Problems that have been bubbling beneath the surface for more than a year are boiling to the top in Utah's public education system, exposing rifts between state and local education groups.
At the center of the controversy is some local school officials' discontent with the State Board of Education, Superintendent James R. Moss and the State Office of Education.Opinions are not all on one side, but they are intense, with some local officials staunch in their support of state education leaders, others distinctly unhappy.
Philosophic differences about how education should be governed are historic, and an inherent push-and-pull exists between various levels of governance. However, the majority of those interviewed by the Deseret News said they believe the current unrest is worse than it has been in a long time and that it could damage education in the state.
"The feelings are pervasive," said one superintendent.
However, some superintendents said Moss has had a more progressive tenure in the state office than several superintendents before him.
"He's made some neat changes, some good moves," said one. "I support the organizational changes he's made (in the state office). I'm trying to convince my board that we don't need a change now and I feel bad about the power struggle."
The latter superintendent suggested that support for Moss may be stronger in rural school districts. The rural districts depend more on the state office for services than do the urban districts, which have larger budgets and more opportunity for autonomy.
The withdrawal of the State School Boards Association from the Education Coordinating Council earlier this month was the first overt move in a deepening rift between local school boards (and their superintendents) and the council and, by inference, Moss.
The Utah School Superintendents Association will consider its membership on the council in an early April meeting, and indications are that it, too, may drop out.
Moss said the withdrawal of the two organizations is a "tempest in a teapot" and that the objectives of the council would not be seriously hampered by their defection. However, the local superintendents and school boards represent two of education's major voices.
The coordinating council, which includes most of the state's educational groups, was organized by Moss shortly after he took office in November 1986. He said he felt the council would provide the many voices of education a stronger position with the Legislature. The Legislature (of which he is a former member) has been demanding less fragmentation among education groups, he said.
However, some groups, including the school boards association and the superintendents, joined the council originally with reservations. They felt the group was too diverse, its 32 member organizations representing both administration and employee groups. Because the various interests of the education community are often at odds, they felt membership on the council would dilute, not strength en, their voice with the Legislature, said spokesmen for both groups.
When the council, by majority vote, took a united stand on an issue, those who opposed that position were effectively muzzled, they said. Several local school officials also said they felt the council was Moss' attempt to become the sole voice for education and to increase his control over all elements of the system.
"I don't think we can or should expect all the groups to work together harmoniously in every instance," said a school boards spokesman. Other existing organizations provide an adequate forum for education interests to get together and work toward common objectives, he said.
As it withdrew from the council, the board of directors of the School Boards Association said Moss presented some positions to the Legislature that were inconsistent with the council's majority opinion.
For instance, said Winston Gleave, association executive, in the heat of the Legislature's tax debate, Moss seemed to have changed his position on the possibility of a local voluntary tax freeze. Although the council had taken a position against either tax increases or cuts, Moss called a meeting of the education community to listen to representatives of state and local governments, who supported the voluntary freeze.
Moss said his motives in calling the meeting were misunderstood. "I never suggested our support for a tax freeze. I never talked to the Legislature or the governor about it. But I felt we needed accurate information (about all the tax proposals). The allegations are just not true and not fair."
To suggestions that he is unapproachable and does not listen to local educators, even to the point of repeatedly ignoring advice when he solicits it himself, Moss said he has made many efforts to communicate with those on the local level.
One local superintendent complained that his letters to several individual board members and to Moss - letters critical of particular actions and suggesting thorough study of the state leadership and office - went unanswered.
"I am the first superintendent to visit all 40 districts in years," Moss said. "I have spent considerable time in schools, listening to principals, staff, kids. I listen very carefully to my staff. I think I do listen and listen carefully. I speak quickly and there may be an impression that I don't listen. I need to change that perception and I'm making a major effort to do that."
Moss also defended his time out of the state where, he said, he is conducting business and making contacts vital to the development of education in Utah. He said he was only out of the state 15 to 20 days a year.
"When I'm out of the state, I learn what other educators are doing and share with them what is happening in Utah. I'm not there for a vacation. We can't afford to be ignorant of issues." He is a member of national education organizations and a board member of the Far West Labs, a regional educational research organization located in California.
However, some superintendents say they have made repeated calls to the office and have not been able to talk to the superintendent because he is away from his office.
"I just gave up trying," said one.
Support for Moss within his own board is closely divided and has been for some time. His job appeared to be somewhat in question last July when he underwent a routine evaluation. Some local officials were calling for his ouster then.
However, at the end of the evaluation, the board presented a unanimous front and supported his continuation in the office. Sources say the move was a compromise to prevent any public perception of disunity among board members while the tax initiatives were threatening.
Board President Ruth Funk is among his supporters. "I feel Jim has grasped the vision of our strategic plan for education and is extending that vision to his staff," she said.
Moss' support at the local level has never been strong. Many local education leaders opposed his appointment because he had never before been involved in public education. He was the first non-public educator to become superintendent. However, though his training is in law, he had for many years been involved in the education system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and felt he met the qualifications for the state job.
Funk also said that in reviewing the criteria the board established for a superintendent, she believes Moss met those criteria "in every particular."
Answering to complaints that the board has not provided the strong leadership the local districts would like, she acknowledged that may have been so in the past, but said there is a commitment to a stronger role beginning immediately.
The board has developed a strategic plan that would fundamentally change education in Utah and intends to vigorously pursue it, Funk said. Preliminary steps will be made in meetings Thursday and Friday, she said. The board has moved slowly to allow everyone interested in education a chance to "buy into" the plan, she said. Thousands of copies of the plan have been distributed and responses are coming back to the board.
Some local educators remain somewhat skeptical.
"How can they (the board) put into effect a plan that calls for basic change at the local level without bringing everyone else along?" one asked.
The board is not operating from a position of strength. In the past two legislative sessions, moves have been made to try to eliminate the constitutional requirement for a state board or, in the alternative, to change the way board members are selected.
Some support exists for an appointed board. Supporters say the quality of the board could be better assured with such an approach. The divisiveness among board members provides fuel for this camp.
Others believe the interests of education can best be served by an elected board that is answerable to voters.
The issue is on the Legislature's interim study agenda.
Morale in the state office is either better than ever or worse than ever, depending on who is reporting.
While some say morale has slipped to the point that several people in high positions are looking for new jobs, others say morale essentially reflects the attitudes of department heads.
In the departments where leaders support Moss, morale is good, they said, although Deseret News interviews didn't always reflect that. Moss has drastically changed office procedures and worked to overcome a "good old boy" system that previously existed, curbing the freedom of some individuals to make independent decisions. That has created some animosities, supporters said.
One long-time employee said he "couldn't believe there are those who are saying morale here is at rock bottom." Although office employees are overworked and "scrambling to keep our heads above water," he said he believes attitudes in general are positive and the office is "experiencing a period of leadership and growth."
Critics in the office say Moss takes credit for successful programs and blames others if a program fails or is not popular and that he seems need to keep everyone under his thumb.