Some issues transcend partisan politics. Most of us consider public education to be one of those transcendent issues. Wayzata Public Schools and its school board have a long tradition of nonpartisan leadership. It’s not a policy – because such a policy would be unenforceable – but it is indeed a longstanding tradition; one worth preserving.
It’s easy to distinguish partisan from bipartisan and nonpartisan. The distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan, however, is more complicated – and vitally important to Wayzata Public Schools’ future. While partisan tends to be defined as a firm allegiance to a particular group and/or point of view, Oxford Languages defines bipartisan as “the agreement or cooperation of two political parties that usually oppose each other’s policies” and nonpartisan as “not biased or partisan, especially toward any particular political group.”
Wayzata Public Schools’ nonpartisan mission promises “a world-class education that prepares each and every student to thrive today and excel tomorrow in an ever-changing global society.” Emerging from this mission, Wayzata School Board members commit to a comprehensive set of objectives; a solemn trust, with responsibilities that cannot be accomplished in a milieu characterized by partisan bickering or bipartisan deal making.
Looking back on history, our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, famously resisted – even feared – the divisive influence of party politics. But, despite their many contributions to our democracy, Thomas Jefferson and, later, Andrew Jackson took party politics and negative campaigning to levels that forever changed the ways we tend to address issues and problems; levels wholly unsuited to school board activities.
More people than ever are watching public education. When I ran for the school board in 2013 approximately 2,500 persons voted. November’s election attracted more than 11,000 voters and introduced our community to widespread block voting. I’m not going to opine on that pathway to leadership, but I do fear it’s a perfect recipe for leaving gifted, independent thinkers on the sidelines. In any case, it’s one example of partisan politics creeping into domains that depend on nonpartisanship.
Elected leaders are usually categorized by party. I get that. Indeed, as conservative political commentator Margaret Hoover puts it, “Partisanship is nothing new. I grew up in a household where appliances that broke had ‘gone democrat’.” But as comedic genius Norman Lear once said, “Nobody doubts my partisanship, but a lot of the activity is nonpartisan.” Charlie Baker, Massachusetts’s Republican governor, agreed when he recently said, “Our obligation to the people we serve is too important to place politics and partisanship before progress and results. James Harvey Robinson, an early 1900s American history scholar put it even more bluntly when he declared, “Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other.”
As for me, I agree with the brilliant American author, journalist and professor, Walter Isaacson, when he said, “I think right now we need to look back at the founding values of our country. Rise above partisanship, be less bitter when it comes to important matters that have to be solved.”
Our obligations – bordering on the sacred – going forward? How do we coalesce around challenges like helping our young people learn how to learn, so that the solutions to any problems are within their reach? How do we convert naturally occurring, intellectual curiosity into a lifelong thirst for learning and an ongoing growth orientation? How do we nurture students’ capacity for critical thinking and lay a foundation for the communication and problem-solving skills that lead to cooperative engagement with one another? And these are just some of the elemental challenges that a wise, nonpartisan school board, as a duty of service, must accept.
Here’s a New Year’s resolution worth considering: Let’s all pledge our support for a truly nonpartisan school board as, together, we shepherd public education – and our kids – through 2022 and beyond.
Dan Haugen has a doctorate in social work, is a retired healthcare/social services and higher education executive and currently serves on the Wayzata School District’s Legislative Action Committee and the Youthprise Board of Directors. He can be reached at email@example.com