspective that he began his tenure in Salt Lake City.
Getting the Lay of the Land
In the year following Bennion’s appointment, the board of education approved a set of district-wide goals that laid out in some detail what the new superintendent hoped to accomplish. These focused on honing teachers’ skills through the popular “Effective Teaching” program; improving the evaluation process for all professional personnel; and cultivating a “close, cooperative, mutually supportive working relationship” between all segments of the district, including the refinement of the shared governance concept. In addition, major curriculum emphasis was planned in the area of mathematics in K-8, social studies, and English, with special focus upon teaching writing in all areas of the curriculum. Also included were long-term plans for a comprehensive testing program, a study of “an automated comprehensive student information management system,” and the formulation of a “comprehensive staff development program that integrates components presently operating in the district and responsive to the educational mission of the Salt Lake City schools.”15
One of the things that troubled Bennion as he became familiar with the landscape he had inherited was the “curious thing” entitled “review of services,” [p.253]part of Superintendent Thomas’s democratic efforts to make certain everyone in the district would be listened to. By simply filing a complaint with the central of-rice, someone could count on a committee being formed to investigate the issue. According to Thomas, if a person submitted a complaint they had to sign it and be willing to stand by their allegations. Nine-tenths of all complaints were dismissed at this stage because most people were not willing to pursue something that might lead to a court suit against them. The process, as Thomas had introduced it to the district, was based on the assumption that no one is perfect and that even administrators can make mistakes for which they should be called to account.16
In early conversations with the central office staff, Bennion became familiar with the process. Although he agreed about the need to address such complaints, he was troubled that the process consumed so much time. His staff reported that they spent half their time on review committees. As a result of the “review of reviews” he initiated, the process was refined and specific requirements were built into the process: the aggrieved party was required to write out the complaint in detail; arrangements were then made to have parties meet face-to-face and attempt to resolve the issue; the person under review was given the opportunity of making a written response to the initial complaint; if no resolution was reached, an third party would arbitrate, instead of having a committee discuss it. If a third party were unable to resolve the issue, a committee could be appointed. The early stages of Bennion’s plan dried up most of the complaints, reducing the energy the reviews had been consuming.17
Certainly John Bennion brought a different personality and style to the superintendent’s office. While Thomas had been gregarious and personal in his demeanor, Bennion was noticeably less so. He came out of a more reflective philosophical position and would, unlike Thomas, hesitate to give quick approval to an innovation. Bennion’s more restrained and reflective approach made it difficult for teachers and others to relate to him and his programs. He was perceived as being intellectually talented and as trying to stay above the fray of political battles. This perception was reinforced by his modifying the open-door policy of the previous administration and directing that questions should work their way through the system rather than coming immediately to him.18 His wariness about shared governance caused many teachers to fear he would “make shared governance a thing of the past.” Teachers, administrators and parents interpreted his public statements as intending to “recentralize and reprofessionalize policymaking” in the district. While principals may have seen this as a step toward freeing them from too many external restraints, teachers seemed suspicious of Bennion’s long-term aims. They feared he would reverse the degree of profes-[p.254]sional esteem and power which had accrued to them during the tenure of the former superintendent.
Bennion’s first public statement to make headlines, just a few days after he assumed the superintendency, did nothing to allay teacher fears. The news item dealt with his belief that teachers were too isolated in their classrooms. They could be helped by having meaningful evaluations by principals. Bennion’s intent was not to constrict teachers, but to lay out what he saw as a crucial dimension in improving teaching. He held that “effective teaching” was predicated upon principals transforming from plant managers into educational leaders. The proposal to involve principals directly in the classroom struck a raw nerve. Combined with Bennion’s announcement that he would be reviewing the concept of shared governance, it convinced many teachers that the Camelot of widespread innovation, shared governance, and independent professional teachers of the Thomas era were over.19
Bennion saw the career ladder reform he had implemented in Provo as a way to increase teacher performance by relating it to teacher earnings. The program’s four components, which, it was hoped, would enhance teachers’ salaries and classroom competence were performance bonus, job enlargement, extended day, and career ladder steps. Performance bonus generated the most controversy because it was tied to a system of evaluation or pay for merit. Teaching quality was supposed to be enhanced “by paying bonuses to teachers rated as the best in the school or district.” Teachers would “qualify for a bonus generally through a positive principal evaluation supplemented by additional lines of evidence that verify excellent practice.” While some districts using this type of system actually improved teacher skills, others attempted to “carry out the letter of the law,” and teacher morale plummeted.
Historically, teachers have resisted any imposition of evaluation-based pay, One Utah teacher in the 1980s responded to the career ladder plan in words typical of teacher response to any kind of merit proposal: “I didn’t apply. I know I’m a good teacher … but why should I risk the envy of my friends and colleagues for $200. For all I know, it will disappear anyway next year, but I’ll still be working with these people.”20
According to an external evaluation of Utah’s Career Ladder System done in 1987, it was precisely because “career ladders” had the potential to effect change “in such a long entrenched system of work and pay” that it stirred up such strong feelings. This analysis claimed that in spite of the controversy, career ladders [p.255]were indeed changing “the teaching profession and the ways in which schools are organized to teach students.” Because of its impact on “every teacher, principal, school and district” Utah’s Career Ladder System was identified as “a model that deserves national attention.”21
It may have deserved “national attention,” but when John Bennion became superintendent in Salt Lake in 1985, career ladder reform had not garnered much enthusiasm. Bennion’s attempts to implement it received mixed response—some Salt Lake City schools adopted it while others resisted it. In Bennion’s view, the resistance was in part due to the district’s large size and the fact that shared governance had made implementing district-wide policies more difficult. When he brought in two new central staff administrators, Jack Keegan and Mary Jean Johnson, to implement career ladders they were perceived by teachers as “too much top-down leadership infringing on [the teachers’] professional prerogatives,” a further attack upon shared governance. Resistance to Bennion’s initiatives was also rooted in an egalitarian mind set in the teaching profession that resists qualitative differentiation among teachers.22
What started as an attempt to increase cooperation among teachers instead became a matter of “pandering for dollars.” Also, bureaucracy seemed to have taken over the whole endeavor. But much worse was the effect on teacher relationships: “If my incentive for money is stronger than my need to be collegial, I’m not going to go and help you be a better teacher if in the process you are going to take the money that I want.”23
In spite of these negative responses to the career ladder program and in contrast to the direct opposition to the merit plan of the 1930s, after six years in operation a survey of 602 Utah teachers indicated considerable support for the policy, with 75.5 percent of those surveyed favoring its continuation and only 14.3 percent opposed.24 This widespread acceptance of the program is reflected in the amount of money which was made available to the district as a result of its being implemented. The largest percentage of Salt Lake City’s share in the state appropriation (46 percent) was used to enhance “Career Ladder Steps,” which were designed to offset the traditional tendency for teachers to gain salary increases by leaving the classroom and becoming administrators. Under this component, teachers were given differentiated professional status on a number of levels: Level 1 being “Provisional Teachers”; Level 2, “Career Educator”; Level 3, “Teacher Specialist”; and Level 4, “Teacher Leader.” In five years it was theoretically possible for faculty to reach the top level and receive around $4,360 extra salary. The downside was that not everyone could possibly become a teacher leader—only about ten percent.
What had been heralded in the 1980s as something to resolve the issue of [p.256]teacher accountability changed within a decade from being a “wildfire” of educational reform in 29 states to a “movement” in only seven states, including Utah. In some states the program had been legislated but not funded and in others different aspects of the career ladder idea were being implemented. While there was noticeable lack of uniformity in implementing the idea nationwide, in 1991 more than a half billion dollars was paid to teachers through various aspects of the plan.25 Whether the program was actually making teachers more accountable may be open to question, but teachers were getting more money through it.
A 1987 study of the program in Utah recommended that the program should be continued, but the merit pay component should be eliminated. The competition involved “elicits more negative than positive responses from those it seeks to motivate.” Other aspects of the program were recommended for retention and further development with “Job Redesign” helping redistribute salaries as well as improving “performance and retention of teachers.” “Job Expansion” was deemed to be of value because it seemed to have a positive effect on teaching performance, although it did not “alter salary or status reward.” The “Extended Contract” was judged similarly. This study emphasized that the program’s success depended on the availability of “effective administrative leadership”: “School administrators must exert leadership to ensure” that such issues as the credibility of those rewarded as well as the “inherent energy drain” related to the process “are thoughtfully and successfully addressed.”26
One crucial question persists: Did the Career Ladder Program have any impact on students? The study just cited did not deal with the issue and in the view of one of the researchers “career ladders only have an impact when the activities being paid for are directly tied to the core functions of teaching and learning in schools and provide teachers with leadership opportunities.”27
Just as John Bennion was getting geared up to promote the career ladder concept in Salt Lake City, it was overshadowed by the need to consider closing a high school.28 In the early 1970s, economic realities not only derailed Arthur Wiscombe’s educational agenda, they led to his dismissal. Even as Wiscombe closed elementary schools, there was intermittent, guarded talk of closing South High; as early as 1969 one real estate agent was telling persons buying homes in the South High district that the school might be turned into a community college. Seventeen years later, when John Bennion was faced with a similar predicament, it almost ended his tenure as superintendent in Salt Lake City.29
Maneuvering in “an Emotional Mine Field”
[p.257]During his interviews with the board Bennion had received the distinct impression that the public hearings on open enrollments during the last years of the Thomas “had put the issue [of closing a high school] to rest.” Bennion was all too familiar with the difficulties Arthur Wiscombe had faced when he began closing schools between 1969 and 1973. If Bennion had been told he was expected to close a high school, he would have respectfully declined the proffered position. He enjoyed challenges but he was not inclined to martyrdom.
Nevertheless, he had barely gotten his feet on the ground by 1986—implementing career ladders and other reforms—when in the summer and fall of 1986 he and the board began to set the stage for one of the most divisive political struggles the district had ever experienced. Closing a high school, and the boundary changes it heralded, loomed on the educational horizon until it eclipsed everything else he was attempting to do. The ensuing struggle even made him question whether he should continue as superintendent.30
From a purely economic perspective, Salt Lake’s high schools were grossly inefficient: they all offered expensive programs in languages, science, mathematics, and history. At South and West, some of the advanced placement courses only had five or six students enrolled. In addition, many of the district’s overall high school programs lacked the critical mass necessary for an effective learning environment.
These problems, compounded with increasing statewide pressures to cut back on funding, convinced the board that unless programs could be made more efficient, the district’s entire secondary program would suffer. The board reached consensus on the need to close a high school sometime in the fall of 1986, and the evidence—based on programs, test scores, student numbers, the homogenous nature of the student body, and the large number of “at risk” students—gave credence to the view that South High should be that school.31 While the staff refined the bases for its recommendation, rumors about an impending closure began to spread. The board would have to go public with its intentions before they had sufficiently planned.32
“Frustration and Resentment”
On 1 February 1987 Bennion recorded that he was “struggling with a number of difficult problems at work.” First was the need to find a new location for the open classroom program, since patrons and teachers at Rosslyn Heights had requested it be moved out of that building. The other issue was the need to close [p.258]one of the high schools. On this Bennion wrote: “We are moving rapidly towards announcing a plan to close a school and put students now attending 5 high school bldgs. into 4 bldgs. It will stir up controversy and opposition. Just how much, I don’t know. On top of all that the state is in great financial difficulty and the legislature right now seems more inclined to make cuts than to raise taxes.”33 Linking the need to close a high school to the state’s financial exigencies was, no doubt, a response to a recently proposed legislative plan to force school districts to be more efficient. Under this legislative mandate, districts that did not fill their schools to at least 70 percent capacity would be denied state appropriations for insurance and utilities. While designed with low-enrollment schools on the east side of Granite school district in mind, the plan had the potential to affect the Salt Lake district with its long-term decline.
This seems to have been on Bennion’s mind on 3 February when he made his initial public presentation on the subject. He talked about the threat to the district’s resources if insurance and utility appropriations were reduced. While enrollment had steadily dropped since the 1960s, there had been no reduction in the number of high school buildings maintained. Based on staff recommendations, Bennion announced that the board had decided to consider closing South High School. When this announcement became the stuff of headlines and TV sound bytes beginning that evening, he knew precisely how much “controversy and opposition” the proposal had stirred up.34
The rumor mill had disseminated the news before Bennion made public his plan. The principal of Highland High, Delbert Fowler, announced the closing to his faculty, and teachers at South had heard about the proposal from their cob leagues at Highland before it became a media event. The issue had already dominated classes at the school and a “feeling of despair” prevailed among students. At the board meeting, students, patrons, and teachers listened to Bennion give the economic rationale for the proposed closure. What sounded logical to Bennion and the board caused an uproar at the meeting, and no amount of assurance that this was a proposal and not a decision could assuage the ire among patrons.
The issue divided the community, East side pitted against West side, affluent vs. less affluent, a deep-seated contention in the city even if not always expressed. Ellen Marsh, a Spanish teacher at South, said South always got the hard raps. To the suggestion that closing South would give Highland and East a better ethnic mix she responded: “That’s bull. Most of the racial kids live on the West side.” Adrian Saputo was sadly confident that South—not Highland or East—would close: “If you have money, you have rule of the whole world.” Others commented after the meeting that the decision was tinged with class bias and racism. Said Rachel Howard, secretary of the sophomore class: “We’re the one that doesn’t have BMWs parked in the parking lot. We have all the minorities.” [p.259]Lori McGarvey, a cheerleader for the South High Cubs, worried that while the minority students felt welcome at South, they would have difficulty fitting into the other schools. “What’s going to happen to them?” she wondered.
One South junior, Will Potter, feared that what he wanted to say about the board could not be printed; he did manage to comment: “They’re not even going to give us a chance. They’re always slapping us down …. They just want South out.” Advantages that would accrue to the remaining schools meant little to South students. They did not believe that this was only a proposal; in the opinion of student body public relations director Kris Draper, it sounded “like they’ve already made up their minds.” Given all the studying and discussion that had preceded the announcement, it would be hard to disagree with her that there was any realistic chance that South would be spared. As Bennion and the board realized within a few days, logic had little to do with feelings of frustration and resentment that would build up in the community in the ensuing weeks.35
Part of the community resentment was rooted in the ideal of shared governance, which had made community members feel they should be involved in decision making. Although the board and Bennion did get input from ten members of the important Equivalency Sub-Committee (including representatives of all four high schools), whose report helped convince the board of South’s weaknesses, they did not follow the usual shared governance procedures, causing the chairman of South’s School Community Council, Larry Failner, to protest the decision to consider closing South. To the board president, Keith Stepan, he wrote: “[R]egardless of the ultimate decision with regard to the closing of one of the city high school facilities, the underhanded method employed by the board to announce its intent should be recorded as one of the most irresponsible acts ever perpetrated by an elected school board in the history of the state.” Failner demanded a public apology from the board for the manner in which the board had handled the issue, asking them to give assurance for a full disclosure “any future actions prior to public announcement.”
An alumnus of South, honors history teacher George Henry, was also dismayed over the manner in which the decision was made. Henry reportedly left his history class with “tears streaming down his cheeks” because he didn’t know how to explain the board’s actions to his students: “It’s really hard to teach kids that the democratic process has kind of passed them by” For him, South had played a special role in helping many kids succeed who otherwise would not, and he grieved that with its closing this role would end. Although Henry was sufficiently aware of the problems the school faced, he could not understand the board’s modus operandi. Why, Henry asked John Bennion at the stormy South High meeting, had they allowed the announcement to be heard over the TV? [p.260]This smacked of “insensitivity beyond imagination.”36
President Keith Stepan rejected the charge that the board had intentionally avoided involving community people in the decision. The district was faced with a real dilemma of either reducing programs and getting rid of teachers, or making better use of buildings. It had to act—and act fast—to stem the flow of money into unproductive programs.37 In spite of Stepan’s denial of deliberate exclusion, it seems apparent that a strategy was adopted in the board’s meetings with staff and with the Equivalency Committee of not being completely frank about what was going on. For instance, when the equivalency report was discussed at a meeting of the Highland High School Community Council on 10 December 1986, there was no hint that closing any school was in the works. The minutes simply said that the report “pointed out some strengths and weaknesses of each school. It was emphasized that the data would be used as a tool for improvement and for identification of problems.”38 It was this lack of frankness that the South High Community Council Chair objected to as being inconsistent with shared governance philosophy.
Even though it recognized closing a school was necessary, the Salt Lake Tribune chided Bennion and the board for insensitivity to community feelings. According to the Tribune, this was another instance of arbitrary decision making without consulting the people most involved—the residents. The editorial concluded: “When people most directly impacted believe they’ve been excluded from decision-making on painfully wrenching changes, achieving those changes becomes needlessly more confused, disorderly and potentially flawed. With prompt and punctual public involvement and support, however, prospects for a well-constructed transition can be considerably brighter.”39
Bennion and the board were emphatic in stressing that the recommendation had only been arrived at after intensive study and debate. The possibility of good decision making would have been destroyed if discussions from the study sessions with the board during the fall of 1986 had come out in bits and pieces, lacking context. In keeping the discussions about the issue confidential until a concrete proposal was ready, the board hoped to avoid the kind of “turmoil caused by public hearings three years ago on whether to close a high school.” According to Bennion, “There was absolutely no consensus [in 1983], and there couldn’t be in that situation. There’s too much emotion tied up in the neighborhood high school” for school community councils to arrive at a decision which in reality affects not just one school, but the whole district.40
Even a decade before the 1983 deliberations, the district’s leaders were unwilling to take a stand “against public pressure” and make a controversial deci-[p.261]sion against rebuilding East High after it burned, which seems to have exacerbated the situation for future superintendents. Again, the board avoided the issue of declining numbers in 1983 by closing enrollments, hoping against hope that this would resolve a deep-seated problem which resisted even the best democratic efforts of shared governance. The issue is succinctly summed up by an editorial comment of the Salt Lake Tribune which, in looking over the history of the issue, noted that “Short-sighted decisions by former school officials doomed South High.”41 In 1987, John Bennion wanted the board to make “long-sighted” decisions that would enhance the educational future of the Salt Lake City public schools rather than have them inherit an “emotional mine field.”42
On 15 February, Bennion recorded that the days since the announcement on South High’s future had been “extraordinary”—never had he “been involved in such an emotionally charged issue.” When he made the announcement “the effect was explosive. … Parents, teachers and students at South reacted with great emotion. I have become the target of their frustration and resentment. A petition has been circulated for my resignation.”43 Previous charges of violating shared governance agreements were repeated at public meetings at South High. When the chair of the South High School Community Council, Larry Failner, proposed that a petition be circulated calling for Bennion’s resignation it brought “a roar of approval from the audience.” Failner added a new dimension when he urged the board to hire an outside, unbiased party to examine all four high schools and come up with a recommendation.
At a 17 February board meeting, 75 placard-waving protestors crowded outside the board offices. Police had to clear them away until the meeting got underway Inside, a petition containing 1,200 names demanding Bennion’s ouster was presented to the board. Charges were leveled that the superintendent had lost the public trust, and that the board had acted illegally in not making public its meetings on South. Furthermore, teachers filed a grievance because they had not been consulted on the issue, and seven patrons in turn spoke out against the proposal.
In the midst of the critical response was but one ray of support: Glenda Gaudig, who as chair of the Glendale School Community Council was originally scheduled to speak against the closure, changed her mind and instead made a statement supporting the measure. From her knowledge of the situation at South she had concluded that quality of education there left much to be desired, and while she recognized the importance of sentiment and school spirit, she could not let these “stand in the way of quality education.”44
From state and community leaders outside of the schools there were also expressions of support. Governor Norman Bangerter called Bennion’s office and left word that he appreciated having some of the political heat taken off him at this [p.262]particular time: “They are mad at [me] for raising taxes and mad at you for trying to save some money,” the governor’s message of support read. A neighbor and prominent business leader, Mike Leavitt (later governor of Utah), and his wife, Jackie, wrote to encourage John to stand his ground: “The admiration of the masses will be earned by enduring the criticism of a mindless few.”45
Board member Steve Boyden rejected the call for Bennion’s resignation; he was simply following board policy, The board had decided to consider closing South because of the benefits that would accrue to the schools if some $800,000 were saved—benefits such as smaller English classes, summer programs for at-risk students, and improved alternative programs for students who didn’t do well in regular classes. Based on staff research, the board had concluded that with South due to lose another 100 students over the next four years, it would have too few students to “operate a sound, cost-effective educational program.” Perhaps he was technically correct when he said closure was at that point just an option, but given what is known about the “Reorganization Plan” of 3 February, it’s doubtful that many people accepted the statement at its face value—South’s community knew its days were numbered—and so, too, did the board and the superintendent.46
Value Clashes along Disputed Boundaries
For Bennion, with his central focus on educational improvement through better instruction in the classrooms, closing South was necessary. It would have been “unconscionable to put money into bricks and mortar when it could go into programs.” He urged the board to make a definite decision by 17 March; if closure was decided upon he would need time to make necessary adjustments to accommodate the students who would have to attend the other schools. As that deadline neared, however, it became quite obvious that the question was less “Should South be closed?” and more a matter of “What shall the new high school boundaries be?” On 1 March Bennion wrote:
Most people seem to be assuming that South will close and are now debating what the new boundaries should be. Some people argue for as little change as possible; others say that major boundary changes should be made to bring about a similar mix of students in 3 high schools. I think there is a middle ground between these two positions which I hope the board will eventually reach. Board members are presently being bombarded from many different, conflicting interest groups.47
Bennion’s personal reflection mirrors what happened at a meeting called by the Community Council for 23 February at Bryant Junior High School. Some 500 people assembled to discuss the changes proposed in the district. There was [p.263]unanimous agreement on only one thing—South High should close—but after that there was protracted “heated and emotional” debate on the issue of boundaries. Prior to this meeting, four plans had been put forward as “best.” The guidelines prepared by the staff at the request of the board identified size, minority composition, median income level, and student achievement level as the criteria, but plans 1 and 2, which would be least disruptive of schools, would leave West as the school with the dominant minority population. On the other hand, plans 3 and 4, while giving more balance in terms of ethnicity (but certainly not equal balance), were viewed as being most disruptive.
At the Bryant meeting, another plan was unveiled—plan 5, or “The People’s Plan,” which took the position that the best way to get equity in each of the categories was to send all the students living on the Avenues and the exclusive Federal Heights area to West High. Under this proposal West would have around 2,000 students; East, 1,942; and Highland 1,920. In terms of minorities, West would have a minority population of 22 percent; East, 24 percent; and Highland, 20 percent. Using the number of students who eat free lunches as a measure of wealth, all the schools under Plan 5 would have 19 percent of their students receiving free lunch. In terms of academic achievement, West would have a percentile ranking on the California Achievement Test of 58.66; East, 62.15; and Highland, 67.59. Plan 5 certainly was an expression of an effort to make equity more than just a rhetorical phrase. In the words of Jaynie Brown, who helped put it together, “the people’s plan,” if adopted by the board at its next meeting, would mean that for once Salt Lake City had people in it who “are more concerned about being fair than about being No. 1.” Chris Robinson, a graduate of East, also favored maximum equity, so West students would have the same chance as the “elitists” who attend East.
Bill Bowling, a resident of the Avenues who claimed that he had moved there in 1985 so that his children could attend East High, saw Plan 5 as “grandiose sociological meddling.” To try to bring about socio-economic equity was, for Bowling, “categorical sociological nonsense,” and should not interfere with deliberations about boundaries. And so the evening wore on with a revival of old fears about property values on the Avenues being lowered if students there had to attend West, countered, of course, by the claim that equal educational opportunities would actually stabilize property values. The official “booster” for the revitalized West High, Principal Harold Trussel, told his potential patrons from the Avenues and Federal Heights that he planned to make West one of the top ten schools in the nation within a few years and that its music and academic programs were excellent. If the status quo is kept, he claimed, students from Salt Lake City’s more affluent districts would miss an important opportunity to “associate with people different from themselves.”
Trussel’s appeal was countermanded by the East High Principal, LaMar Sorensen, who had served as West’s principal from 1980 to 1983. Taking the mantle as loyal protector of the “East turf,” he told Avenue patrons that they were “the heart of East High.” If “the people’s plan” were adopted and Avenue students left East for West, “we would suffer severely” East’s academic program would be de-[p.264]stroyed if any but plan 1 were to be implemented. Ron Walker, the board member whose constituents were on the Avenues and Federal Heights, spoke in favor of a plan that had many of the elements of plan 5 and told the group that it was “less important now to preserve the status quo than to find a solution to the district’s problems of inequality.”48
By 7 March, the board had reached consensus on the need to close a school. Although most board members refrained from mentioning South by name, it was a foregone conclusion that South would close at the end of the 1987 academic year. Facing this reality, South’s principal, LaVar Sorenson, said students at South were hurting and “wondering which garbage truck is going to pick them up.”49
As the 17 March deadline loomed for a final vote on closing South, a majority on the board began to have qualms about disturbing the status quo. No one really thought that South should not be closed, but the board had felt the sting of public rebuke for their handling of the issue. Four of those who had been part of the unanimous decision to consider closing South High (Matheson, Kump, Boyden, and Minson), now began to wonder if they needed more time to reconsider the issue of South High and to get more input from the community in the deliberations. Stephen Boyden suggested that perhaps South’s students should be allowed to attend any school they wished. In this way, the thorny issue of realigning high school boundaries could be deferred.
The boundary issue seems to have been the real source of ambivalence. Although few admitted that their views on this issue were rooted in their social class or that bias against minority groups was influencing their positions, those on the West side were acutely sensitive to class distinctions and even racism. As Bennion noted: “Value clashes have reverberated across the city with a fury. Prejudices, stereotypes and irrational fears have sprung up like mushrooms on a water soaked lawn.” City Councillor from the west side, Earl Hardwick, expressed his reaction to the emerging bias at one of the many early hearings on the boundary issue. He felt embarrassed for the citizens of Salt Lake; the message adults seemed to be sending their children was that particular schools do indeed represent particular social and economic values—desirable ones on the East and undesirable on the West. Talk of declining property values on the Avenues if students from that area attend West and reference to “undesirable” students at South and West, sent a message of acceptable prejudice to children. It represented, to Hardwick, “an elitist attitude that shows total lack of sensitivity and responsible social conscience. The setting of social, economic or racial boundaries by the people of this valley stands as a message to the rest of the world that bigotry and social class structures are alive and well in Salt Lake City.”50
In reporter Marianne Funk’s view the proposed closing of South had forced the community to “confront the sharp social divisions” between East and West [p.265]Salt Lake. The old adage that schools are a mirror of society was as true in Salt Lake City as anywhere else. By their very nature, schools send a message that middle-class values, high socio-economic status, and especially the notion that ultimate power resides in the white-dominated political system, are what ought to be, and that schools exist to promote these orientations. Some would argue that the hidden curriculum of public schools is, in fact, to communicate that dividing the world into haves and have nots is a legitimate and necessary function of schools—some schools prepare leaders, while others prepare workers. Bowles and Gintis, in their analysis of the function of reform in the development of the schools, express a dominant theme of radical critics of the American public schools when they conclude: “U.S. education is highly unequal, the chances of attaining much or little schooling being substantially dependent on one’s race and parents’ economic level. Moreover, where there is a discernible trend towards a more equal educational system—as in the narrowing of the black education deficit—the impact on the structure of economic opportunity is minimal at best.”51 In this view, the response of the East side community councils on the issue of boundaries was consistent with the dominant ideology of those who wielded much of the political and economic power of Salt Lake City. This is a reality hard to avoid, but one must also recognize that in spite of it, American schools have also been given the almost impossible task of making a flawed system better. This idealism seemed to underlie the original decision to close South.
When the board met to make its final decision on 17 March, the consensus so evident the week before had evaporated. Three members of the board (Stepan, Walker, and Keene) favored closing South immediately to minimize further trauma and get on with realigning the boundaries. Another group (Matheson, Boyden, and Kump) now wanted to delay the closure on the grounds that more community input was needed. The person representing the South High area, Colleen Minson, wavered between the two options, but finally sided with those who wanted to delay closure on the ground that it would enable the district to do some long-range planning for the future development of the three remaining high schools. She also recommended that an independent professional consultant be called in help make the decision about which high school should be closed or even consider the possibility of the establishment of two high schools. In response to Susan Keene’s charge that the board was capitulating under pressure from East side interests, Minson denied that she had changed under pressure. Keene, for her part, was reported to have believed that there was collusion between patrons of South, who wanted to keep their school open, and patrons on the Avenues, who didn’t want their children to go to West. According to Keene, both benefited if South were not forced to close. It was, she was reported to have said, in the interests of the “rich and powerful to keep South open.” According to Sue Southam, then an English teacher at South, the Eastside citizens wanted to keep South students out of their community.
For Ron Walker, on the other hand, the only thing that could explain the [p.266]evaporation of consensus was that board members had confused closing South with the boundary issue. There was indeed pressure being exerted on the board and the board had become embroiled in the implications of boundary changes for their home turf. Lorna Matheson, who had supported the original move to close South, was now quoted as saying that to move hastily would “be premature and a Band-aid solution.” To the notion that the board had moved in undue haste, President Stepan retorted that the problem was not that they moved too fast, but that they moved “five years too late.” As far as he could tell, there was just as much sentiment in the community for equity as for maintaining the status quo, and the board should act accordingly and follow through with its original decision.52
Up to a few minutes before the meeting on 17 March, Superintendent Bennion tried in vain to effect a compromise behind which the board could unite, but “the board became hopelessly divided [and] the best that we could do was to postpone the decisions until next summer on the closure and fall on the boundaries.” Bennion found the process of debating and wrangling over the issues “terribly draining, time consuming and unproductive.” He was anxious that he and his staff should attend to educational, rather than political issues, and publicly expressed keen disappointment when the board unanimously opted to postpone the closing until spring of 1988, unless the consultant recommended the closure of a different school or no school at all. Postponing the inevitable would simply exacerbate the issue.
In the meantime, a citizens’ committee would work with a professional consultant to accept or reject the closure decision by the end of the summer. If accepted, a boundary committee would formulate proposals by October. However, there were still voices in the community calling on the board to follow through with their original intent to close South and reminding them that failure to act in years past had not resolved the issue. Exhausted by the ordeal, Carolyn Kump told those assembled at the board meeting that “I personally don’t feel we went through the process right, and you have my apologies.53
The conflict board members experienced fulfilled the prediction made by an editorial in the Deseret News a few weeks after the original decision had been announced. The News cautioned: “If the Salt Lake City School District thinks closing a school is grabbing a tiger by the tail, wait until it tries drawing new boundary lines for the remaining three high schools.”54 And again when the board decided to postpone the closing to let tempers cool “and a clearer perspective to prevail” the News warned that postponement was not likely to change the attitudes of turf protection and polarization by which “the community at times [p.267]threatens to come apart at the seams.” In a remarkably frank statement the editorial averred that “[n]othing can be gained by resolutely clinging to the idea of preserving the status quo. What’s needed now is to arrive at the best plan possible and then to execute it with firmness and resolve.”55 That is what Bennion and the board attempted to do over the next ten months, but before the issue could be called resolved in any way, the community tiger not only swung its tail vigorously; it bit back.
In addition to selecting a citizens’ committee, the board also appointed as a consultant an expert in closing schools: Dr. George Garver, of Livonia, Michigan, who had supervised the closure of 22 schools—including a high school. From his perspective, it was possible to establish with almost scientific precision which school should be closed. However, school boundaries were a different matter because of the “subjective” emotions involved in telling people where they should go to school. For this reason, Garver steered the citizens’ committee clear of boundary decisions: they were to deal with one question only: Does Salt Lake City need to close a high school, and if so, which one should it be? The boundary issue was thus put on the back burner, but the heat was never quite turned off. Garver’s committee met at least once each week in the late spring of 1987. They first reviewed on paper the figures regarding declining enrollments and made comparisons of programs at each of the high schools.
With a clear picture of the “objective” data in front of them, the committee, under Garver’s direction, then visited each high school to get a feel for the on-site situation. Theoretically, the committee was trying to determine which of the high schools would be closed, but it is difficult to believe that anyone ever seriously considered closing East or Highland. Nevertheless, the committee did attempt to be “fair” and to look at everything without prejudice. Don Barlow recalled the visit of the committee to Highland High when “we put on our best dog and pony show” as if there were any real chance that the committee would decide to close the newest, and what he and others regarded as the “most effective high school in the city in order to keep South High open.” All this was done “with tongue in cheek” because no one really believed that closing other schools was a real option. Barlow suspected that “everybody in South High School knew that too.” However, board member Susan Keene mentioned Highland as a distinct possibility on occasion, in part because its real estate value on Seventeenth East and Twenty-First South would be a windfall to the district. Don Barlow’s response to this suggestion was “Come on, lady, have a clue.” The committee deliberations were perceived as a means of softening the blow: It certainly could not be said now that the community had not been consulted.56
According to George Henry, who served on the citizens’ committee and also taught history at South, the committee’s real aim was to produce a community-based rationale regarding South’s future. During all the deliberations in the [p.268]spring of 1987 the economics of the situation tended to dominate everything that went on in the committee. South simply did not have the kind of established residential community the other schools had. This lack of community was further manifest in the fact that while 70 percent of East’s students were within walking distance of the school, some 70 to 80 percent of South’s students were bused.
South was the “natural” school to close—ultimately it was more expendable because of the nature of its constituency. South’s boosters, including its last principal, LaVar Sorensen, could muster emotionally compelling arguments about its importance to the community, its rich cultural diversity and pluralism, and its role in giving students who might never have succeeded a chance to succeed. It even had a physical plant in better condition than East’s. But Garver instructed the committee to avoid emotional issues and stick only to the facts in the case. In light of the “objective and detached” report given to the board, there was no other conclusion but that “South High will close as of May, 1988.”57 And, after a roller coaster spring in which student and faculty spirits rose and fell with every rumor, that is precisely what the comrnittee reported. On 16 June, the board unanimously voted to follow the committee’s recommendation and sweep away the school on State Street. When the final, long expected announcement was made “the adjustment and healing process began. South High Cubs made their last year their best.”58
The healing may have begun for the students and faculty at South, but for the district as a whole, and for the superintendent and the board, what lay ahead would be even more divisive than was the initial decision. John Bennion’s reflections on the first half of the year were a succinct portent of what would occur over the course of the next half year:
The last 5 months have been the most trying and difficult of my entire [seventeen-year] professional career as a school superintendent. I have been at the heart of some extremely difficult emotional issues. … My frustration level has been higher for a longer period of time than I ever remember it being. I would not want to stay on as supt. in Salt lake City very long if conditions remain as problematical as they have been during the last five months.
In addition to the boundary and closure dispute, there were problems associated with the open classroom program and the overriding pressure from the governor, legislature, and state board for school systems to “squeeze more blood out of the turnip.” “I wish,” Bennion concluded on 1 July, “I could see some light ahead. With state conditions such as they are and the volatile boundary issues about to heat up again, I am taking my job a year at a time.”59
“Deep and Passionate Division” over Freedom and Equality
[p.269]Keeping previous criticism in mind, the board made sure the resolution of the boundary issue would involve community representatives and public input. From the initial attempts to settle the boundary issues, however, the board had been badly split, not only on where boundaries should be drawn, but over what criteria should be used to determine them. The split community quickly returned to the fore as soon as the board set out the criteria to be used as a means of achieving that most elusive of all social aims-equality.
Ostensibly, the board closed South to create better opportunities for all the city’s high school students. In their “Statement of Purpose,” board members clearly enunciated this ideal when they agreed to create three high schools, equal in “academic standards, extracurricular programs, staff, learning climate, and student achievement.”60 While generalities are easy to achieve consensus on, however, problems emerge when agreement on the specific means of accomplishing these ends are sought. American commitment to the ideal of equity may be a basic social value, but that has not prevented it becoming a contentious and divisive issue. The difficulty lies in determining what the expression “equality” means. Does it refer to input equality, output equality, or equality of process?
By 1 September, a bare majority on the board (four to three) had agreed on the criteria to determine the new boundaries, and a series of five open hearings was scheduled to gain public input. That the board was badly split in itself suggested that resolution would not come easily Still, they seemed to go along with the group of 50 patrons attending the first meeting at Northwest Intermediate School in late September, which encouraged the board to “do the right thing” in the face of political pressure to delay.
These public hearings allowed people to vent feelings on many sides of the issue. The factions divided between those who wanted to maximize equality and those who wished to minimize disruption. The latter held the position that boundaries should essentially be left as they were, even if this did not create equality. To them, perfect equality was an idealistic chimera. On the other hand, the former held that sending all of the Avenues students to West High was the only way of ensuring equality This either/or perspective proved to be difficult groundwork on which to build a compromise.
Bennion felt the pressure from neighbors and as an alumni of East High to espouse East’s cause. The hearing at Clayton Intermediate on 13 October was especially difficult for the superintendent. His closest neighbors in his LDS ward spoke out against any change and expected him to “come on like gangbusters in their interest,” but Bennion resisted being an advocate for East.61 He was convinced that West needed a climate and programs that would bring it up to par with Highland and East. Some disruption of family traditions might have to be [p.270]tolerated in the interest of all the schools becoming relatively equal. However, he did not think it had to be all or nothing with regard to the Avenues. By disposition Bennion was not an “either/or” person, but as early as October it was becoming clear to him that there was very little basis for compromise. He seemed to be single-handedly left to represent the interests of the city’s schools as a whole. He recognized, as did Alexis de Tocqueville a century and a half earlier, that the ideals of freedom and equality are a heady mix in the American experience. If anything were to be accomplished, some accommodation and balance between the two ideals must be achieved.
The board, however, was “being strongly pulled in many different directions” by their respective constituencies. In retrospect, Bennion felt that had the board been elected at large, instead of by only a segment of the community, they might have had a more inclusive vision of what the schools needed. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Bennion recommended that as an alternative to major boundary changes the board should create a model high school at West by expanding the International Baccalaureate Program established at the school in 1986. Essentially, a liberal college program for advanced students, the program as Bennion and his staff envisioned it would also have been supplemented with “intensive instruction in such areas as computer science and business.” Although some board members liked aspects of the program and thought it “nifty” and “exciting,” the cost and the target population raised major hurdles, and the idea, designed in large measure as a “peace pact” to end “the boundary war gripping the district” died aborning. The majority on the board (Ronald Walker, Susan Keene, Colleen Minson, and Keith Stepan representing areas of the city which served South and West) were, according to Bennion, more “inclined to do major surgery on the boundaries.” The remaining three (Carolyn Kump, Lorna Matheson, and Stephen Boyden representing Highland and East) were adamant that the boundaries remain unchanged. The superintendent described the public hearings held at Hillside and Bryant as “many emotional voices heard on different sides of the issue. Some called for complete equality; others pleaded for a least disruptive approach.”62
The Citizens Committee Establishes Boundaries
In the following months, the board and the superintendent tried to reach a compromise. Although board members maintained a civil attitude toward each other, it was clear that “feelings were strained.” At the conclusion of the meeting preceding the boundary committee being given its charge, the board adjourned “frustrated and without clear direction.”63 However, the majority was determined to push its advantage, and on 27 October the board by a vote of four to three gave the citizens’ committee the task to realign the high school boundaries. This [p.271]was to be done to meet a criteria of equality: all high schools would have no more than a variance of four percent in student achievement scores; no more than twelve percent variance in minority population; and no more than a variance of 200 in total student population.
In response, Carolyn Kump warned the board that to meet these criteria the district would have to shift half its students to new high schools. Lorna Matheson argued that the boundary committee had been given an impossible assignment; at least it could not be done “without massive, massive disruption.” Susan Keene defended the majority’s decision as necessary to achieve a “balanced mix of resident high, low and middle achievers.” If this were not held to, claimed Keene, “some very lopsided schools” would be produced.64
Armed with specific criteria of what would constitute equality, the citizens’ committee went to work. The newspapers gave them an encouraging send off, the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune both praising the board for taking a controversial stand in favor of equity in the city’s schools. Somewhat critical of East High patrons who had put up “fierce resistance” against the idea of disturbing boundaries, the News noted that “Salt Lake residents have paid lip service to the idea of equality” Given the fact that South had made a great sacrifice in the district’s efforts to promote equity, “it would seem unfair not to ask others to share in the sacrifices of realignment.” Doubting the possibility of getting absolute equity in all the criteria, the News editorial nevertheless felt that the creation of three high schools with “about the same academic mix would benefit every neighborhood and all the students.” Saying that “prejudices, fears, and threats to fight to the end” did nothing to help the schools, the editorial concluded. “What is needed is cooperation, a sense of community, and a willingness to make the school system one of the best—for everybody” In a similar vein, the Tribune referred to the board’s “courage and wisdom” to see beyond the “inevitable storm of neighborhood protests and criticism.” Warning that the board’s close vote “could still collapse under pressure,” the editorial lauded them for taking “the high road on a tough boundary decision” designed to prevent “recurring boundary problems,” and provide more equitable opportunities for the city’s students.65
During the next six weeks as the committee attempted to arrive at a consensus, divisions in the community and board became more and more apparent. Picketers appeared at board meetings bearing signs that read “Say No to Communism,” and a regular schedule of protests was published and distributed to high school community councils by those who opposed any realignment. Patrons were asked to “cruise” their cars on South Temple at particular times to show how congested that street would be if Avenues students used it during football games at West, and a letter-writing campaign got underway to steer the [p.272]board away from “social engineering.” Some parents threatened to send their children to Granite District’s Olympus High, and others complained of the dangers inherent in having their high school students drive across town to West High from the Avenues and Federal Heights. Some expressed dismay at their children attending school near industrial lots ringed with barbed wire fences. One even suggested that changing the name “West” might ease the pain of attending the school. Underlying these comments was implicit hostility to those of a different social class: “If they wanted better schools for their children, they’d move as we have done.” It was asking too much, some averred, to have Eastside students attend West High in order to stimulate those who chose to stay on the west side.66
At one tension-charged meeting, the student-body president of South, Kimberley Hall, and Joey Borgenicht, president of East, spoke out against what they perceived to be increasingly a “parent problem,” not one centered in the schools or in their students. Borgenicht pleaded, to no avail apparently, for parents to “step back” and tone down the rhetoric. Hall charged that parents were overreacting and that they needed to start working together: “It has become a war that reeks of bigotry and selfishness. Everything is my child, my school, my neighborhood.”67
Minority groups also perceived the resistance as rooted in racism. In response, a new group which appeared on the scene in late November. The “Let’s Make it Work Coalition” went public with its claim that many statements made at meetings carried racist overtones. The Reverend France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church claimed that parents who vocalized their fears about their children associating with “blacks, Polynesians and the less economically affluent” further divided the community Katherine Simon wondered if “we have stooped so low as to become a dictatorship of the ‘haves’ over the ‘have nots.'” Responding to the “racism” charge, Joy Orton, chair of the East Community Council, denied that racism existed at East High and claimed that East already had a high proportion (20 percent) of students who were minorities.68
After weeks of charge and counter-charge, the district was far from peaceful. Bennion, on the eve of his fifty-first birthday, had never had so many people upset with him, he reminisced, and he longed for a resolution. If the boundary dispute was not soon over, and if the Utah legislature failed to support the career [p.273]ladder program adequately, he was tempted to consider moving back to the vicinity of Rochester, New York, where a number of excellent suburban districts, including Brighton, were looking for new superintendents: “The New York economy is strong and the political climate much more hospitable than Utah. I would much rather function as an educator than a manager of conflict and political broker. … I find it difficult to pursue the education agenda because of political cross currents and conflicts. … It would not be difficult for me to go back [to New York].”69
Nor would it have been difficult for some to reverse their support for closing South High. Steve Boyden did precisely that when he told the board at the end of November that he would now “rather have South High open” even if it meant the district had to lose the $600,000 in state appropriations. No doubt similar sentiments went through the minds of the members of the citizens’ committee, which now had to share the criticism previously directed at the board and the superintendent. No matter what they did, or what decision they arrived at, the boundary committee was in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” position. They succeeded in getting the board to make the criteria a bit more flexible in allowing the four percent achievement variance to range from six to eleven percent. Of course, the committee was not dealing with the entire board, only the majority of four. They alone seemed to be involved in any of the negotiations involving criteria. The remaining three simply voted against any change, an attitude roundly criticized by the Deseret News.70
By December the committee had reached a decision. However, they could not get the necessary 9-3 vote on one plan. Instead, by a vote of 8-4 on one plan and 6-2 (with two abstentions) on the other, they submitted to the board two unendorsed maps. The first (eventually tagged as “Plan G”) called for an achievement level variance of 8.23 percent; a minority variance of only four percent, and an overall population variance of no more than 104 students. While this plan would necessitate the movement of some 19 percent of the district’s students, the percentage of students requiring busing would rise only eight percent. In order to meet these criteria, Plan G required all students living north of South Temple to attend West High, including Arlington Hills and Federal Heights. The alternative, “Plan P” (approved in a 6-4 vote, with two abstentions) called for a student achievement variance of 11 percent; a minority variance of seven percent and a population variance of 159; to accomplish this, West’s boundary would extend eastward to Virginia Street, thereby splitting Arlington Hills from Federal Heights and sending one part of these very affluent areas to West and the other to East.
The lack of the stipulated 9-3 majority on either plan indicated that community divisions had also become part of the committee’s final deliberations. The committee actually split into two caucuses—representing the east side and the [p.274]west side. Apparently those representing the Northeast Avenues section refused to give any plan the necessary 75 percent approval unless Arlington Hills and Federal Heights were left undisturbed and within East High’s boundaries. It was argued by one resident of Federal Heights that to split these areas and send one to East and the other to West would split people of the same class and even lead members of LDS wards to attend different high schools. School patrons in the northeast section of the Avenues were certainly not going to give up without a fight to preserve what they perceived to be their sense of community However, they ran into a new reality; east side interests no longer dominated the board. Redrawing the boundaries to exclude a large portion of a very affluent area exacerbated what the eastsiders perceived to be a further diminution of their political power and traditional prestige.71
As if the board did not have to contend with enough maps (some twenty-four had been submitted since the beginning of the dispute), Stephen Boyden made another proposal. As a way of resolving forever the dispute over boundaries, he seriously suggested that East High should be closed and that all students living north of 900 South Street attend West High and all students who lived south of 900 South should attend Highland High. A number of parents agreed with this new two high school plan; they would prefer to see East closed than have their children receive an inferior education after East’s academic tradition had been, in their view, destroyed. The superintendent immediately went to work on the way in which such a proposal might be implemented, but the citizens’ committee regarded the proposal as a “slap in the face” after the time and energy they had put into the plans submitted to the board. Ultimately the plan to close East (and another one to close all the high schools and build one new high school for the whole city) was tabled for lack of time.72
Finishing off the “year of the boundary debate,” board president Keith Stepan and a member of the East High Community Council, Robert Wright, gave Salt Lake residents a Christmas treat by debating the major points of dispute in the Tribune.73 As his year ended, Bennion recorded that the “high school boundary issue continues to dominate my life. The boundary committee became divided and could not reach a consensus. They submitted two maps, but did not bridge very well the east and west sides of the city.”74 The “exhausted community” left that task to a somewhat discouraged superintendent and a badly divided board.
On 13 January, at the last public hearing on the issue, the two plans were [p.275]once again discussed. Annette Tanner, chair of the Highland Community Council, spoke in favor of “P” because it was the least disruptive of the two plans and the only “alternative that would have the support necessary to bind this valley back together after a process that has literally torn it apart.” Michael Ortega, a westside neighborhood organizer for the Salt Lake Citizen’s Congress, spoke in favor of “G” because it was the only alternative that would “eliminate the east-west stigma.”
A University of Utah professor spoke in favor of “G” also, saying the charge that it is “social engineering” should be discounted because when the board decided to close South, that act was “de facto social engineering.” Robert Wright opposed the whole notion of trying to create equity by making schools the same saying that it couldn’t be done given the diversity within the city T. H. Bell, former U.S. Secretary of Education, whose own children would now attend West, expressed the view that although the community seemed fractured, once the board decided, the wounds would heal and the “difficulties will be behind you.” Those speaking for the west side (and a minority from the Avenues) favored Plan G, but most of the speakers at this final hearing favored Plan P, including representatives of Federal Heights.
The formal minutes of the board meeting of 19 January seem anti-climactic as they record the business relating to agenda item “3b. Decision on High School Boundaries” in thirteen sparse lines. A motion to adopt Map G was made and seconded, followed by a substitute motion to adopt Map P The latter was defeated by a vote of four to three, and the former, Map G, was adopted by the same vote. Prior to the vote, the members had one more opportunity to say why they were doing what they did; Minson spoke of the need to equalize educational opportunity and of the need for maturity in accepting the final outcome of the vote; Walker spoke of fairness and of his belief that East would continue to be an excellent school; Kump recognized the need to give West a critical mass of achieving students, but feared that East would be stripped down in the process. Boyden lamented the failure of the board to have had the foresight five years before which could have produced two excellent schools. That, he felt, was the only way to promote long-term equity. Matheson said that Map G did not represent true equity and too much was being asked of East.
The superintendent, for his part, said that although the past months had been difficult, he felt that the district now had a much deeper awareness of the kind of high schools it wanted, and commented on how easy it was to agree on general aims, but how difficult to agree on means. In response to a question from Carolyn Kump, Bennion said that he believed that both “G” and “P” could be used in meeting the ends of equity He cited Martin Luther King on the need for a spirit of unity and hoped that the district’s energy could now be used to implement whatever option was chosen. Personally Bennion did not think the boundaries needed to be drawn as tightly as they were, but it appeared to him that the more the East’s representatives persisted in affirming their opposition to “G,” the more the others on the boundary committee became resolute in making it the [p.276]only choice.75
Reminiscent somewhat of a classical tragedy, John Bennion recorded the formal conclusion of the boundary dispute with a terse “The deed is done …,” followed by his observation that he feared “the issue may still fester.”76
The Continuance of “Snarling Resistance”
In the ensuing weeks, as Bennion feared, the issue continued to fester on several levels—among community opponents of the action, among the Salt Lake Teachers Association, and among the minority of three on the board. There was, however, also considerable support for Bennion’s stance and for his attempts to arrive at a middle ground resolution. Emma Lou Thayne, Utah poet and writer, called on the words of John Bennion’s uncle, Lowell L. Bennion, in an eloquent appeal for community support of the resolution. Citing the venerable teacher and community activist as saying “never let the things that matter most be at the mercy of the things that matter least,” Thayne went on to appeal for diversity within the city schools: “No one group or time—certainly not one area of the city—has a corner on brains, character, personality, potential, frailty or disaster. And moving with credible change often takes a lot more courage and quality than any snarling resistance ever did.” A city that put principles ahead of property values and education ahead of territorialism would indeed be focused on the things that matter most and would take on “the challenge of the new boundaries with bigness, not smallness and send our children off with the same.”77
Those who had opposed any change in the boundaries met the day following the board decision and discussed ways by which they could undo the “damage” done to East High School. Invitations to a meeting to discuss “The John Bennion Style of Administration” were passed out at the conclusion of the board meeting, and a group of some thirty people assembled in a room at the University of Utah Olpin Union on 20 January. Dee Vincent, a local school patron who had played a role in governance activities, stated that some sort of organization was necessary to determine whether patrons had any recourse to reduce the voted leeway and initiate recall proceedings against the board. She also noted that flight from the district was now underway Complaints of “fat in the administration” were raised, and assertions were made that basics, not equity, should be the focus of the district. When it was mentioned that Bennion might leave if the leeway were reduced, a voice piped up with “That would be a small price to pay” Wide ranging discussion of the procedure to be used in transferring to another district, a proposal to boycott the schools, whether Carolyn Kump had been cautioned against undermining the board’s narrow decision, the need for a poll of some sort—took up much of the meeting time, but ultimately leaders [p.277]were appointed to head a group called “Citizens for Better Schools.” They were given the task of determining what, if any, legal actions should be pursued.78
By March the group had collected enough money and legal advice to take action, and subsequently they filed suit in the U.S. district court seeking an injunction against the board on the grounds that they acted illegally in distributing students among the three schools on the basic of achievement scores; that balancing minority enrollments violated the Utah State Constitution, the U.S. Equal Education and Opportunities Act of 1974, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and that busing east side students through “hazardous industrial and commercial districts” exposed them to unnecessary risk. The group’s claim that they represented thousands of patrons was rejected by the president of East’s Booster Club, Wynn Johnson, who said it was more realistically only tens of people. As far as he could tell most people had by this time accepted the decision made by the board in January.79
U.S. District Judge David K. Winder apparently accepted the decision’s legality too. On 22 July he rejected the request for an injunction, agreeing, in effect, with the board’s attorneys that the board had acted within its statutory authority; that it did not violate any federal laws in assigning students or prescribing school boundaries; and that “the board’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious and not an abuse of the board’s discretion.” Winder dismissed all claims against the board “with prejudice” and remanded the issues dealing with the Utah Code and Utah Constitution to the State Court.80
The Superintendent as Lightning Rod
Legality notwithstanding, the months following the final decision gave no respite from the aftermath of the boundary dispute. “Gloom… pervades the East High Community. Many feel that East High was done in. I see the disappointment in our neighbors’ eyes,” Bennion wrote. Efforts to get the legislature to pass an open enrollment law (supported by former superintendent, M. Donald Thomas), failed to get out of committee, but only by a single vote, and some parents petitioned the board for special exemptions on which schools their children should be allowed to attend. The superintendent even began to consider some other kind of employment because of his weariness over the boundary dispute. A sort of malaise swept over him as he tried to be “enthusiastic” about his work in a state that seemed so penurious:
It is getting to seem like a losing battle to me. I am running out of creative ideas for improving the quality of education with less and less money I am tired of the negative attitudes towards public service, public education and taxes. [p.278]The legislature is in session and I have no interest in spending time there. I am not well matched for the highly political role I am presently in. I would much rather spend my time in educational program improvement.81
With the boundary dispute settled Bennion apparently thought he could now focus on education instead of politics. It was not to be; within a week he was in the headlines again when the Salt Lake Teacher’s Association released a letter to the board in which they criticized his leadership and reported that they had recently passed a motion of “no confidence” in him. The letter specified a number of problematic issues, including “teacher morale, trust of central administration, more direct and open communication, continued attempts to circumvent the shared governance process,” the imposition of regulations and programs which were stifling creativity, lack of teacher involvement in reform, increased teacher workloads and a diminution of “pride in being part of the district team of professionals.” Although the SLTA president, Karline Grief, claimed that she had informed Bennion about the letter before it was sent, he would have preferred to sit down with the teachers to discuss their grievances before they were made public. The board’s vice-president, Stephen Boyden, reported that the board took the matter seriously and wanted to be fair to the superintendent and the teachers. He suggested that perhaps the boundary dispute had caused neglect of teacher concerns and that this was one way of promoting a greater focus on “the things that really count.”82
For Bennion, teacher dissatisfaction stemmed from more than the boundary dispute, although that must surely have heightened the tensions. There had been some rising hostility between teachers and the central administration following Don Thomas’s resignation and prior to John Bennion’s appointment. Some of this had its roots in teacher objections to School Community Councils having a say in how teachers should be assigned to a school. The appointment of George Brooks as interim superintendent apparently calmed some teachers’ fears of having their decision making power diminished, but Bennion’s appointment may have exacerbated their concerns, and his appointment was “less well accepted by district employees” who had become so used to the style, manner and personality of Thomas.83
As Bennion pondered the complaints, he saw teacher dissatisfaction as stemming from his introduction of innovations they apparently perceived as threats to their professional status: a “more systematic approach to curriculum development, teacher supervision and evaluation, a multi-year study of effective teaching, and a more comprehensive student assessment program.” When these perceived threats combined with “other irritants” such as the change in the transfer policy, changes in the health insurance policy requiring stricter adherence to the contract, a lack of salary increases over two years, the closing of South, the [p.279]protracted debate over boundaries, and changes in the elementary mathematics program, it is clear why the representatives of the district’s teachers lashed out at Bennion. According to the president of the SLTA, Karline Grief, some teachers were upset over the motion, but she thought the majority would have agreed with it.84
The week following the “no confidence” letter, Bennion met with the SLTA leadership. Although he felt better personally after having had an opportunity to tell the teachers’ representatives that he thought the letter “was inappropriate and inconsistent with agreed upon procedures,” and although he had received numerous supportive gestures from a wide range of people, still the impact of the “no confidence” vote, coming as it did on the heels of the divisive debate over boundaries, caused his respect for the SLTA leadership and his enthusiasm for his job to reach a “low ebb.” He seriously considered the option of resigning. As if things were not difficult enough in the midst of all the teacher related criticisms, the “Group for Better Schools” filed the lawsuit discussed earlier. Although in July that particular issue was resolved in the district’s favor, its initial filing in the spring of 1988 simply exacerbated the litany of explosive issues which had made the past year “the most wrenching of [John Bennion’s] career.”85
The board as a whole did not publicly demonstrate its support of the superintendent during this particular teacher issue, although a number of individual members privately empathized with him. Bennion did, however, take some solace from editorials in the News and the Tribune which both labelled the teachers’ attack as unfair. The Tribune criticized the teachers’ association for undermining the whole notion of “review of services” by going over the superintendent’s head to the board. Acknowledging that the teachers’ complaints should not be minimized, the editorial attributed part of the difficulty to the fact that the teachers had become accustomed to former Superintendent Thomas’s “flamboyant” personality and had difficulty relating to Bennion’s “more reserved and, possibly, less democratic” style.
In a similar vein the Deseret News criticized what they perceived to be teacher “arrogance” in giving the impression that “Bennion is somehow supposed to be at the mercy of the teachers and their opinions.” Noting that the teachers had held out hope, given that both teachers and Bennion were “professionals,” that a successful resolution of the issues would be found, the News opined that in taking the position they had, the “teachers’ association didn’t look very professional on this one.” Also a supportive column by Twila VanLeer charged that Bennion had been made a “scapegoat,” and that confrontational tactics such as “no-confidence” votes would not help resolve the issues. Mirroring some of Bennion’s own thinking at this time that he might “throw in the towel,” VanLeer concluded that if this should happen, “Salt Lake’s loss could become some other district’s [p.280]gain.”86
One observer of the Salt Lake City schools, Peter Scarlett of the Salt Lake Tribune, has noted that a major component in the dispute with the SLTA was Bennion’s style of management and his personal disposition to be reflective and careful in what he would say off the cuff. He was not a “glad hander” and would have “done a lousy job in sales.” The teacher complaints about him were based more on perceptions than reality; indeed, in Scarlett’s view, Thomas’s approach to administration might have been ultimately more autocratic than Bennion’s. Although Bennion’s personality gave the impression of aloofness, he was essentially very democratic in his attempt to have everyone involved weigh all the evidence before coming to an decision. He strove to keep his own emotional responses in check and wanted others to do the same.87
Many meetings of the board continued to be mini-replays of the boundary dispute and Bennion expressed distaste for the persistent polarization between the “equity” faction and the “free choice” faction. As mentioned previously, the board as a whole was not very supportive of him publicly during the teacher fracas, and the minority three members cast votes against the renewal of his contract in the late spring of 1988. For Bennion it was another low point in his career, but he also was able to understand it, in retrospect at least, as a typical response of board members whose constituents were frustrated by the board’s decision: “the superintendency is a symbol of the district and a visible object of expressing that frustration; the superintendent either caused the defeat to occur, or didn’t prevent it from happening. [Consequently] there’s a natural tendency for people who feel frustrated and disappointed, to think that new leadership is needed since the old leadership didn’t produce what they had desired.”88
Before the vote was taken on his re-appointment, those who planned to vote against him (Stephen Boyden, Carolyn Kump, and Lorna Matheson) encouraged him to seek other work opportunities, in light of the controversies he and the board had been involved in. They had lost; their constituents were upset, and now, in reaction, they either blamed him for what had happened or feared for the future. However, the other members of the board who had regularly voted for maximum equity (Keith Stephan, Susan Keene, Colleen Minson, and Ronald Walker) apparently did not agree that Bennion should be dismissed. By a slim margin of four to three, he was reappointed to another two year term beginning 1 July 1988.89
A Tapering Off of “Ceaseless Contention”
[p.281]Shortly after his reappointment, Bennion was invited to speak at a Sunday meeting in the LDS ward his family had attended in Provo. He took the occasion to bring some closure to the turmoil of the past two years by putting the whole issue in meaningful perspective, not only for the congregation but for him and his family Taking as his texts Mormon scriptures that focused on the need to “esteem our neighbors as ourselves and to seek the interest of our neighbors as well as our own” he said that he had gained a new appreciation of the importance of this in community life. During the boundary dispute, there were few who transcended their own narrow borders and “identified with the general community interest.” As he reflected on this, he realized that a key measure of the extent to which individuals have “religious and moral maturity” is in their ability to go beyond their narrow circle of concerns and be able to identify with and be responsive to the needs of others outside of their immediate circle.
Another insight he arrived at was how careful one must be in thinking one is always right in “dealing with difficult and complex issues.” Closed-minded individuals are not good listeners or learners, he said, and they increase in intolerance by their unwillingness to consider other points of view.
At a third level, he said that the dispute had reminded him that the ideals which some Mormons (and others) hold, frequently collide with the ideals of other Mormons. Such ideals cannot be held in an absolute sense; perfect equality would, he claimed, end in a concentration camp and perfect freedom would result in chaos and gross inequality. Difficult as it is, people must try to navigate some middle road when these irreconcilable ideals collide.
Finally, he said that the controversy had reinforced in him the notion of religious and moral obligation for the rich and powerful to plead the cause of the poor and powerless. The former know how to work the system to their advantage, while the latter do not. Without concern for those who are powerless, there is grave danger of diminishing opportunity for those children who are “at risk.”90
In large measure, this sermon was the blueprint from which he worked during the days he may have been tempted to give in to his most powerful and strident opponents. He was forced to act politically, but behind it was a very strong sense of social justice, firmly rooted in and supported by religious and moral principles. He used the occasion to teach and to affirm his own commitment to important social ideals. His social philosopher grandfather, Milton Bennion, would have surely said, “Amen.”
In the months that followed the split vote on his re-appointment, Bennion continued to feel “exhaustion and depletion” from the “ceaseless contention.” He was, he said, more aware than he ever had been about what “burnout” really meant. In terms of his professional duties, one ray of light seemed to lighten the gloom—the idea of refining the shared governance procedure through imple-[p.282]menting site-based decision making. This appears to have been the most interesting aspect of his work as 1988 drew to a close. He was anxious to get some agreement on this as a means of giving school personnel a more effective voice, even though it was evident that some administrators and teachers were able to see how they could implement site-based decision making while others seemed more cautious.
As he met with teachers in the spring of 1989, he was puzzled by a shift in their thinking. Previously they had complained over too much “top-down” decision making; now the leadership seemed to be complaining that the “bottom-up” type of involvement was not adequate. Bennion proposed a partnership between the board, staff, parents, business, and community leaders that involved individual schools setting academic goals for students. This, when achieved, would result in substantial bonuses to teachers “in exchange for some specific achievement goals in reading and math.” Once again this appealed to the superintendent’s competitive instincts and his belief that there should be some sort of link between how well students performed and the kinds of rewards their teachers received.
Teacher representatives discussing this notion were not impressed by what appeared to them to be the dreaded “M P” words—”merit pay.” They countered with a proposal which eliminated “any measurable achievement goals” and insisted on a performance bonus regardless of any increase in student achievement. In addition, they wanted salary increases to put Salt Lake City teachers above the average for the Western states—a request Bennion felt was simply “beyond the district’s means.” Bennion was highly disappointed that as a group teachers “are not risk takers. They would like some of the blessings of the free enterprise system, but they tend not to be competitive by nature.” In addition to the resistance of the Teachers’ Association to any kind of significant measurable goals, Bennion was also disappointed that they were still not willing to rescind the vote of no confidence.91
Despite some continued doubts about his future as a professional educator, he found satisfaction in teaching a class in philosophy of education for prospective teachers in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Utah. He found the challenge of dealing with ideas about what education should be to be “a different kind of challenge than what I experience as an urban school superintendent.”92 On occasion during the previous two years he must have sometimes longed for the detachment and tranquility of the “ivory tower,” but John Bennion was much too committed to shaping his part of the world to seek an escape from the real world of the urban school district. He had come to Salt Lake in the hope of making a difference, and to that task he returned in an attempt to complete what he had begun.
As outlined in his early comments to teachers and the board, Bennion be-[p.283]lieved that the central purpose of school is to give individuals the means and tools whereby they can achieve a meaningful and purposeful existence. He believed, in fact, that there is (or should be) an inescapable connection between what a student learns and what a teacher does. Career ladders and effective teaching strategies with clear and explicit objectives were one side of the equation—the input side. Now he focused upon ways to determine what happened to students in terms of the learning outcomes. The traditional means of doing this were, of course, standardized tests. While necessary in any assessment, they were by no means sufficient. If, as survey after survey seemed to show, too many students were graduating “only semi-literate and ill equipped to cope with the demands of higher education, the world of work and citizenship responsibilities,” it seemed to John Bennion that some means had to be found to articulate what students were supposed to know in order to function in these areas. The central question which everyone needed to ask was “how well are students learning what is fundamentally important for them to learn and what can we do to stimulate higher levels of learning, particularly among students who are not progressing well.”93
To answer this question demanded more than scores. It required on the part of the teacher “a history” of student output which could be evaluated within the context of the school’s own environment. One means of doing this, and one which was being tried in a number of Salt Lake City schools as the district celebrated its centennial in 1990, was the “Portfolio” approach. Using student portfolios, teachers collected on a regular basis samples of student work in, for example, writing. They then analyzed them to determine the extent to which the learning outcomes contained in the student’s portfolio meshed with what the student was supposed to be learning. Teachers could see before them a history of what students were actually doing (or not). This approach also enhanced the communication of student academic status to parents. The portfolio approach to evaluation is time consuming, subject to the vagaries of all evaluative procedures, and not easily tied in to a score. But it promises some way out of the reductionist fallacy so often associated with traditional grading or testing practices. In a very real sense, it also holds promise of making the individual student the focus of assessment by not “tagging” the student a success or a failure, but instead offering opportunities for success at the student’s own rate. Whether large numbers of teachers will pursue the portfolio concept long enough to enable the process to be fairly evaluated is debatable.
As one peruses some of the papers Bennion has written, there can be little doubt that he is an educator who believes that teachers do count and that schools can make a difference. He rejects the pessimistic notion so common among philosophers and historians of education in the 1970s that schools are “ineffectual and all but impotent.” He holds that the school’s primary role is one of intel-lectual stimulation and that expecting it to fill social and other services blunts that primary focus. But Bennion also believes that as poverty and inequality of opportunity became more and more evident in the lives of many children, the school can help bridge the opportunity gap caused by “dysfunctional families, poverty, language barriers, unstimulating home and neighborhood environments, child neglect and abuse and the over-indulgence in T.V., videos, video games and other mindless pass times outside of schools.” In Bennion’s words: “the 1990s will test anew the proposition that schools can learn to effectively compensate for instability and limited learning opportunities outside of the school … If we fail, our failure may mean the demise of the American dream itself.”94
In June 1990 and again in June 1992, just as the district celebrated its first century of service to the people of Salt Lake City, the board of education unanimously appointed John W. Bennion to his third and fourth terms as superintendent. The first board election after the bruising closure and boundary dispute did not become, as some had predicted, a referendum on the board or on the district’s eleventh superintendent. In the fall of 1991 at the annual meeting of the Utah Education Association at the Salt Palace, Dr. Don K. Richards, on behalf of the Utah School Superintendent’s Association, named John Bennion as the “Utah Superintendent of the Year,” and nominated him for consideration as “National Superintendent of the Year.” In his letter of nomination, Richards praised Bennion for his “dedication, bold vision and willingness to try innovative approaches.” John Bennion, he said, “is the kind of dedicated and dependable leader you search for.”
In words so different from what his entries about educational matters had reflected since February 1987, Bennion recorded in his personal journal that the meeting before the UEA at the Salt Palace “was all very nice. This recognition is gratifying after my being such a controversial figure in Salt Lake City for several years.”95 It was a typical low-key Bennion comment, but the award compensated somewhat for the turmoil of 1987 and 1988. His executive secretary, Jan Keller, commented that he was always willing to let people try new things, “and if they fail, he says, ‘well, that didn’t work,’ and puts it into perspective.” Only in the long perspective of history can John Bennion’s efforts to make a difference in Salt Lake City public schools ultimately be judged, but perhaps, more than any superintendency in the history of the district or even of the state, Bennion’s tenure may be seen as a case study of the ways in which public schools, for good and ill, are a reflection of the ideals and the biases that pervade the community.
As the Salt Lake School District’s first century came to a close, John Bennion attempted to focus public attention on the need not only for excellence in the curriculum, but also on equity of access for all children. The learning lag in in-[p.285]ner-city schools compared to student achievement in affluent neighborhoods had become one of his main concerns. He felt that low achievement in inner-city schools greatly reduced opportunities for urban children and increased polarization between the affluent and the undereducated.
After eight years as superintendent Bennion was granted a sabbatical leave which he spent teaching a class in ethics at each of the city’s three high schools from September 1993 to January 1994. During this period Assistant Superintendent Mary Jean Johnson served as Acting Superintendent—the only woman to have done so since M. Adelaide Holton’s brief stint as Acting Superintendent in 1899. On 1 September 1994 Bennion left the superintendency to accept a professorship in Urban Education at the University of Utah’s Graduate School of Education. There he hoped to create opportunities for urban educators to learn to stimulate higher levels of student achievement.94 For Bennion, the frontier of public education in metropolitan areas is the revitalization of urban schools in general and the improvement of low-income schools in particular. The extent to which these ideals are realized in the district’s second century will indicate whether anything was learned from the turmoil and friction the district went through in the late 1980s. Perhaps knowledge of the tensions and strains of these years will prevent these struggles from becoming a template for Century II of the Salt Lake City public schools.
2. The LDS church changed its practice with respect to males of African descent in June 1978. In common with many other LDS members of this time, Bennion was acutely uncomfortable with the church’s ban. Around 1977, he sought a meeting with President Spencer W. Kimball to express his concerns about the impact of the practice on the church in places with large African-American populations. He was not at all encouraged by what President Kimball communicated to him at that time and held out little hope of a change in church policy in the immediate future. Conversation with John Bennion, 25 Aug. 1991.
18. This discussion of Bennion’s leadership style is based on oral history interviews conducted with John Bennion, 11 Aug. 1991; Patti O’Keefe, 9 Nov. 1991; Don Barlow, 6 Apr. 1992; George Henry, 10 Apr. 1992, and “Be Fair with Bennion,” Salt Lake Tribune, 3 Mar. 1988.
[p.254]19. Patricia McLeese, “The Process of Decentralizing Conflict and Maintaining Stability: Site Council Enactment, Implementation, Operations, and Impacts in the Salt Lake City School District, 1970-1985” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1992, 361, 493–94; Don Barlow, Oral History, 6 Apr. 1992; “Bennion Unveils Plans for Bringing S.L. Teachers Out of Isolation,” Salt Lake Tribune, 18 Mar. 1985.
26. Betty Malen, Michael J. Murphy and Ann W. Hart, “Career Ladder Reform in Utah: Evidence of Impact—Recommendations for Action,” Occasional Policy Paper, Graduate School of Education, University of Utah, Jan. 1987, 31-3.
29. Early mention of the possible need to close South High are cited in lngrid Oxaal, “Closing a High School: Student Activities in the Temporary Organization,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1990, 38.
31. Marjory Boyden chaired the district’s Equivalency Sub-Committee which prepared the “Equivalency Interim Report,” 18 Nov. 1986. The data in this report became the basis for deciding which high school should close.
32. The discussions about the need to close a high school were not officially “on record” because they were exploratory in nature, hence there is no written record of what transpired during these discussions. Bennion, Oral History, 11 Aug. 1991, and a conversation with him on 25 Aug. 1992.
34. Deseret News, 26 Jan. 1987. See Jan Keller’s “South High Closing” packet for details of meeting of 3 February through 16 June 1987. The packet is available for examination at the Superintendent’s Office.
[p.259]35. “Proposal to close South High angers students, faculty,” Deseret News, 4 Feb. 1987; “Plan to Close South High Riles Youths,” Salt Lake Tribune, 4 Feb. 1987; conversation with Sue Southam, English teacher at South, Spring 1993.
[p.266]52. “South High decision is probably months away,” Deseret News, 17 Mar. 1987; “School Board May Abandon Today’s Deadline on South,” Salt Lake Tribune, 17 Mar. 1987; conversation with Sue Southam, Spring 1993.
53. “Board Vote to Keep South High Open Until ’88,” Salt Lake Tribune, 18 Mar. 1987; “South High will close in 1988—if citizen’s panel agrees,” Deseret News, 18 Mar. 1987. See also Board of Education, Minutes, 17 Mar. 1987.
[p.268]57. Henry, Oral History 9 Apr. 1992; Barlow, Oral History, 4 May 1992; Bennion, Oral History 11 Aug. 1991; LaVar Sorensen, Oral History, 8 Sept. 1992; “‘Big Bad South” to Leave a Special Sports Legacy,” Salt Lake Tribune, 1 July 1987. LaVar Sorensen was a cousin of LaMar Sorensen, principal of East.
61. Bennion, Journal, 27 Sept., 11 Oct., 18 Oct. 1987; Bennion, Oral History, 11 Aug. 1991. See also accounts of public hearings in Salt Lake Tribune, 7 Oct., 14 Oct., 20 Oct. 1987; Deseret News, 7 Oct., 14 Oct. 1987.
[p.270]62. Bennion, Journal, 20 Sept., 11 Oct. 1987; Bennion, Oral History, 6 Sept. 1991; “Proposal to create academy at West is met with skepticism,” Deseret News, 23 Sept. 1987; “Board Studies Plan for ‘Model School’ at West High after Closure of South,” Salt Lake Tribune, 23 Sept. 1987.
[p.272]66. The furor created by the decision to realign the high school boundaries is documented in some thirty articles that appeared in Salt Lake City newspapers between 28 October and 15 December 1987. No attempt has been made to cite them all here, but a few representative pieces are “Parents March to Protest School Boundary Decision,” Deseret News, 4 Nov. 1987; “Parents Vow to Remove Children from School to Protest Realignment,” Deseret News, 12 Nov. 1987; “If School Lines Go, We Do Too, Cry Parents,” Salt Lake Tribune, 18 Nov. 1987; “Use Heads Instead of Hysteria to Solve City School Problem,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 Nov. 1987. As a member of the Highland High School Community Council during 1987-88, I observed the community divisions at close hand.
70. “School Boundary Panel Drawing Up 3 Maps,” Deseret News, 1 Dec. 1987; “S. L. High School Equality is Still Ideal Worth Pursuing,” and “Any School Boundary Act Will Draw Fire,” Deseret News, 2 Dec. 1987.
72. “Boundary Drama Gets New Twist: Close East,” Deseret News, 16 Dec. 1987; “Parents Would Rather Close East than Lose Hundreds to West High,” Deseret News, 18 Dec. 1987; “School Board Must be Joking with East High Jettison Idea,” Salt Lake Tribune, 23 Dec. 1987; “Closing Two High Schools has Merit,” Deseret News, 23 Dec. 1987.
[p.280]86. “Be Fair With Bennion,” Salt Lake Tribune, 3 Mar. 1988; “Attack on Bennion Was Unfair,” Deseret News, 4 Mar. 1988; “No Confidence Vote Was Unfortunate,” Deseret News, 9 Mar. 1988. See also A. L. Gallegos letter, Salt Lake Tribune, 14 Mar. 1988, in which he chides the SLTA for lack of specificity in its criticism of Bennion.
89. The momentous decision to retain Bennion was recorded in a terse three-line item. See Board of Education, Minutes, 21 June 1988; also “School Board Gives Bennion 2 More Years,” Salt Lake Tribune, 22 June 1988.
[p.283]93. Bennion, “Student Assessment—The Propelling Force in the Educational Restructuring Movement,” Paper delivered at the Utah Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 7 Oct. 1991.