Comment: ‘Truthiness’ muddies ETUSD dialogue

By Patric Hedlund, Editor The Mountain Enterprise

Okay, for those who need a definition, let’s do it quickly: ‘Truthiness’ is a satirical word coined by the Stephen Colbert character on the Comedy Central channel. He is a political satirist pretending to be an egotistical TV pundit. His character loves “truthiness.”

‘Truthiness’ is a bombastic assertion in a public forum that refers to things that “sound true” but are without a basis in fact.

The word ‘truthiness’ was coined to point to the frequent abuse of the public’s trust of which some politicians—and pundits, and even whole cable channels—are guilty.

Last week, on county-wide television, the El Tejon Unified School District superintendent was guilty of using ‘truthiness’ to justify to her friends and neighbors in her hometown of Bakersfield the fact that she is intent on shutting down a school in the Mountain Communities’ main school district.

I want to make it totally clear that there is probably a very good case to be made—using true facts rather than made-up ones—to temporarily “mothball” one of the ETUSD campuses.

But Superintendent Kleier didn’t bother to base her assertions on the facts. She made things up, in a very eloquent and convincing fashion. She was the very definition of ‘truthiness.’

It was a nice television moment. A light breeze was riffling the suprintendent’s auburn hair in front of a pretty green tree at the doorway to lovely El Tejon Middle School.

There was just one problem. What Superintendent Kleier said wasn’t true.

She said the district “has had declining enrollment for 10 years and has lost over 50% of its students.”

It is true that ETUSD has bounced up and down in enrollment and is currently declining—like thousands of schools across the U.S. It dropped 28% from 2002 to the 2011-2012 school year. This month, on August 15, enrollment tumbled another 6%—a lot in a single year, but even that does not come close to the “over 50%” that our truthiness-prone superintendent stated.

Why would an individual being paid a very good salary to represent this district credibly not bother to look up the facts about her own district before standing up in front of television cameras?

When The Mountain Enterprise began asking questions, and surfacing the real numbers, Kleier fairly quickly said she had made a mistake. She said she would write the television news reporter for KBAK-TV to tell him the real number.

But there are some things you can’t take back.

KBAK-TV’s web report on Monday, Aug. 27 still has the misinformation printed for everyone to see, with no published correction. They did chop up the video, to erase the superintendent’s on-camera gaffe, but the reporter still quotes her truthiness mistake as a valid fact.

The introductory message: “El Tejon Unified School District has seen better days….” That makes it sound like our beautiful Mountain Community is a major loser….just the kind of message to brighten up local students’ self esteem and help the real estate market, right?

Please bear in mind that this district has one of the outstanding elementary schools in all of Kern County, and its other schools have been competitive in performance with other county schools. But Mrs. Kleier didn’t mention that.

Fact is, schools across this entire nation are engaged in the very same struggles with finances that we are. What distinguishes some of them is the creativity, compassion and insight that administrators, staff, trustees and community parents are using to solve these challenges together.

Until now, the majority of the current board of trustees have made themselves into pretzels to accommodate Mrs. Kleier’s whims. They’ve moved their monthly meetings as far as possible from the homes of the people who elected them, and closer to Mrs. Kleier’s; they’ve extended her contract for three years; and guaranteed her escalating raises over that period of time while giving pink slips to their own neighbors—people who work with our children and make the schools safe.

They’ve hired the administrators she’s selected, and—until Sara Haflich was named high school principal six weeks ago— every one of the most highly-paid personnel in the district cashed their paychecks in Bakersfield. None of them lived on the mountain. They do not use our stores, or post offices or restaurants—which means they do not have the benefit of knowing us as individuals, or hearing from parents as neighbors. That also removes a certain level of face-to-face accountability from the job they do for the people here.

Kleier appears stubbornly tone-deaf to the heart of this community. That has led to her openly hostile behavior toward the community’s parents. And now it has become mutual.

An hour after her TV comments were broadcast on Monday, Aug. 20, 55 parents and community members gathered to talk with consultants about their concerns regarding this district, and their visions for the future.

It was shocking to hear parents and community members explain how alienated they feel from the superintendent and the trustees.

Their comments made it appear that Mrs. Kleier’s words and actions over the past two years have influenced parents’ desire to withdraw children from her district. I’d like to see that change.

Take a superintendent to dinner

I’ve written of positive actions by Katherine Kleier in past issues of this newspaper.

I believe she has a very strong personality that could benefit our children. But to do that, there has to be clear desire and clear respect for the people who are paying her salary.

Perhaps we need to “take a superintendent to dinner.” Maybe we need to put together twice monthly potlucks in our homes to invite this superintendent to get to know us a little better—with hospitality and friendliness.

Maybe she needs to fall in love with the unique heart of this place, and to get to know who we reallly are. Or at least, maybe we have a responsibility to see if we can make that happen. Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t.

But ‘truthiness’ is based on a willingness to deceive.

Let’s make that harder to do. If your family would like to join a committee to help hold a series of small potlucks with the super, give a call to us here (661-245-3794). We’ll create a hospitality committee to invite the superintendent to a few small get-togethers where she can get to know us a little better. I predict we’ll all be the better for trying.

This is part of the August 31, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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