Wisdom and Doubt

  • Mitchell Bates, former ASB Executive President at the Sports Banquet and Tammie Christianson, Junior Class ASB President speaking up at the ETUSD Board of Trustees meeting.

    Mitchell Bates, former ASB Executive President at the Sports Banquet and Tammie Christianson, Junior Class ASB President speaking up at the ETUSD Board of Trustees meeting.

Commentary by Patric Hedlund

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -Bertrand Russell

The Winter Sports Banquet at Frazier Mountain High School was large and boisterous. Three hundred teenagers, family and friends—all athletes and fans—were in high spirits, milling around the hall, standing in line for generously-stacked plates of TriTip and chicken, garlic bread and salad. FMHS Principal Dan Penner was helping to serve up the feast. He was the high school athletic director before becoming principal in the summer of 2005. The Fall Athletic Awards are a big deal at this rural high school.

The crowd gathered at 6:30 p.m., but to everyone’s surprise, no program began until close to 8:00 p.m. Nor was a printed program for the event passed out. I was grateful to current FMHS Athletic Director Rob Roy for handing me two sheets of paper that listed the names of the players on all the teams, along with the awards they were to receive.

The staff of The Mountain Enterprise came prepared with three photographers to make this edition an action-filled cavalcade of sports celebration.

While we waited, I walked over to talk to cross country runner Mitchell Bates, a young man I had not yet met. I had been trying to reach Bates for a week, because his name was on an unsigned letter dated November 9 that was passed to the El Tejon Unified School District Board of Trustees at this month’s meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 14. Bates’ name appeared as the "Executive President of the Associated Student Body" (ASB) on that letter.

The letter was odd. It said that the ASB wanted to make a donation from student activities funds in order to buy a golf cart (estimated between $4,000 to $5,000) for high school maintenance and athletics.

There was some fancy language about noble gestures by students but, put simply, this appeared to be a questionable appropriation of scarce student activity money for capital equipment to benefit the administration.

Athletic Director Roy has been driving the cart around campus for over a year. He is also the ASB adviser.

Since the entire school district has been cash-strapped and odd reports were coming in that the senior class was "in debt," I wrote a commentary last week [Should Student Activity Funds Be Used To Buy Golf Cart for High School Administration?, November 16, 2007]. Now I finally had an opportunity to ask Bates in person about his letter.

"No, I didn’t write that letter," he said, "I was shown the letter by Mr. Penner and Mr. Roy. I refused to sign it. That was Thursday. On Friday I was no longer ASB president."

That is an odd coupling of events.

But Bates is an honorable young man and he looked me directly in the eye and told me that he and another student had "done something we shouldn’t have done" that week as well. ‘What was that?’ I asked. "We made a stupid mistake and looked into a teacher’s grading program on a computer," he told me squarely. "We shouldn’t have done that and I know better." He said they tried changing a grade and then changed it back, closed the program, and faced the music.

The penalty proposed by Principal Dan Penner and ASB Advisor/Athletic Director Rob Roy? That Bates should step down as ASB president. Bates admits he might have been a thorn in the ASB Advisor’s side: "We are trying to take the ASB back to be a student thing, not a Mr. Roy thing…," Bates said. He didn’t attend the ETUSD Board of Trustees meeting the following Wednesday. He had the flu.

His unsigned letter was presented to the ETUSD Trustees, with Principal Penner sitting in the room, as if it really was Bates’ letter, with no mention that he had refused to sign it and with no mention that he was in fact no longer the ASB president.

Junior Class ASB president Tammie Christianson, part of the school’s champion volleyball team, stood to object.

"We have no records about the spending of this money. There is no record that the ASB was consulted. There are no receipts. This is against our ASB constitution. We want this money returned to the students," she said. ASB Treasurer Nick Onyshko held up a copy of the ASB constitution.

Earlier in the meeting, Nicole Brackin, Student Body Representative to the ETUSD Board of Trustees had reported to the board that the students had "finally paid down their debt." That same day, I had asked Mr Penner in three separate emails to explain why the students were talking about debt. Penner denied three times, in writing, that such a debt existed.

Superintendent Shelly Mason looked shocked at the students’ comments. "But if we don’t accept it as district property, it isn’t covered by our insurance….," she said to the students. They didn’t budge. One is led to conclude that the high school administrators have been using the cart for over a year without insurance. The board voted to table the matter.

In a telephone interview Sunday, Nov. 18, ETUSD Trustee Ken Hurst said he was surprised by the student’s statement. "We have to look into this matter," he said. He said he was also surprised to hear the student report about ‘debt.’ "We need more information about what this is about," he said.

Next week, we’ll publish our cavalcade of sports awards photos. This week, we’ll simply take a moment to be thankful for the character that sports builds in young minds, and note that the character in FMHS students was on display in a respectful but firm manner over the past two weeks. May the adults responsible for their well-being meet this challenge as honorably.

Wishing All A Blessed Thanksgiving.

Read a related Opinion piece by Coach Chuck Mullen.

This is part of the November 23, 2007 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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