Crisis is a war of messages and yours need to be killer

A battle rages in the Buffalo Public Schools and I suspect many other urban school districts in New York and beyond. The issue is simple, but the solution complex.

The state government, enticed by the federal education apparatus, wants teachers evaluated. If they are, large financial rewards arrive from the feds — in Buffalo’s case $9 million this year and potentially $30 million next year. The loss of $9 million could lead to 59 teachers losing their jobs.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation, often a sea anchor slowing the boat of educational progress, has a contract saying understandably that teachers should not be evaluated based on the performance of chronically absent students. The union’s delegates voted last night not to change that. Seems fair, even in the face of costing the district $9 million on a budget of about $757 million.

The purpose here is not to say who’s right or wrong, but to note and discuss bad messaging during a crisis. Messages are the AK-47s of a crisis skirmish. Messages are what you aim at your critics and media until they raise their hands in surrender.

Loaded properly, cleaned, greased and properly aimed, they’re killers. Anything less and you might as well use them as a club, cause they’re not firing.

The BTF and its long-time leader, Phil Rumore, usually win the message game against the most often divided and slow-moving school board. But this time around, the BTF came across as whiny and self-interested.

In the perception game, the BTF allowed itself to be painted into a corner as the bad guy, with uncaring, selfish teachers. And this comes on the heels of a CNN report about the teachers’ contract allowing high-end plastic surgery options.

Interim School Superintendent Amber Dixon wants the money and the accountability. Very reasonable. Rumore’s message is, this is unfair and capricious and we’ll go to court to fight it.

If it were so capricious, why was it negotiated into a teachers contract years ago? Obviously the union saw this day coming and prepared for it. Good for the teachers.

But the BTF messaging fired blanks. This is unfair. The state, feds and school board are bullies. There’s nothing in the evaluation regulations that says all students’ performance should be the basis of teacher evaluation.

While multiple factors go into whether a student attends class or not, years of American educational tradition and rules say it’s the school system’s responsibility to see kids get to class. There are no parental truant officers. One has to believe that good teachers have full classrooms. On the other hand, would a factory manager and her foremen be held responsible for production levels achieved by 75 line workers if only 50 fulfill a shift?

The BTF’s messaging should be:

We welcome evaluation. [We know we have no choice.]

We accept that we bear some responsiblity for the chronically absent and if they are not showing up for class, we’re part of a system that fails them.

We will work with the school board and the superintendent on a compromise, one that’s in the best interests of students and teachers.

No lawsuit. No stonewalling. No name calling. Do what’s right. Take responsibility and move your part of the equation toward a fix, toward success, toward accountability.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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