Friday, March 31, 2023

@TheEconomist and @duncanrobinson on #RoaldDahl.

Puffin, the publisher of Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.), recently edited some of Dahl’s works for sensitivity, removing words such as "fat," "flabby," "ugly," and "Kipling." This act, which sparked a backlash, it is argued by Bagehot, the Economist’s British politics columnist (Economist articles are traditionally unsigned, but this one is by Duncan Robinson) is part of a broader trend in British publishing, where books are being censored or dropped, and sensitivity readers are employed to ensure adherence to modern morals.

Roald Dahl, 1954. 

While the right to prepare derivative works is at the core of copyright, the editing of Dahl's work by Puffin, a Penguin imprint, is argued to be just one symptom of a deeper issue in the publishing world. Making an impressive leap, Bagehot contends the argument that suppression of speech is only a problem in totalitarian states fails to recognize the "veiled censorship" in British publishing. There is an orthodoxy that right-thinking people are expected to accept without question, and resistance to the same leads (at least in the mind of the columnist) to being silenced with surprising effectiveness.

Publishers, in an attempt to look likable, often panic and preempt offense, leading to the removal or editing of content. However, this nervousness and desire to look nice can have nasty results, as it stifles creativity and prevents important discussions from taking place. The observation that the publishing industry is susceptible to peer pressure sounds in truth, as any observer of media generally is keenly aware of herd effects and the power of groupthink in the industry.

Where the columnist goes awry (and this is perhaps to be expected for a print journalist) is that there are a variety of means where unorthodox ideas can reach a broader audience. If anything, the rise of misinformation through alternative channels presents far broader problems for democracy than were ever perceived twenty to thirty years ago. Editors and publishers are not all wrong, and sometimes, they are even right as a group. I feel I can understand both the germ of the argument and the (veiled?) frustration of the writer given the unique power of publishing in certain professional and cultural circles. Sending ideas out into the world in book form is a form of professional and social recognition oftentimes far exceeding the economic import of such an activity.

Given the foregoing, I think the argument advanced, and particularly the vignette of how the suppressive mechanism works, is powerful. “What is striking is how apparently mild the sanctions are for speaking out … what really terrifies you is that your colleagues will think a little less of you. Most people do not require the threat of being burned at the stake to shut them up; being flamed by their peers … is more than enough.” Nudges in favor of conformity are often powerful precisely due to their superficial innocuousness – a timeless observation if there ever was one.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Questions from the Press, March 27, 2023.

 As has come up here from time to time, I serve as a trustee of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. My practice is to post answers I am asked by the press in that capacity, because the amount of information that can be conveyed by a newspaper is necessarily limited. On Monday March 27, I received the following questions from Dan Johnson, a reporter for the Sonoma Index-Tribune (Sonoma County has three "major" newspapers, the I-T, the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, all of which are owned and controlled by the same company). I have printed his questions and my written answers to them below. The questions concerned the realignment of our District, which is often reduced down in practical terms to which schools sites will continue to operate, and which will not, given declining attendance. 


 1. During the portion about School district reconfiguration, did the board decide to end student enrollment at Dunbar and enroll its students at other districts beginning in the 2023-24 school year? Was a vote taken, and if so who supported and did not support this?

 No. The agenda was changed at the start of the meeting, and that item was struck on a 3-2 vote. Trustees Knox, Winders and I voted to strike the item.

 2. Were any other decisions made regarding reconfiguration of the district in 2023-24 or any subsequent years?


 3. What did you feel were the main points made during the Perkins-Eastman presentation?

 The trustees, after extensive discussion, focused on Scenario 1A provided by the Perkins Eastman consultants, which would see the Dunbar campus made available to Woodland Star Charter, with middle schoolers at Altimira, and Prestwood remaining open. This would be the 3-1-1 alignment discussed previously, where the three District elementary schools would be Flowery, El Verano and Prestwood, the middle school would be at the Altimira campus, and the Broadway site for SVHS and Creekside. I have attached the "skittle" graphic illustrating this alignment below.

 The board gave direction to staff to answer two questions at the April 20th meeting, first, what are the costs to retrofit Altimira as estimated by the engineers versus the costs to expand Adele Harrison, and second, what are the pros and cons, and costs, of moving to a 7-8 middle school model, with 6th graders remaining at elementary sites. The board gave direction to staff bring a motion for the trustees to act on April 20th to realign the District in this fashion, with discretionary language included regarding choosing Altimira or Adele as the District's middle school, and with discretionary language included regarding shifting to a 7-8 middle school model. The Board also gave direction to staff to implement the timeline over two academic years, with the Dunbar campus being addressed in academic year 23-24, and the remaining realignment in academic year 24-25.

 4. During the school safety discussion, did the board discuss whether or not to bring the SRO program back? Was this topic agendized for the April board meeting?

 In the proposed scenario, what would happen to Sassarini, Adele Harrison and Sonoma Charter School? No, the board did not discuss whether to bring the SRO program back. No, the topic was not agendized by the board for April 20th. Staff informed the trustees that there is a trustee request that the SRO be agendized for April 20, and I believe the request is from Trustee Landry.

 5. What did you feel were the main points made during the school safety discussion?

 The materials for that agenda item were not provided in advance to the trustees. This violated our norm of "no surprises." Further, there was no description of the item in any way, including the minimal description required by the Brown Act. The materials were also not provided to the public in advance. These procedural failures necessarily limited discussion. There was no explanation offered by the Board President for why the item was added to the agenda without this routine and ordinary requirements being met. 

 In the room, Director of Educational Services Jillian Beall gave a presentation on statistics regarding incidents of student discipline, which are down by 58% this academic year versus last. However, suspensions are up by 11%, and there have been five (5) expulsions, versus just one (1) in the previous academic year. 

 Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) Lieutenant Brandon Cutting (who also serves as Sonoma's Chief of Police) gave a report on handling emergencies at SVUSD campuses, including discussing the general aspects of the prepared responses of the SCSO to school sites located in the County portion of SVUSD, and then in the City. The specifics were not included for operational reasons. Because the meeting ran quite long the agenda item was concluded at approximately 2:45 without discussion of the SRO and without any listening circles being conducted regarding school safety. 

 6. Would you like to say anything else?

 On March 9, and again yesterday, members of the public showed up and treated the school board meeting as a "sporting event," cheering and booing positions with which they supported or disagreed. This is unacceptable behavior from members of the public. The Board President must instruct members of the public to either maintain decorum or excuse themselves from the room, especially when she agrees with their position. Individual school board members should never have to use points of order to ensure effective uninterrupted conduct of the meeting, which indeed did happen on Saturday.


 Shortly thereafter, Dan Johnson asked the following additional question, which I answered as well.

 7. In the proposed scenario, what would happen to Sassarini, Adele Harrison and Sonoma Charter School?

 The trustees requested a motion be prepared that is specifically focused on what facilities will be used by SVUSD for its existing instructional program, with an emphasis on cutting waste. The board gave no direction for a motion to be drafted to repurpose any of the sites you referenced and I do not expect such a motion on April 20.