Culture Clash and Accommodation
Frederick S. Buchanan

Chapter 9
Schools As Participatory Democracy
The Administration of M. Donald Thomas, 1973-84

[p.215]The election of November 1972 had put a young, energetic board in place, which, having secured Wiscombe’s resignation, turned its attention to finding a new superintendent. The search for a new administrator should not, a News editorial noted, be confined to local professionals; but neither should it yield someone unfamiliar with the “problems and circumstances which are unique to Utah,” adding that there are certainly “plenty of former Utahns who have gone on to achieve high levels of responsibility in other school systems who may be eager to return here.”1 It sounded like a replay of the late 1890s when the board was charged with favoring “outsiders” over “insiders.” However, the new board, consisting entirely of members of the LDS church, while it gave due consideration to the applications of a number of insiders, chose an outsider’s outsider—an Italian-born, former Catholic, now Methodist, who had extensive experience administering schools in the midwest, the East, and in California—as Salt Lake City’s tenth superintendent. M. Donald Thomas was the fourth Protestant since 1890 to lead the district and the first non-Mormon since Ernest Smith in 1920.

Thomas was new wine in a new bottle. During the next decade the district, if not quite inebriated with his infectious enthusiasm, certainly achieved new highs in how its schools were governed, how and what students should be taught, and how teachers and administrators should relate to the central office and to patrons. In time a distinct tone of financial and political stability began to pervade district affairs. In large measure this was due to the expert fiscal management of the new district Business Administrator, Gary Harmer, as well as the agreement between the board and Thomas that they would give him maximum freedom to do his job and not involve themselves in the day-to-day affairs of the district schools.

The new superintendent took as his highest priority the need to continue the process of decentralization that had begun under Bennion and Wiscombe. Thomas pushed ahead with his own interpretation of participatory democracy, which he called “shared governance.” In time the district was identified nationally as a showcase for involving a large segment of hitherto silent community members as active participants in their schools.

[photo: p.216]

M. Donald Thomas

M. Donald Thomas, 1973-84

[p.217]Although boosters claimed it as a success, studies indicated less power sharing than claimed. The traditional “top down” authority relationships had not changed those who had been denied a voice before shared governance, i.e., minorities, were still without one. One study even suggested that shared governance seemed to work in Salt Lake because it fit rather neatly into the Mormon idea of lay involvement in church government—an involvement that does not include, of course, making any real policy decisions. Nevertheless, implementing the concept gave many people a greater sense of involvement than they had previously had.

Thomas encouraged teachers to experiment with new approaches. He was especially concerned that far too many underprivileged children were not getting the learning opportunities they needed to raise their aspirations. He earned the praise and esteem of Salt Lake’s minority populations for his insistence that the students learn not only about their ethnic culture, but also what it would take to function in the larger society

Pluralism gone mad, Thomas believed, would only end in disaster for those who needed basic skills most: the urban underclass. Because he insisted on more than symbolic integration, Thomas increased greatly the number of minority teachers in the district, contributing to a more diverse and cosmopolitan teacher corps.

With John Crawford’s departure from the board in 1979, Thomas began to feel less support from the board, and some board members again began to interfere in the daily work of the schools—not something he relished.

When declining enrollments in the high schools became an issue that could not be ignored, Thomas was warned by the board that none of them could be closed without political and social turmoil. Thomas urged the board’ to allow the market place of open enrollment to determine which school should close he felt it would be West—but conflicts with the board, the uncertainty over shared governance, and perhaps just the fact that he had been in his position for ten years, led to a close vote of re-appointment. He resigned in July 1984 and accepted a position to implement the educational reforms mandated by the South Carolina legislature.

M. Donald Thomas was a “respected and colorful, but controversial” superintendent. Those characteristics defined him and his administration. He left the district with a very definite vacuum to be filled. While his exuberant personality sometimes was seen as manipulative, even those who knew they were being manipulated had profound admiration for this human dynamo who made everything he came in contact with hum in sync with his enthusiasm.

The Search for a Conflict Manager

With Wiscombe reduced to a mere figurehead between February and June 1973, the man who had become his nemesis, attorney John Crawford, took over the day-to-day management of the school system and set in motion the search for a replacement. The board received dozens of applications and eventually winnowed them down to four finalists; three of these were: Raymond Arvison, su-[p.218]perintendent of Hayward Unified School System, California; Wayne Carle, the controversial superintendent of Dayton, Ohio, schools; and M. Donald Thomas, superintendent of the Newark School District in California.

Because no records are available documenting the deliberations of the board when it chooses a superintendent, there is no way of describing the process very precisely. However, after interviewing the top four candidates the board chose M. Donald Thomas. In doing so they broke a long-standing practice and informal policy of appointing a Mormon educator to the post. According to John Crawford, religion was never discussed in the meetings leading up to Thomas’s appointment. Afterwards, when community members expressed surprise that the board had chosen an “outsider,” Crawford responded that they had picked the best person for the position, regardless of religion. Although Thomas was the fourth non-Mormon to be elected to the position, he was the first to serve as superintendent since Ernest Smith’s tenure from 1916 to 1920. Of the finalists in 1973 only Carle was a member of the LDS church. Ironically, he had been fired that spring from his position as superintendent of Dayton schools for promoting racial integration too aggressively. He had also just been excommunicated from the LDS church for publicly taking issue with the church’s refusal to ordain African-American males to the Mormon priesthood. Some saw the latter as a factor in denying him the superintendency, and it is unlikely that his stance on integration would have endeared him to a board that had already gone through a struggle with Wiscombe on similar issues.2

John Crawford played an important role in choosing the new superintendent and had made inquiries of members of the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Utah regarding possible candidates. Crawford told Professor Lloyd McCleary that the board would like someone with experience in conflict management; McCleary responded that Don Thomas had just published an article dealing with that topic. Eventually McCleary met Thomas in Denver and recommended that he apply for the position. Reluctant to do so because he had just taken the superintendency in Newark, California, the previous year, Thomas did not think that the Mormon board in Salt Lake City would want to appoint an Italian born Methodist. McCleary convinced him that he had a chance, and eventually Thomas applied and was invited to visit Salt Lake City The board liked his frankness in the initial interview, and after investigating his work in Newark voted unanimously to offer him the superintendency He accepted the appointment on condition that the board would approve a “memorandum of agreement” which spelled out his working conditions. Thomas asked for free time to pursue what he wanted to do, freedom to travel as much as possible without having to notify the board, and an annual salary equal to that of the governor, who was then receiving $30,000. The board agreed to almost everything but felt he should accept something short of the governor’s salary They set-[p.219]tled on $29,500.3

Although by the 1970s the religious issue was essentially dormant in governing the public schools, given the facts that Salt Lake City headquarters the LDS church there was always potential for misunderstanding and conflict. Thomas was advised that if anyone did raise the question about him not being LDS he should allow the board to respond. As it was, only one letter appeared in the local press wondering why the district had hired an “outsider.” During his tenure Thomas enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Mormon community and its leaders. The board had indeed chosen an expert in conflict management, someone who could defuse potential conflicts.

The Making of a Modern Superintendent

Prior to Thomas’s appointment, the nine people chosen to superintend the Salt Lake City schools, Mormon and non-Mormon, had been more or less ethnically homogenous: eight were of British, and one was of Danish ancestry. Given his surname of Thomas, most people assumed he had his roots in Wales, but the new superintendent was born in Bugnara, Italy, in 1926, and his birth name was Mario Donato DiTomaso. His father, Luigi Pasquale DiTomaso, had emigrated to the United States early in the twentieth century, became a citizen in 1912, and around 1920 returned to Italy to marry Rosina Manna. Under the law in effect at that time Luigi’s wife automatically became a U.S. citizen, so Mario and his brother Luigi were born in Italy as U.S. citizens. In 1931 when Mario was in the second grade, the family moved to Pittsburgh and then to Chicago Heights, Illinois. To avoid the prejudice often raised against Italians, Luigi changed the family name to Thomas, and his second son became known as M. Donald Thomas. The third son, born in the United States and named Andrew Thomas, eventually became a professor of Italian at Wayne State University and is now known as Andrea DiTomaso.

The young Italian-speaking immigrant experienced some prejudice in America. He was even introduced to his school teacher as the “new dago from Italy” When he asked what that meant, his father deflected the issue by saying, “Dumb teacher, she doesn’t know how to pronounce Diago. You are part of the history of Italy and Diago was a famous Italian explorer and you’re part of that.” Thomas attributed much of his success in life to the positive attitude cultivated in him by his father.

Thomas graduated sixth in a class of some 500 from Bloom Township High School in 1945 and received a football scholarship to the University of Dubuque. He was not really a star player, he recalled, but “I was mean as hell.” During his high school years Thomas abandoned the traditional Catholic faith of his family, becoming a member of a Protestant church. The minister encouraged him to develop his speaking skills, and the congregation helped him financially when he [p.220]went to college.

In the next few years Thomas was involved in a variety of educational experiences—as a high school English and speech teacher, as a principal, and eventually as a superintendent. He capped his professional preparation with a doctoral program at the University of Illinois. In 1969 he was appointed superintendent of an urban district, Greater Amsterdam, in New York, and in 1972 became superintendent in Newark, California.

Newark, according to Thomas, was in disarray, with a mediocre attitude toward education. Board and staff meetings featured irrelevant speeches and ethnic jokes, but Thomas in typical fashion accepted the situation as a challenge. He moved to decentralize the system and to exclude the board from interfering in decision-making about curriculum, personnel appointments, and personnel evaluations. In the process, he pressured at least one principal into retiring and had to face a board that did not like him. They eventually, however, supported his notion of shared governance. His success with shared governance in Newark most attracted the Salt Lake City board to Thomas. A California visit by some Salt Lake board members convinced them that Thomas would meet Salt Lake City’s needs. His experience in handling conflict and his focus on decentralization secured him the position, which he assumed on 1 July 1973.

Something New under the Sun:  Political Calm and Economic Stability

Thomas gave those who worked under him the general impression that he had superb verbal skills and had “great ability to talk and work with people.” Even people who felt that they were being manipulated by his command of language and persuasive manner came away from meetings admiring his ability to get what he wanted and to make participants in the meeting feel involved. From the very beginning Thomas was direct about the district’s problems and he expected others to be direct with him. He had a vast store of data and professional knowledge at his command. He kept up to date in his field through voracious reading habits and expected others to be similarly informed.4

The arrival of a more charismatic and more personable superintendent did not reverse bad situations immediately: scores were still declining, the budget deficit was growing, and the school population was still sinking (and continued to do so until around 1980). Within a short time, however, in Patricia McLeese’s words, “political calm and economic stability” began to work their way through the school system. By adhering to guidelines set up by the board, savings were achieved through closing additional schools. Administrative costs were further reduced by natural attrition and by making available an early retirement plan for aging administrators. During Thomas’s administration a total of 12 schools [p.221]closed, six because of population decrease, two for not meeting safety codes, and four to make way for new schools built between 1976 and 1978—an important sign to the community that the district was still vital. One can only imagine the disastrous results if Arthur Wiscombe had asked for an increase in the property tax mill levy or the issuing of bonds for school renovation during his tenure. Yet within a few years of Thomas’s appointment, Salt Lake City residents responded favorably to a request for a mill levy increase and approved a $30,000,000 bond issue to improve the physical plants. The success of these changes was attributed by John Crawford to the fact that patrons and other members of the community were involved in and informed about the decision making process from the very beginning.

A major contributor to the district’s fiscal stability was the newly appointed Business Administrator, Gary Harmer, who not only balanced the budget, but also produced a reserve account for the district. The previous Business Administrator had not, in John Crawford’s opinion, been on top of things financially Harmer had a successful career with the Utah Education Association and was reluctant to leave that position, but the persistence of President Crawford paid off and Harmer accepted the task of rebuilding the district’s financial structure.

One difficulty the district faced was that under the state funding formulae the district lost money every time a pupil was absent. Under a creative innovation—the “absence reclaiming program”—the district required and arranged for children who had been absent to attend school after regular hours and on Saturdays. In this way Average Daily Attendance rose to a high of some 97 percent, and the district reaped from the state millions of dollars which otherwise would have been lost. Unfortunately for the district coffers, the state department of education soon caught on and changed the rules to disallow Harmer’s creative “reclaiming” of lost revenue. In any case, stabilized conditions helped promote a climate of acceptance for the plans and innovations of the new superintendent.5

Shared Governance as an Idea

The board expected Thomas to pay significant attention to improving the central administration’s relations with teachers, patrons, and the community as a whole. While the board did not understand all of shared governance’s implications for their own legal responsibilities, some early discussions with Thomas had centered precisely on the notion, and it would become a major defining characteristic of Thomas’s tenure.

In fairness to previous administrators it should be noted that for many years close cooperation between the school and its patrons had been encouraged. Certainly superintendents such as L. John Nuttall approved of involving patrons in the schools, but his personal sense of authority combined with his professional [p.222] stature prevented him from sharing it with teachers. M. Lynn Bennion, on the other hand, expressed a great deal of faith in involving more than just educators in shaping school policies. But Bennion was not likely to forget that he had the responsibility to provide leadership—in the absence of which a system can become chaotic. He was, however, able to balance between abdicating his belief that leadership was crucial and the assertion that authority knows best.

According to Patricia Mckeese, while Arthur Wiscombe served as assistant superintendent under Lynn Bennion, he and other district administrators envisioned the School Community Councils they established as a means of giving schools a greater say in governance. This move was related to Wiscombe’s efforts to meet the demands of minority patrons and their students. It would also counteract what was perceived as the “minority dictatorship” of the whole school district by patrons of East Side schools. Increasing the degree of local decision making for Wiscombe was a means of making “district governance more democratic and district educational programs more effective with minority students.” Consequently, when Don Thomas came into the district, there was some precedent for decentralizing decision making, especially in terms of curriculum decisions. While the conflicts of the day overwhelmed Wiscombe, he still apparently had some mechanisms for decentralization in place by 1973, and perhaps even as early as 1967.

The foregoing underscores the fact that innovation in education is usually a matter of evolution over time. Thomas himself acknowledged that what he did in Salt Lake City grew out of the American principle of “consent of the governed,” which holds that society is best served when those governed have some say in determining the policies that will govern them. Without such support and input, a leader can do nothing. In Thomas’s view, schools could not be closed nor boundaries changed in a unilateral way While Wiscombe did make attempts to involve people (the shouting matches which erupted at public hearings on the closing of schools was to him evidence of public participation), his decision to close schools was not seen as one that emanated from the “will of the governed.” Wiscombe asserted his leadership when difficult decisions had to be made, making himself a lighting rod that drew pent-up hostility and increased polarization in the community.

John Crawford believed that for too long the management of the Salt Lake schools had been based on an adversarial relationship. He liked Thomas’s shared governance approach, an extension of the traditional notion of “local control” of public schools, an enshrined perspective in the United States, “based upon a basic belief that citizens (including parents) have a fundamental responsibility for education. Moreover, it is believed that [educational] interests are better served when lay persons determine educational policy than educational bureaucrats.”6 Crawford’s commitment to this ideal catapulted him into taking a stand against what he saw as unwarranted arrogance on the part of the board and the superin-[p.223]tendent in assuming they knew what was best for the district. He believed Thomas could help fix what was broken in school government. Without any formal policy on shared governance, but with the board’s informal approval, the new superintendent began to involve as many people as possible in decision making at all levels.

Thomas initiated his program of shared governance by inviting significant personnel to attend his staff meeting on a regular basis, not just as observers, but as full voting members empowered to make decisions. By including such individuals as the president and executive secretary of the Salt Lake Teachers’ Association, their counterparts in the administrative association, and the president of the classified employees on the “Superintendent’s Cabinet,” Thomas greatly broadened the decision-making base and increased the information available from professional colleagues, as well as increasing the number of people who might be held responsible for whatever decisions were made.

Input from schools came through School Improvement Councils and School Community Councils. The SICs in elementary schools were assigned the responsibility of providing “orderly and professional means of improving the educational program and conditions within the school.” They consisted of faculty representatives, the principal, secretary, and custodian: In secondary schools additional personnel were involved, such as representatives of the counselling staff, advisors to student government, and various academic and non-academic staff.7

To ensure that the SIC would become actively engaged in the decision-making process, individual members could introduce any item of business for council discussion; minutes were to be kept of recommendations and actions, then disseminated throughout the school; the council would meet at least once a month, and the chair was to be elected by the council. While each SIC had responsibility for its own school in terms of procedures and programs, these had to be consistent with the board’s policies and were “subject to ratification by the faculty of the school and approved by the superintendent.” The SIC was not empowered to go beyond local concerns and issues judged to be outside their scope had to be referred to the central administration and teacher association, or the chair could take the issue to the superintendent.

Thomas further extended the idea of shared governance through School Community Councils, giving patrons representation in the decision making process. The SCC for each school included the members of the SIC plus the PTA president and first vice president. The latter two, in collaboration with the principal, nominated three community members, who in turn nominated another three community members, making a total of eight community members on each SCC. In selecting community members of the SCCs, consideration was given to equitable minority and geographic representation. The councils were also given the power to appoint additional ad hoc committees and to report the findings of [p.224]such committees to the council. Like the SICs, minutes of meetings were supposed to be kept and distributed to the members and, of course, councils were required to work within the “guidelines of the Board of Education policy, budget, ethics and law.”

The superintendent wanted SCCs to be actively involved in the decision making process. When he delivered the charge to the school representatives on School Community Councils he expressed some of his ideals and hopes for their role in school governance:

Schools operate best when there is close cooperation between home and school. Shared Governance is a method for establishing that cooperation. … The School Community Council extends local decision-making to each local school unit. It is there that decisions can best be made concerning those items that augment Board of Education policies. Recognizing Board policies, abiding by state and federal regulations, staying within the budget limits, and promoting ethical practices, the School Community Councils are a tremendous asset to the Salt Lake School District and make a significant contribution to the operation of our schools.8

SICs and SCCs were, as mentioned above, introduced to the district prior to Thomas’s arrival, but Thomas did sharpen and focus their role. Certainly the number and variety of items they dealt with during his tenure and the degree of authority delegated to local schools increased markedly compared to the years 1970-1973.9

Shared Governance in Action

Thomas tended to keep out of the decision-making process as much as was legally and professionally permissible. In one instance, the issue of whether high schools should continue to operate a flexible scheduling program (wherein students were required to be in school only when classes on a particular topic were necessary) led to acrimonious and extended debate that pitted teachers against principal, students against faculty, or non-academic faculty against parents and academic faculty. When one group appealed to the superintendent to resolve the issue for their stymied SCC, he refused to intervene and instructed them to solve it at the local level; no district policy was involved. Eventually each school reached a similar decision to abandon flexible scheduling, although by quite different routes.

In another case, one junior high school had gone through much turmoil over a lack of students’ accountability for their behavior. Police calls were common, but did not reduce the tensions or improve low academic achievement. SCC initiatives led to a complete overhaul of all the school’s policies. New poli-[p.225]cies implemented by the SCC brought an immediate reduction in police calls and academic promotion improved by some 20 percent. All this was accomplished without top-down directives.10

Even issues beyond the purview of individual schools were seen as being amenable to shared governance at an inter-school or district-wide level. As early as the mid-1970s there was talk among the district leadership of the need either to close one high school or three junior high schools. An ad hoc district-wide committee recommended that the district’s grade system be changed from K-6, 7-9, and 10-12 to K-6, 7-8, and 9-12. Ninth grade students would be assigned to the first year of senior high school, reducing pressure on junior highs by permitting three of them to close and changing the remaining six to intermediate schools.

Because such decisions were made on the advice and consent of the governed, the closures “were accomplished with less difficulty than had ever been experienced by the district in the closing of any twenty-three previous schools.” Stanley Morgan attributed this to the high involvement of significant sectors of the community in the decision making process as did Thomas, who also attributed it to allowing market forces to determine the outcome of deliberations. One Community Council (Roosevelt Junior High) was so attuned to the market realities that they actually petitioned the board to close the school, which Thomas interpreted as the “ultimate in the consent of the governed.”11

While the district during the Thomas years reflected a more up-beat and cooperative tone than the previous administration had enjoyed, it would be wrong to attribute all of the change to shared governance. As happens often in education, improvements can sometimes be brought about simply because the issues are being talked about and attended to by those in power. According to McLeese, the whole concept of shared governance was very controversial throughout the years it was tried in the district. In only one of the schools she observed did it lead to a new and creative vision as to what schools should be about. In this particular instance the School Community Council determined that their school should be “sluff free, fight free, failure free and fear free” and policies were implemented at the site level which indeed made headway in producing such a school, for a time at least.12

Even such an enthusiastic proponent as Thomas admitted that he had difficulty working with principals who resisted shared governance in their schools. At times he had to persuade teachers not to resist the notion of evaluating teachers through School Community Councils.13 Such instances remind us that mandated democracy is not quite what the liberal theory of democratic government is supposed to mean. However, in the eyes of the board and the superintendent, [p.226]even “top-down democracy” is probably better than the social, political, and educational chaos they perceived as the legacy of the previous administration.

In practice, shared governance had the potential of giving self-serving leaders more power; they could claim that the “people” were behind the decisions that they had actually engineered. This “tyranny of the majority” made the shared governance ideology just as destructive of good decision making as overt, top-down, centralized governance. Others were uncomfortable with the idea because it seemed to contradict the traditional notion of professionalism, which held that the superintendent was in charge of principals, who were in charge of teachers, who were in charge of students. Abandoning the “natural” order of things and involving teachers too much in the governance of schools forced teachers to lose interest in their primary responsibility, the classroom.14 Response to the concept depended in large measure on the personal dispositions of participants. In spite of some resistance to shared governance, the vast majority of principals, teachers and parents apparently responded positively to it. In time, Thomas was recognized as a promoter of the idea in school districts across the nation, although in Utah the idea was limited to the Salt Lake District.

When Thomas initially broached the issue of having the board adopt a formal policy statement about shared governance, some resistance occurred on the grounds that it went against the board’s own legal authority to govern the schools. This was overcome when the board was assured that parents serving on SCC would be appointed, not elected, and the councils would not have the power to fire teachers. Like many other professional educators, Thomas was anxious to increase his professional stature and national visibility by demonstrating outstanding accomplishments as a school leader. This very natural disposition was probably part of the motivation in getting the board to approve a formal policy statement on shared governance. On 16 May 1978, the board approved a statement which met Thomas’s request for official approval of what he had been doing for the last five years. It stated: “It is the policy of the board that each council participates actively in the decision-making process for the school rather than in an advisory capacity. The council, like all other governance or administration units of the district, operates within the guidelines of Board of Education Policy, Budget, Ethics, and Law.”15 Such a statement, enshrined as an official board policy, was necessary for the district to be considered for the prestigious list of model cities put out by the National Committee for Citizens in Education, a private group to promote citizen involvement in public schools. At the core of this group’s rationale was the belief that the professionalization of education had deprived parents of a sense of ownership in their children’s education. Thomas, one of this organization’s board members, was perceived as one of the most open [p.227]superintendents in the nation for including parents as decision makers in schools. He was recognized by the National Committee as a “pioneer” in the area of site-based management.16 His endeavors came to fruition in Salt Lake City in 1979 when the district was designated as a model for “site based governance” by the NCCE.

Widespread representative involvement was not an end in itself. Shared governance was rather the means of making public schools more effective in serving children. Although shared governance has become something of a trend nationally, there is little long-term empirical evidence showing a connection between shared governance and concrete benefits accruing to children. It is assumed, probably not without good reason, that parental involvement in schools will benefit students. However, specific evidence (apart from the anecdotal accounts discussed above) confirming or denying this will have to await future studies. By the end of his tenure in 1984, Thomas claimed that student achievement in the district had improved—for eighth graders “we were about two years ahead of norm achievement levels”—but even this cannot be tied to one particular innovation.17 Perhaps the most that can be said is that traditional learning proceeds more effectively when the schools are operating in a calm, non-threatening environment.

Assessments of Shared Governance

In 1985, after shared governance had been implemented in Salt Lake schools, Betty Malen and Rodney Ogawa of the University of Utah’s Department of Educational Administration attempted to determine the extent to which parity of power had been achieved in the city’s schools. Taking as a starting point the policy’s explicit intent to give administrators, teachers, and parents “equal power in the determination of school level matters,” they wanted to know how well it actually worked. Based on extensive interviews and a close study of attempts at implementation, they concluded that their findings “clearly demonstrate that parity has not been realized” and that “Site councils have not redistributed decision making authority at the building level.” In spite of many expectations and claims to the contrary, “[t]raditional authority relationships have not been altered by the Shared Governance Policy” Malen and Ogawa identified a number of weaknesses: the councils did not reflect the ethnic diversity of the community; the councils varied greatly in the way they followed the “explicit guidelines” designed to promote effective operation of the councils; too many councils did not meet regularly, did not disseminate minutes, and did not prepare agendas for meetings; the councils tended to enhance principals’ authority rather than share it; principals tended to use the councils as a means of defusing potentially controversial issues; and, ultimately, principals retained control over management of schools, while teachers retained control over instruction. The net result was that [p.228]decision-making authority in any meaningful sense was not altered by shared governance practices. The discrepancy between the intent of the shared governance policy and its actual realization generated “complex and troublesome issues” which the researchers felt would have to be addressed by the district in order to make shared governance more than a good idea.18

In spite of such negative results, however, Malen and Ogawa did not dismiss shared governance as worthless and futile. The School Improvement Councils were viewed by principals as performing an important function as sounding boards, safety valves, as a source of teacher input and staff support, and a means of improving relations. Teachers saw the councils as important sources of information and as giving them a voice in the school. Much more ambivalence about the School Community Councils was expressed by educators, partly because they feared too much parental interference in the classrooms. Parents, on the other hand, seemed to appreciate having access to information about the schools and a voice (even if somewhat circumscribed) in what went on in them.

By simply giving parents a good feeling about what they were doing, the councils gained pragmatic value. As John Crawford expressed the idea, when a school leader promotes a free flow of reliable information to patrons and invites their input, it becomes less likely that new initiatives and recommendations will be rejected or that a hostile relationship will develop between the officers and the patrons of the schools.19

In addition to the pragmatic consequence of including patrons in school deliberations, shared governance tended to decentralize conflicts and “got the district off the hook” by reducing pressure on the central administration to resolve issues immediately. Two potentially explosive issues that were “disarmed” by involving local councils in their resolutions concerned which teacher should leave a particular school and what programs should be cut. Multiplied by the number of schools in the district such decisions had the potential of being a real district “donnybrook,” but when split up among the schools, they were effectively neutralized as far as the district was concerned. Based on her study of the shared governance policy in Salt Lake City, Pat McLeese has suggested that at the district level, decentralization of conflict was perhaps the most important practical result of the policy and may have more long-term significance than the transfer of power. Others have referred to this as the “share the blame” function of shared governance and have suggested that the policy’s major weakness is its use mainly to deal with unpopular decisions. Given the complexity of governing schools one can hardly blame Salt Lake City’s chief educator for wanting to share some of the “negative glory” accruing to him by dint of his participation in the affairs of a seventy million dollar corporation employing some 1,200 teachers and administrators and trying to meet the needs of 25,000 students and their par-[p.229]ents.20

Actual results aside, Salt Lake City’s implementation attempts took on a life of their own and were perceived by outside observers as more successful than similar attempts elsewhere. For example, one study of Salt Lake’s shared governance in teacher evaluation, conducted for the Rand Corporation, asserted that while the concept had been tried in many areas between 1974 and 1984, with varying degrees of success, its relative success in Salt Lake City could be attributed “to the homogeneity of the culture, or at least to the unintentional suppression of divergent groups.” This particular research saw a particularly close “fit between Mormon culture and shared governance.” The superintendent’s ability to convince patrons, teachers, and administrators of the efficacy of shared governance succeeded in large measure because it was “consonant with the organizational and relational styles his patrons were accustomed to.”21

Like the schools in “Mormon country,” local Mormon wards have a great deal of responsibility for their own affairs, even though they are tied to a hierarchical and centralized system of governance in matters theological. Among other factors the Rand study indicated helped make shared governance a success in Salt Lake City were: the widespread use of lay leadership in initiating and carrying out religious, social, cultural, educational, financial, and artistic responsibilities; the tendency in Mormon culture to avoid confrontation and to rely instead on consensus building; and the “notion that a higher [ecclesiastical] authority might ultimately reverse a local decision.”

Even the mundane fact that shared governance requires much time fits into a meeting- and family-centered culture used to spending a great deal of time in councils and on its children. Shared governance, to work at all, depends on “cultural supports for volunteerism, participation, and collective responsibility for child development,” factors readily available in Mormonism’s emphasis on “education, conformity, and cooperative endeavor.” The Rand research also suggested that Thomas personally fit into the religious/cultural expectations which permeated the schools: “Thomas, like the hierarchy of the Mormon church, retains ultimate control, and is unabashedly hortatory.”22

The Rand study also said that “the fit between Thomas’s contrivance and the culture of public education seems more difficult.” By this they apparently meant that the bureaucratic structure of public schooling had difficulty dealing with a system that tended to short-circuit long entrenched procedures and make what were perceived to be end-runs around the entrenched bureaucracy Thomas admitted that up to the time he left the district some principals did not share his vision of shared governance. Some had difficulty going directly to him with problems because of their previous socialization into a more hierarchical chain of command. Administrators at the district level, who had become accustomed to [p.230]their place in centralized decision making, found it almost impossible to give up the power and titles which had accrued to them. Even the Salt Lake Teacher’s Association, while very supportive of shared governance in adjudicating the removal of teachers judged incompetent by their peers, was caught in a double bind when it provided legal funds for teachers so removed to challenge the action. But as Thomas was wont to say, no system is perfect: shared governance did not guarantee that no tensions would ever arise in a system as complex as the public schools.23

In light of public support and administrative resistance, it is not unreasonable to see Thomas as an educational reformer attempting to counteract the “one best system” mentality, which David Tyack has demonstrated permeated much educational thought of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In counteracting this mentality in Salt Lake City, Thomas, an outsider, pushed the community back to some of its own cultural roots and values. He was also resisting the inherent bureaucratic tendency to promote “over conformity.” Ironically, shared governance came into conflict with a highly centralized school bureaucracy that had also been promoted by the Mormons, in the early 1900s.24

What Are Schools for and What Is Worth Knowing?

Just as many doubt that there is any one best system of organizing schools, so too, it appears, there is not one type of teacher or strategy that is efficacious in every situation. For example, when Patti O’Keefe began teaching in Salt Lake in the early 1970s she resisted using the Sullivan whole language approach to reading, but eventually decided that to reject it out of hand would harm those students who needed that particular approach. The nub of the whole issue for her was the realization that a teacher needs and should have access to a multitude of approaches, rather than relying on one approach to answer all the needs of the mixed groups that inhabit a typical school.25 Public schools, even in relatively homogenous cities such as Salt Lake, find a wide array of needs and talents among their students. One of Thomas’s innovations that stimulated dialogue and discussion was his promotion of the theme that “Every Child Can Learn.” This posed, in essence, a challenge to each teacher to plan the classroom experience with a wide variety of student needs and capacities in mind. This idea certainly encouraged a broader conception of school aims and also helps explain the kinds of comprehensive reform Thomas encouraged teachers to develop. O’Keefe reflected on this as “the era when we started really recognizing that we could engage in professional dialogue and discussion about teaching and learning and the context of the school and… [identify] some of the things that might contribute [p.231]to make it a more effective [learning] environment.”26

Teachers who came to Thomas “bright eyed and bushy tailed with sparkling enthusiasm” could run new ideas for programs by him and find ready acceptance and encouragement to proceed. Of course, he expected teachers to be professionally responsible for their plans, but he tended to endorse “any and all innovations” that teachers could convince him helped increase the learning of their students. Thomas really believed that schools could make a difference in the lives of young people. He repeatedly expressed concern that while educational reforms initiated by the Nation at Risk report of 1983 stressed academic excellence and apparently boosted the achievement scores of the bottom quartile of the student population, this was not happening among the students in large cities, where most minorities lived. The lack of progress was due, in his estimation, to city systems being too bureaucratic—a view that fits well into his notion of site-based governance.27

His basic concern for the classroom reinforced the notion that Thomas was very much a “hands-on” advocate. He organized workshops to help teachers hone their skills. At workshops he did not hesitate to join discussion groups and become involved in talking about different approaches to teaching. He knew teachers’ names and was not above engaging in good natured kidding when he met them in various settings. His disposition to be genuinely interested in teachers was probably the basis for the comment made at the farewell banquet in his honor when he left the district in 1984. After a number of dignitaries had spoken and praised his work in the district, the President of the Salt Lake Teachers’ Association simply said that Thomas’s major contribution was to make teaching a profession in Salt Lake City. Frequently he and his wife Fran received bouquets of flowers as marks of appreciation from teachers who appreciated his support of their professional aspirations.28

But Thomas was not just a hands-on enthusiast, exuding fast-fix gimmicks for teachers. His practical side was firmly rooted in a sophisticated view of learning that was much influenced by his graduate work with David Ausubel of the University of Illinois. Ausubel, a pioneer in the cognitive approach to learning, viewed the learning process not as a matter of conditioning students to respond to discrete stimuli, but as a process of intellectual growth and development brought about through relating the learner to the context in which the details can be understood. The memorization and recall of discrete facts in isolation from their context was not, for Ausubel, the way children should be taught.29

This approach to teaching is clearly reflected in the kind of curriculum Thomas pursued in the Salt Lake District. In his view, to meet the needs of the broad spectrum of student ability, the best way “is not to concentrate so heavily on the [p.232]basic skills. … [I]f you want to teach basic skills it’s better to teach them through algebra than general math …. If you want to teach grammar it’s better to teach it through John Steinbeck’s literature than to teach it through [focusing on] basic skills.” In his opinion the schools had done quite well in teaching the basic skills didactically, but had not done so well in linking the basics to “high order thinking skills.” Basic reading skills taught and learned alone and apart from thinking skills represented for Thomas only one limited aspect of the teaching/learning process.30

Even with all his persuasive skills, the superintendent could not convince everyone to embrace the point of view on the holistic, Ausubelian model. Given the diversity found in a large school district, Thomas’s own reluctance to impose one way of doing anything, and his willingness to allow teachers to experiment, it would have been too much to expect him to reshape the teaching approaches of generations of teachers and principals. In a sense, he may have been prevented from establishing a more holistic approach district-wide because he had convinced teachers that they should be involved in governance. With that orientation, imposition of a prescribed program from the district office would have been well-nigh impossible.

“Pluralism Gone Mad”

Thomas’s early exposure to Ausubel and to the history of education under James Anderson at the University of Illinois served him well when he took issue with criticism of public schooling that surfaced during the late 1970s. Much of this was based on a revisionist interpretation of the American educational past, which attempted to counterpose the traditional, sometimes euphoric and romantic view of the public schools with what the revisionists saw as a more realistic assessment. The rhetorical view glorified the public schools as giving everyone equal opportunity in America and serving as a foundation for a democratic society The realistic view stressed the failure of schools to meet the needs of America’s dispossessed—the poor, minorities, and women.31

Thomas believed both extremes did injustice to the intent and record of the American public school. He rejected the notion that the only way to redeem the schools was to open them up to greater diversity of perspective and to forego making any moral or ethical claims on them. He argued that “pluralism gone mad” was weakening the schools through establishment of separate courses for minority students, the stress on immediate relevancy in class content, proliferation of courses, the promotion of moral relativism, and “confusion between education and job programs.” Instead of improving educational opportunities for America’s minorities, this warped program, according to Thomas, had “created confusion, ambivalence and fear.” What the nation needed was not such a nega-[p.233]tive assessment of schools, but a “renewed emphasis on the historical traditions of our nation, based on the democratic principles embedded in our national documents.” Admitting that such a task was not easy, he affirmed that with aggressive educators committed to “narrowing the gap between principles and practice” the nation’s schools would not need to be “dismantled in order to improve them.”32

Thomas argued that expecting schools single-handedly to resolve complex problems such as racism, poverty, and social injustice was completely unrealistic. Better to help alleviate such problems by teaching “students to think, to get jobs, to appreciate freedom and to understand the principles of democratic government. These are the functions that schools can perform well. Other educational goals should be assumed by other social agencies. When such a balance of responsibility is established, both public and private agencies will do their jobs better.”33

At the very heart of Thomas’s educational philosophy, and an essential component of the public school’s role in American society, was what he (and others) have referred to as the “American ethos,” a tradition-shrouded statement of liberal sentiments and assumptions he believed should undergird public schools: self worth, the value of democracy, faith in reason, respect for knowledge, and equal protection under the law. These principles, if adhered to and promoted in public schools, would provide the diversity of American society with the cohesive social glue required to keep it from falling apart. Such a perspective would allow public schools to balance their aims and purposes between promoting individual rights and the public good.34

Given the kind of culture in which Thomas served as superintendent, his resistance to radical pluralism can be easily understood. If shared governance (partially) succeeded because of the close fit between it, Thomas, and the local culture, his ideas for curriculum also fit very nicely into the general conservative outlook of the era and area. His affinity with the values of Mormon culture explains not only the curriculum he promoted, but also why he never felt any pressure exerted on him from the LDS church. He occasionally had breakfast with the LDS Commissioner of Education, Neal Maxwell, to discuss general school issues, but in none of these contacts did he ever experience pressure. Thomas had the impression from his visits with church leaders that they were anxious to avoid controversy In addition, some points of contention during Wiscombe’s tenure were now fading—in June 1978, for example, the church abandoned its long-held denial of priesthood to males of African descent. As Thomas reflected on his relationship with the LDS community he remarked: “What I did was appropriate for the times in which the Mormon Church was changing. … [W]hat I did and what they were doing was just kind of congruent … it was not a chal-[p.234]lenge; it was a complementary thing to what they were doing.”35

His cordial relationship with LDS leaders and the community did not mean that Thomas overlooked instances when some teachers overreached the bounds of propriety and initiated prayers in classrooms or had discussions that verged on promoting particular religious doctrines in the classroom. In one instance, when a principal asked for assistance with a teacher who was telling children about Jesus’ virgin birth, Thomas attempted to approach the issue from a First Amendment perspective. The teacher responded: “Well, Dr. Thomas, don’t you believe in the Virgin Mary?” Thomas emphasized that his belief or disbelief was not the issue; the real issue was that in public schools “We can’t under the First Amendment be teaching children about the Virgin Birth.” Aside from a few other instances, Thomas had to counsel principals or teachers about separation of church and state only three or four times in eleven years. From Thomas’s perspective, his situation was unique in Utah in that as superintendent he was cautioning against overlapping state and church functions. Thomas had a sense (probably accurate) that prayer and religious teachings were more common in Utah’s rural school districts. It was unlikely, he believed, that rural Mormon superintendents would counsel against these practices as he did in Salt Lake.36

Equity and Standards

The same knowledge and assertiveness Thomas used to broach the issue of church and state also characterized his response to the education of minorities. From his point of view, to educate the minority child as a minority instead of as an individual was harmful to the child’s sense of self. One teacher told Thomas she had not disciplined a black student for throwing rocks until the child’s third throw because she believed “Blacks are used to throwing rocks… and have to get that out of their system.” “That’s nonsense,” retorted Thomas. “[I]f a child throws a rock, you interfere and discipline him the first time, because if you let him throw rocks three times you are reinforcing that he can throw the first two, and he will get away with it.” The teacher tried to excuse herself by saying that she didn’t want the NAACP to harass her, to which Thomas responded: “The NAACP doesn’t want their kids to throw rocks.”37

The worst thing an educational system could do for minority students, in Thomas’s mind, was to think that equity and fairness meant the absence of standards. No one would be helped in the long run by this permissive approach. Thomas believed that nothing should be done for minority students “that they reasonably can do for themselves.” When teachers inflate the grades of minority students as a gift they in fact say: “You poor dumb kid, I’m going to have to give you a better grade.” To do this under the guise of help would be counterproductive. In the opinion of one African-American teacher, these condescending ap-[p.235]proaches led to students unprepared in reading and basic study skills and who lacked a sense of self-discipline.38

With large infusions of federal funds Thomas recruited more African-American teachers to teach not only special classes, but the regular curriculum. And while applauding cultural diversity, he drew firm lines at what he saw as an unwarranted broadening of the canon. He dismissed claims that, simply because a person was African-American or hispanic or Italian, he or she should be included in the study of history. Thomas believed in a mainstream of values and ideas, and only those contributions that enhanced the culture of the mainstream were considered worth knowing. He wanted to avoid stereotypes and the trivialization of cultures, often saying that he didn’t want Italians to be known only for eating spaghetti. Choices had to be made. Not everything from every group could or should be included in the curriculum.39

Thomas encouraged personal interaction between members of the minority community and school personnel and seldom missed an opportunity himself to show his support for cultural diversity as an important aspect of the curriculum. For example, he made sure that he was invited to the annual South High Awards Banquet and always made a point of promoting that school’s diversity as one of its strengths. When principals called him in sheer panic because Alberta Henry, an assertive African-American community activist Arthur Wiscombe had appointed to the district staff, had arrived at their school (“She’s in my school. What shall I do?”), he advised them to take her to lunch and get to know her better. Over a series of district-sponsored Saturday “soul food” dinners, he had community members share with principals their stories and their visions of community. The most important effect of this community interaction was to counteract the notion that minority students were incapable of meeting high academic and personal standards. That attitude for Thomas was wrong, morally and pedagogically. To accept it was to create a vicious cycle of lessened expectations on the part of teachers and substandard performance on the part of students.40

Encroachment on Prerogatives

During his years in Salt Lake, Thomas reportedly received repeated job offers, many of them more prestigious and with better pay than the Salt Lake superintendency. But, in the words of one president of the board, Wayne Evans, “he remained singularly dedicated to his job here,” and had implemented every commitment he had made to the board in 1973.41 A decade later, however, a number of circumstances combined, leading to his surprise resignation from the superintendency to take up a major role in a massive educational reform package in South Carolina.

A person as forthright and committed as Thomas could not, of course, fail to [p.236]ruffle some feathers during his long tenure. Shared governance, in its tendency to share the blame for problems as well as the credit for solutions, may have helped deflect criticism onto Thomas himself. Not until he had been in Salt Lake almost five or six years did he begin to feel uneasy about the directions he was receiving from the board. In 1978, John Crawford, shortly before stepping down as president of the board, had presided over a “brief meeting” during which the board reappointed Thomas for another term. Crawford praised the superintendent for his “unselfish devotion to students, parents, teachers, the board and other administrators” and the vote of re-appointment was unanimous. John Crawford ran a “tight ship” as president of the board, and Thomas acknowledged that much of his own success in Salt Lake City could be attributed to Crawford’s work and his abilities.42

With Crawford’s departure in 1979, Thomas began to sense a lack of support. Two of the new members added to the board at the election of November 1978, Tab Uno and Susan Keene, caused Thomas to feel that the days of John Crawford’s kind of board was over, as they violated the 1973 board’s agreement to give him maximum freedom to implement policies. Thomas deeply resented the encroachments Uno and Keene were making. Within eight months of their coming on the board, both Uno and Keene were identified as the major cause of renewed factionalism. Words such as “circus,” “zoo,” and “menagerie” were used to describe the proceedings as the two new members asked surprise questions the staff were not prepared to answer and engaged in “public attacks” on the administration and the board. In addition to disrupting board meetings, Uno and Keene reportedly sent out newsletters to their constituents, openly attacking the board and its policies. Although some observers saw Uno and Keene as “obstructionist agitators” determined to promote conflict in the district, others, Thomas included, blamed a weak board that sat quietly by and allowed its two most aggressive members to set the tone of the meetings.43

Others felt that the board’s two mavericks served the needs of their constituents by raising hard-to-answer questions about school funds and other issues. Instead of debating the issues openly, the majority on the board came to meeting with their minds made up, their votes already cast and without any disposition to listen to new facts and arguments. One patron who supported Uno and Keene complained that the board seemed to be more willing to spend money on new facilities than on new educational programs. Both Uno and Keene believed that the board had become an instrument of Superintendent Thomas, and they accused him in meetings of manipulating the agenda to fit his needs. They felt he should have less power and that the board and local schools should have more. Keene voted against reappointing Thomas in January 1980.44

[p.237]For his part, Thomas was in no mood to compromise with his critics. He had always fended off board members who tried to encroach on his responsibilities. In similar circumstances some superintendents would have organized “retreats and all that nonsense,” but Thomas would have none of that. He wanted to be left alone to do his job. If it was not self-evident to the board that he should be in charge, he did not want to have a role in such a system. Things improved, however, helped perhaps by Uno’s decision not to run for reelection in 1982 and the apparently successful efforts of the rest of the board to neutralize Keene’s continued hostility toward Thomas.45

“Excess High School Capacity”

From 1959 to 1981, Salt Lake’s school population declined steadily until it reached around 23,000, forcing Thomas to close eight schools in ten years (the two previous superintendents had closed some 20, combined). Of the schools Thomas closed, three were junior highs. At the same time he built three new elementary schools. After 1981, the school population showed a slight increase, but had stabilized at around 24,000 students. After so many years of decline, the board’s decision to rebuild East High School after fire destroyed it in 1973 must be seen as a result of political pressure from East’s powerful patrons rather than sound economic or educational reasons. The fact that the entire city population had declined during the 1960s from 189,454 to 175,885 should have been enough to caution the board against rebuilding East. However in the face of an emotional campaign that “East will rise again,” led by such influential cheerleader alumni as Professor J. D. Williams, Mayor E. J. “Jake” Garn and board member Dan S. Bushnell, the irrefutable logic of demographic shifts was refuted by political clout. East High School was rebuilt, just as the need to start closing secondary schools loomed into view as an issue.46

Thomas claimed he would not have recommended rebuilding East had he been superintendent, but it was a fait accompli by the time he assumed office. However, he still had to deal with the realities of shifting demographics. For Thomas, the best way to do that was to close old schools that could not be upgraded and to build new schools that combined the populations served by two old schools. For example, he closed Douglas and Webster elementary schools in 1978 and replaced them with the new M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School. In line with his basic belief in freedom of choice, Thomas also continued to promote a district policy (in effect since the early 1960s) of open enrollment for secondary schools. Students, if they wished, could attend school anywhere in the city The rising number of minority students coming into the city schools, the deterioration of central city residence areas, and the movement of middle-class families to suburban areas combined to make East and Highland High Schools more desirable for white, lower-middle-class residents. This “white flight” meant [p.238]that West and South High Schools began to suffer from a dearth of college-bound students. A self-fulfilling prophecy was thus set in motion: as college-oriented students fled the west side schools, South and West were perceived as unchallenging academically As a result, fewer people under the open transfer policy opted to attend West and South. The whole process was exacerbated by the inescapable fact that as the 1980s progressed, the district simply had, in the words of John Bennion, Thomas’s successor, “excess high school capacity,” just as it had excess elementary capacity under Wiscombe.47

There was understandable reluctance on the part of administrators and the board to close an institution that had come in many ways to be identified with the community, if not for the academic abilities of its “Sterling Scholars,” then certainly for the rich emotional attachments generated by sports, music, and the esprit de corps youth peer groups engender. While closing an elementary school brings protests from a limited area, high schools take in a larger area and a different combination of patrons and politics. So sensitive was the board of education on this issue that sometime in the 1970s they actually passed a mandate that there would always be four equal high schools in Salt Lake City. When Thomas advised that such a policy was unwise, the board warned him that he did not understand Salt Lake City and that “[p]olitically you cannot close a [high] school.” If he did he would “get people, coming out of their retirement and out of their graves to fight for their school.48

Something, however, had to be done. Partly because of demographics and partly because of the open transfer policy, the “critical mass” of students needed to keep high school programs viable at West and South was declining precipitously. One strategy adopted around 1975 changed the junior high schools from serving seventh, eighth and ninth graders to serving only the seventh and eighth in a “Middle School.” Ninth graders were then transferred to high school as the freshman class, making the high school a four year institution. (The four-year high school was, incidentally, a common pattern in the days before junior high schools were touted as necessary for the social and mental health of students aged 13–15.) In this way, two ends would be served: first, the reduction of the junior high to two grades would save money by closing a number of such schools; second, when the 9th grade moved to the high schools, the high school enrollment would automatically be increased, and it would be possible to sustain comprehensive academic offerings.

While closing South High School may not have been part of the agenda of the meetings dealing with the future organization of the junior highs, closing Lincoln Junior High in 1975 was preceded by talk of the need to perhaps close South. From Don Barlow’s perspective, the decision to close South in 1986 was “almost inevitably the result of what we did with the junior highs [in 1975].” But, without a transfusion of ninth grade students from junior high feeder schools, closing South would have become an issue earlier than it did. As a result [p.239]of the middle school reorganization, Thomas was able to close three junior high schools in 1975 and one in 1982. The reason recorded was “decrease in population,” but covertly, it was also to save money and to give the high schools a “critical mass.” Another less-publicized reason had to do with athletics. While ninth graders were in junior high they could not play football, but transferring them to high school enhanced the senior high football teams through providing the students with an extra year of training. A number of prominent individuals (including board members) apparently exerted pressure to enhance their sons’ athletic participation in this way.49

Closing junior highs kept South High open for a few more years, but the problem of declining population would not go away. In spite of valiant efforts to stave off the inevitable—including the innovative Danforth Foundation moral education program and a U.S. Department of Education citation that singled out South as an exemplary urban school—it was clear at least by 1980 that the option of closing South would have to be considered in the immediate future. While Thomas was probably technically correct in asserting that closing South was not an item he discussed with the board, at least as far as formal public meetings are concerned, it is also quite evident that patrons of South High, individual board members, the principals of Highland High and South High, and other administrators had thought much about the issue.50

In December 1983 the board began preparing the public in a series of meetings at each high school to discuss the issue of “open enrollment.” One option discussed during these hearings was the possibility of closing a high school and redistributing its students among the other schools. Another option lay in rescinding the open enrollment policy and changing boundaries to make each school equivalent in numbers of students. The South High community immediately recognized that their enrollment declines made them most vulnerable.

A massive campaign swept South, involving students, faculty, administrators, and alumni to demonstrate concern for the school’s future. Even LDS wards were involved in the campaign to inform the community members of the importance attached to the hearing at South. A special school assembly featured a casket from which the “student body” emerged, signifying the determination that the school should not die. At the public hearing held on a cold and snowy 13 December, over 1,400 people sporting “I Love South High” buttons crowded into South High’s auditorium to protest any attempt to close the school. According to Principal LaVar Sorensen, “more people attended the South High hearing than all the other three schools combined.” And for good reason—no other schools were vulnerable.51 The highly Charged hearing “very politely, but forcibly, told the [p.240]Board of Education not to close the school.” But as events unfolded in the late 1980s, not even strong community enthusiasm could prevent South’s doors from closing.

Closing West High, on the other hand, was successfully avoided. West’s problems included a relatively weak School Community Council and the continual movement of middle-class families away from the “natural” West high attendance area. Had these conditions continued unabated West would likely have closed, as Thomas expected, but several important events intervened: in his last few months as Superintendent, Don Thomas appointed the successful principal at Bryant Junior High, Harold Trussel, to head West High as of 1 July 1984. Trussel, an Ed.S. graduate of the University of Utah, had succeeded in changing the academic climate at Bryant. When he took over at West High he brought to the school a sense of discipline and high expectation the school for so many years had lacked. One of his first tasks was to get an effective School Community Council in place, and, with the help of strong community-minded individuals such as Paul Hanks as the SCC president, he began to transform West High School’s image and reality. Within a few years test scores began to improve and conflict over minority issues declined. Trussel pressured the board to chose West as the home of the district’s prestigious International Baccalaureate program. Classical art work began to adorn hallways and a new sense of pride was instilled in many of the students.52

In the early 1980s Thomas told the board, in response to movement in that direction, that social engineering was not the solution to Salt Lake City’s problems. However, the perspectives of Susan Keene, Tab Uno, and Ronald Walker—representing, respectively, the Central City, lower Avenues, and upper Avenues—won out. The board set boundaries that would (theoretically at least) achieve equity in terms of ethnic composition, income distribution, and social class representation. In Thomas’s view, Keene came to the board with an agenda—to achieve economic and social balance by putting five African-Americans here and ten there; four people making $100,000 here, ten making $30,000 there. Using a computer, Keene tried to distribute the exact number of minorities and the same income levels to each school. This was “[t]he dumbest thing you could do,” in Thomas’s estimation; it simply did not work. Thomas claimed that as a result of the closed boundary policy, the African-American dropout rate increased, GPAs dropped, and there was an increase in the suspension rate among black students.53

Nor was Keene’s way something all African-Americans wanted. Thomas reported that the leadership of Salt Lake’s NAACP told him that “there is equity pretty much behind every child… we want to decide where we want our children to go,” whether to a predominantly white school or to a school in which African-American students were more concentrated. For Thomas, the way to achieve genuine equity was through open enrollment and parent choice, and by [p.241]organizing magnet schools to provide opportunities directly linked to college or occupational preparation. But Salt Lake City was simply too small for the magnet school concept. The best solution would be to focus on the comprehensive model of the high school with open enrollment—a practice which, according to Thomas, achieved ethnic balance by bringing more African-American students into East High and more hispanics into Highland. However, the board sought socio-economic equity through mandating a policy of closed boundaries. The tension over this issue led ultimately to Thomas’s resignation in July 1984.54

An Uncertain Board

In January 1984, in spite of increased tension between some board members and Thomas, the superintendent was told that his reappointment the following June was certain. However, when the board met to formalize this in June 1984, some uncertainty surfaced. Salt Lake City’s popular mayor, Ted Wilson, praised Thomas to the board and urged them to work out their differences and retain him. Two board members (Kump and Walker) who had prior to the board meeting been identified as considering abstaining on the vote to reappoint Thomas, reported that they had received 53 telephone calls from citizens and a few administrators who urged them to abstain in the vote. Six professors at the University of Utah, though, had called them in support of Thomas. When the votes were cast, four voted to retain, one was opposed, and two abstained, giving the impression that only a bare majority favored Thomas staying on.55

Some popular discontent with shared governance may also have played a role in Thomas’s resignation. Parent groups at East High charged that discipline was lax and the principal, Jack Hart, resigned complaining that shared governance had stripped him of his power to make decisions with alacrity.56 In June 1984 parents charged Thomas with circumventing shared governance when he quickly appointed the new principal for East High. Why, they asked, were principals and the board unable or unwilling to make necessary decisions? Thomas acknowledged that the process was imperfect and cumbersome. To remedy this, he suggested the creation of a “central office clearing house from which information and explanations of the process can be delivered faster. You need a source of information broader than the superintendent.”57

Just over a month after he had received another two-year appointment, on 27 July Thomas announced that he had submitted his resignation to the board in order to accept a position implementing an educational reform package in South Carolina. His decision to leave, he said, was “complex.” Although his wife de-[p.242]scribed him as having been bored of late with his responsibilities in Salt Lake City,58 the differences between him and the board played a major role in his decision to leave. As he was quoted by a newspaper reporter: “There has been an inability (on the school board’s part) to set priorities that were clear and congruent with my abilities. The board’s uncertainty was certainly part of my decision to leave” and to accept a $15,000 reduction in salary. Thomas had passed up an offer from the Danforth Foundation in June that would have paid more money than he was getting. He turned down another position in California because his wife did not want to leave Salt Lake. Between the time the board reappointed him and his resignation (5 June and 27 July) he received a personal call from Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina inviting him to come to South Carolina for a meeting to discuss his potential involvement in implementing the South Carolina reform legislation. Riley offered him the position of “state deputy for public accountability.” He tendered his resignation to the board, and they, by a vote of six to one, agreed to release him from his contract. The single vote cast against releasing him came from his long-time nemesis Susan Keene; she was consistent in her opposition to him to the very end.59

While the board embarked on a search for a new superintendent, in order to promote a sense of stability, on 2 August they voted to appoint the president of the board, advertizing executive Wayne Evans, as interim superintendent. The state legislature had recently repealed state regulations allowing a non-credentialed individual to be state superintendent. Consequently, the attempt to get the state to approve a waiver of the credential requirements for Evans split the educational community into “pro-waiver” proponents (led by Evans’s business cob leagues) and “anti-waiver” proponents (led by district and state administrative personnel). Thomas supported Evans’ candidacy, perhaps to show some measure of support for those who had supported him. The only board member to oppose Evans’s appointment was Carolyn Kump, who, between 1979 and 1983, was the first woman to serve as vice-president and then as president of the board. Based on her past experience, she did not believe it prudent to mix administrative and policy-making functions. In addition, Kump argued that the appointment was a violation of Utah state law, which allowed an uncredentialed person to serve as superintendent for no more than eight weeks provided that “the supply of qualified, certificated personnel has been exhausted.”60

In spite of the clear illegality of the move, the board voted to make Evans Interim Superintendent, but the action was nullified when the State Committee on Certification unanimously denied a waiver to Evans, a decision subsequently upheld by the State Board of Education. The board then appointed George Brooks, the amiable and much respected Personnel Director, as Interim Superintendent. Brooks made it clear that he was not a candidate for the position and that he was [p.243] only willing to serve until a permanent replacement was found.

To get rid of the “uncertainty and confusion” surrounding the series of administrative transitions, the board contracted with Harold Webb Associates of Evanston, Illinois, an executive search consulting firm, to screen applicants for the position. In a brochure announcing the vacancy and stressing shared governance, Salt Lake was described as a city of 162,000 people, seventy percent of whom were Caucasian and thirty percent representing a wide variety of ethnic groups: hispanics, Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, Native Americans, and blacks. While fifty percent of the city population were identified as members of the LDS church, “virtually every other major denomination is represented.” The brochure pointed to a healthy economy, which since 1974 had posted an unemployment rate two percent below national rates, with service and high-tech institutions playing a dominant role in the local economy. In spite of its small-town friendliness, the city also housed a major symphony, the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and hosted numerous social and cultural events.

Educationally, the city was boosted as having the second highest literacy rate in the country for cities of 100,000 or more and “Utahns, on the average, complete more years of schooling than any citizens of any other state.” Acknowledging the city’s decline in school population, the brochure said that 27 schools had been closed during this period “with extensive community input”(?), and that in 1981 there had been a gain of some 200 students. With 36 schools: 4 high schools (grades 9-12); five intermediate schools (grades 7-8) and 27 elementary schools (K-6), the district served 24,400 students through 1,200 certified teachers and other educational personnel, supervised by some 80 administrators and supported by almost 2,000 non-academic personnel. The per pupil expenditure was listed as $2,528 and the entire operating budget was listed as 7.3 million dollars.61

This public relations advertisement reflects the influence of M. Donald Thomas, the Midwestern “outsider” who presided over a system rapidly becoming more attuned to the larger society As the brochure indicated, Thomas’s replacement should “continue the present non-adversarial relationships with teachers of the system… possess a demonstrated record of successful and economical management of a school system… generate genuine equity of educational programs for all segments of the school community … work with the ‘Shared Governance’ plan of management which is operative in the district,” be “sensitive to the religious and ethical culture of the community,” and “support the educational concerns of minorities, handicapped persons and women.”

M. Donald Thomas was not just a name on an organizational chart nor a person following orders from the board. He brought to his superintendency an energetic and infectious enthusiasm for the role of public schools in Utah’s capital city at a time when morale was lowest in the district. It was a time too when schools nationally were being tagged as not only ineffective in meeting the de-[p.244]mands of the age, but were regarded by some as detrimental to students. In the long term, it must be left to the generation that matures in the early years of the twenty-first century, and their historians of education (with their particular ideologies and agendas), to judge whether the children of Salt Lake City in the period from 1973 to 1984 were well- or ill-served by the schools Thomas attempted to shape into participatory democracies. Whatever precise interpretation is arrived at then, there can be little doubt that the exuberant personality and professional expertise of M. Donald Thomas will be recognized as having left an indelible mark on the development of Salt Lake City’s public schools.


[p.215]1. “A New School Chief, Old School Problems,” Deseret News, 7 Feb. 1973.

[p.218]2. Telephone conversation with Don Thomas, 27 Apr. 1972; interrview with Wayne Carle, c. 15 June 1973, Dayton, Ohio; Frederick S. Buchanan, Journal, 26 June, 5 July 1973.

[p.219]3. Material relating to Thomas’s life before coming to Utah is based on M. Donald Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, and on a telephone conversation, 27 Apr. 1992.

[p.220]4. Impressions of Thomas’s working style were derived from oral history interviews conducted with teachers and former teachers and other school personnel. See Oral Histories of George Henry, Dean Collett, Patti O’Keefe, Don Barlow, and Amy Engar in Everett Cooley Oral History Project, Special Collections, University of Utah.

[p.221]5. 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. dissertation, University of Utah, 1992, 496–97; Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991; John Crawford, Oral History, 26 May 1992.

[p.222]6. L. L. Cunningham, “School Boards and School Councils,” T. Husen and T. N. Postlethwaite, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Education, vol. 8 (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1985).

[p.223]7. Stanley R. Morgan, “Shared Governance in the Utah Public Schools,” Position Paper, Salt Lake City School District, May 1979, 2–3.

[p.224]8. Cited in Morgan, “Shared Governance,” 5–6.

9. McLeese graphically illustrates the increase in authority delegated to school councils in a chart summarizing “the policy-making authority delegated to sites” and suggests that there was about a 100% increase in such delegation between the early 1970s and 1976-78 and another 100%+ increase by 1985. See McLeese, “The Process of Decentralizing Conflict,” Table 8.1, 503.

[p.225]10. These examples of how shared governance was perceived were mentioned in a conversation with Pat McLeese, 28 May 1992.

11. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

12. Conversation with Pat McLeese, 28 May 1992.

13. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

[p.226]14. George Henry, Oral History, 9 Apr. 1992; Dean Collett, Oral History, 28 Apr. 1992.

15. Excerpt from Board of Education, Minutes, cited in McLeese, “The Process of Decentralizing Conflict,” 367.

[p.227]16. Telephone conversation with Chrissie Ewen Bamber, Assistant Executive Director, National Committee for Citizens in Education, Washington, D.C., 2 June 1992.

17. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

[p.228]18. Betty Malen and Rodney T. Ogawa, “The Implementation of the Salt Lake City School District’s Shared Governance Policy: A Study of School Site Councils,” Report Prepared for the Salt Lake City School District, Aug. 1985, 38–39.

19. John Crawford, Oral History, 26 May 1992.

[p.229]20. Conversation with Pat McLeese, 1 June 1992; Henry, Oral History, 10 Apr. 1992.

21. Arthur E. Wise et al., Case Studies for Teacher Evaluation: A Study of Effective Practices (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 1984), 46.

22. Wise, Case Studies for Teacher Evaluation, 7, 46–7.

[p.230]23. Wise, Case Studies for Teacher Evaluation, 47; Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991, 71.

24. For the history of the emergence of highly centralized bureaucracy in American schools see David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974). The idea of “bureaucratic over conformity” is discussed by Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe: Free Press, 1949), 197–200.

25. Patti O’Keefe, Oral History, 29 Oct. 1990.

[p.231]26. O’Keefe, Oral History, 29 Oct. 1990.

27. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

28. Oral history interviews with O’Keefe, Henry, Engar, and Thomas.

29. For an overview of Ausubel’s approach see his Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968).

[p.232]30. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

31. As examples of revisionist history, see Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York: Basic Books, 1976); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine: National Education Policy since 1945 (New York: David McKay, 1976).

[p.233]32. M. Donald Thomas, Pluralism Gone Mad (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Education Foundation, 1981), 18.

33. Ibid., 19–20.

34. Ibid., 28.

[p.234]35. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991; telephone conversation with M. Donald Thomas, 27 Apr. 1992.

36. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

37. Ibid.

[p.235]38. Ibid.; Henry, Oral History, 9 Apr. 1992.

39. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991; Henry, Oral History, 9 Apr. 1992.

40. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991; Henry, Oral History, 9 Apr. 1992.

41. “S. L. School Superintendent Resigns,” Salt Lake Tribune, 28 July 1984.

[p.236]42. M. Donald Thomas, “A Preeminent School Chief Reflects on What Makes a Board Member Exemplary,” The American School Board Journal (Apr. 1985): 31, 44.

43. “Factions Hinder Results at Board of Education,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 Aug. 1979; Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

44. “Two Minority Members Seek More School Board Powers,” Salt Lake Tribune, 7 Aug. 1979.

[p.237]45. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

46. Data on school closing compiled by Juanita B. Wainwright, Superintendent’s Office; Clark Brimhall, Oral History, 22 Aug. 1990.

[p.238]47. Bennion, Oral History, 11 Aug. 1991.

48. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

[p.239]49. Don Barlow, Oral History, 4 May 1992.

50. Conversation with Larry Johnson, 18 Aug. 1992; Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991; Al Church, “Public Education Policy Analysis: Open Transfer in the Salt Lake City Schools,” Research Paper, Department of Educational Administration, University of Utah, 15 Dec. 1983, 13–14.

51. LaVar L. Sorensen, “School Closure Dilemma” [December 1983]. This statement was prepared for the National School Public Relations Association; LaVar L. Sorensen, Oral History, 8 Sept. 1992.

[p.240]52. Barlow, Oral History, 4 May 1992.

53. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

[p.241]54. Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991; McLeese, “The Process of Decentralizing Conflict,” 498–99.

55. Patricia McLeese, “The Attempt of the Salt Lake City Board of Education to Appoint Wayne Evans Interim Superintendent,” Research Paper, University of Utah Department of Educational Administration, 1985, 5–6. In a 1992 conversation with the writer, Carolyn Kump expressed some regret that her abstention had such far reaching consequences in perhaps forcing Thomas to resign. It was, she said, the one vote she was least proud of.

56. “Close Vote Keeps Thomas as City Schools Chief,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 June 1984.

57. Ibid.

[p.242]58. “S. L. Superintendent Resigns,” Salt Lake Tribune, 28 July 1984; “Superintendent Takes Post in S.C.,” Deseret News, 27 July 1984.

59. Telephone conversation with Carolyn Kump, 12 May 1992; Thomas, Oral History, 16 Aug. 1991.

60. McLeese, “The Process of Decentralizing,” 360-61.

[p.243]61. A copy of this brochure, prepared by Harold Webb Associates, is in the files of the Superintendent’s Office.