On July 11, parents of Auburn children in grades seven through 12 received an automated phone call informing them of a proposal before the School Committee to institute late-start Wednesdays in the middle and high schools.
The parents received a second call on July 16.
Robo-calls. We all get them, but how many of us truly listen to the entire message before hitting the “erase” button on the answering machine? Probably — and this is a guess — not many.
At Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, parents and some teachers voiced strong opposition to the late-start proposal, and parent David Burke and others suggested more parents would have turned out had they not been led by the robo-calls to believe late-start was a done deal.
He has a point. If a parent who received the call didn’t listen to the entire message, it’s possible to think the deal was done.
Here’s the first portion of the July 11 message:
“The Auburn School Department is committed to raising student achievement by increasing teacher effectiveness in order for all students to be career and college ready when they graduate from Edward Little High School. To meet this goal, all staff at Auburn Middle School and Edward Little High School need additional professional development time to implement the classroom changes required for 21st-century learning. In order for staff to have this quality and consistent professional development, we are proposing that all students in grades seven through 12 arrive at school at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, when we have a full week of school.”
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin disputed that the message was misleading, saying that the call did not indicate late arrivals for grades seven through 12 was a done deal. In fact, it said the opposite she argued.
That’s true. It did, but a person would have to listen to the lengthy message long enough to hear that detail, which included the date and time of the meeting to consider late-start and an encouragement for parents to attend.
The message also announced that parents should expect to see an electronic survey sent through School Messenger on Monday, July 16, asking for information to be considered at the committee meeting on the 18th.
The survey had information about the proposal, and specific questions about how parents intended to get their children to school on late-start Wednesdays — as if the proposal was a done deal.
The survey asked, “on late-arrival Wednesdays, my 7-12 child or children will” ride the bus to school, be dropped off at school, drive themselves to school or walk to school. The last option for parents was an “I don’t know option,” for families “still working on a plan.”
Working on a plan for a late-start Wednesday proposal that hadn’t even been approved by the School Committee? That has the flavor of a done deal.
In making his point about the politicized nature of the robo-call, Burke asked the School Committee not to use automated messages for anything more than announcing snow days or delivering basic information.
We have to agree.
A number of pro-school-budget messages delivered by Maine educators to parents through robo-calls have been questioned in the past year by taxpayers who say these inner-circle calls unfairly tilt support in favor of spending.
That may be true, but the power to tilt opinion works both ways.
Last month, in Oakland-based RSU 18, Superintendent Gary Smith blamed a robo-call initiated by a local selectman for defeat of the district’s budget.
At the time, Smith told the Waterville Sentinel he was disappointed that an automated call that contained information that “didn’t present the whole picture” was placed to district households the night before the vote.
In an e-mail written late the night the budget failed, and copied to a dozen other people, Smith told the selectman responsible for the robo call, “You have sunk to a new low in my book.”
And, that’s how Burke must feel about school officials politicizing late-start. He was just nicer about saying so.
Political robo-calls are protected under the First Amendment, so they cannot be banned. However, we have an expectation that this free speech protection also means responsible speech when coming from our schools.
Let’s keep the school-initiated robo outreach to delivery of information. Not advocacy.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.