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Focusing on the positives as Petersen departs as McDuffie County School Superintendent

Talk about a thankless job.

Most politicians, whether they are doing the right thing or not, are appreciated only as far as the popularity poll will take them. And since you can't please all the people all the time, the "poll" line tends to resemble a rollercoaster.

So, imagine the stress of a job that puts you in the driver's seat of a large organization, while leaving you at the whim of elected officials. Officials riding the rollercoaster of the people's desires.

Before I lived in McDuffie County, I covered a situation in another county where the sheriff commented that he couldn't win. The people complained the jail was too crowded, inmates were sleeping on the floor, and that was inhumane. So, he cleared the jail. Then the people complained there was too much crime on the streets. So, he filled the jail. "The people" put him in office and "the people" paid his salary. So, he had to please most of the people most of the time while he tried to carry out his calling in life.

School board members, commissioners and council members don't get a salary. They get a small stipend, which I can assure you, is nowhere near enough. They simply must rely on their passion that what they are doing is their calling, and they will do it to the best of their ability. Usually they hear from only "the people" who are unhappy. So, even if one - and only one - person is unhappy, that is all they've heard.

The school superintendent in all school systems is the one responsible for the education of our children. The superintendent is not elected, but the superintendent's bosses are, and the superintendent's salary is paid by "the people." So, the superintendent not only has to listen to "the people," but the school system employees, the school children, the school children's parents, and the elected officials all the way up the ladder to the Chief, the President himself. The superintendent is governed by laws, rules, regulations and requirements.

In McDuffie County, the number one goal of the school board, superintendent and system has been to increase the graduation rate. It has been a common campaign promise.

During Superintendent Mark Petersen's five-year tenure in McDuffie County, the graduation rate increased 21 percentage points - 21! And all the while, "the bar" was being raised by the federal government while the funds were decreasing from the state. Some people didn't like his style, some didn't like his personality, and many complained. Ever since he announced his retirement, Dr. Petersen has been joking that there would be dancing in the streets the day he left.

I didn't always agree with Dr. Petersen myself. There were things I would have handled differently if I were in the driver's seat. One time, I fussed at him about the meaning of the word "transparency," because we seemed to have differing definitions. We both learned a lot from that conversation.

When he talks about the graduation rate, Dr. Petersen admits 77 percent is not even close to where it should be, which is 100 percent. But it's so much better than 56 percent, which meant that only slightly more than half of the students were graduating.

Even though he was not popular, I can't help but wonder why Dr. Petersen received no "thank you" for what he accomplished. Imagine if the 21 percentage points fell the other direction. How unhappy would "the people" be then? The board did not make any public statement, except a cordial "we wish you the best." This from the same board members who publicly announced a year ago that they had misjudged Dr. Petersen and had come to learn that he had the best interest of the school children at heart. But then, not all the people were happy. Not all the people had been in the trenches with him. So in the end, no one said anything at all.

I am taking this opportunity to say "thank you" to Dr. Petersen. For me, he made covering McDuffie County Schools the easiest and most transparent system of the three I have covered in my small career. He was proud of his "boys and girls" and his "staffulty." And that pride was contagious to those who were willing to admit it.

I, too, wish him "the best" in the next system he's going to, and will keep an eye on their graduation rate, while I'm watching McDuffie County's rate. In both places, I hope it's one line that won't be like a roller coaster, but only climbs up.

Web posted on Thursday, July 02, 2009

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