Monday, July 28, 2014

Mansfield Superintendent Did It To Herself


This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, July 28, 2014
 
AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia

 

            Mansfield School Superintendent Brenda Hodges – victim of a local political witch-hunt and the internet age, or lazy administrator who disrespected her school system and the town?  That has been the topic of some debate over the last few weeks.

 

            Let me try and settle that debate right now.

 

            Every one of the wounds that led to Superintendent Hodges ending her time in Mansfield were self-inflicted.  Not some of them, not most of them, but all of them.  She has absolutely no one to blame for her predicament other than herself.

 

            The professional educator and administrator substantially copied a speech without attributing her source.  She did so at her high school’s graduation, the pinnacle moment of achievement for Mansfield students.  Then she made light of her transgression, acknowledging it in a limited manner only after being exposed by some of her own students on social media.

 

            When planning her remarks to students, parents and citizens on the night her seniors graduated, Superintendent Hodges was either unable or unwilling to come up with original words.  Instead she recycled a speech she says she heard a pastor in Oklahoma give, one she says he gave her permission to reuse.

 

            Is it too much to expect the leader of a school system that annually expends millions of taxpayer dollars, and more importantly imparts upon students skills and values they will carry with them forever, to at least be sincere? 

 

            If she was so impressed with this speech, she could have easily prefaced her remarks by saying “I’d like to share with you a speech I recently heard” and mentioned the author.  But she did not, for reasons known only to herself.  She failed to adhere to the standard of honesty, integrity and personal responsibility she regularly demanded from her students.

 

            We don’t know if Hodges would have been fired had she not retired and resigned.  The school committee kept things very much under wraps, and did not share with the public the opinions of individual members on the superintendent’s actions.

 

            In the private sector, that would be a wise business approach.  In the public sector, it is seen as being less than forthright.  Though they were no doubt limited by legal restrictions and contractual obligations, the school committee owes the voters who elected them more in the way of explanation of their role in the entire affair.

 

            Last week in Newton, the school superintendent was caught up in a similar controversy.  Weeks after giving two graduation speeches in which he used excerpts from a speech by Governor Deval Patrick without attribution, Superintendent David Fleischman was disciplined by his school committee.

 

            Committee members voted to fine Fleischman one week’s salary for his transgression.  He admitted his mistake while stopping short of saying he was guilty of plagiarism. 

 

            Frankly, he got off easy.

 

            The Newton High School newspaper and writer Jordan Cohen-Kaplan said it best when he wrote:  “It is disappointing and disillusioning to imagine we cannot expect the best from the highest ranking Newton Public Schools official, especially on a widely attended day designed to celebrate student achievement and serve as an educational capstone.”

 

            Is it fair that Fleischman gets to keep his job while Hodges seems to have been forced out?  Probably not, but each community has its own standards and each superintendent has their own strengths and weaknesses.  Fairness does not really figure into the equation.

 

            But as Hodges walks off the Mansfield scene (complete with plentiful accumulated sick time) let there be no doubt she figuratively dug her own grave.  Yet she continues to deny she is the problem.

 

            Upon submitting her resignation, Hodges said in a letter:  “Moving forward, I do not believe the school system can continue to make the progress it has made if this issue remains a distraction.”

 

            Agreed, Superintendent.  But you caused the distraction.  You are responsible for it.  You are not leaving because the distraction exists, you are leaving because you created it.   You cost yourself the respect necessary to be able to perform your duties at a proficient level.

 

            So after careful and objective consideration, the clear answer to the opening question is - lazy administrator who disrespected her school system and the town. 

 

Without a doubt.

 

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Friday, July 25, 2014

America's Attitude Change Worrying Many

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, July 25, 2014

AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia

             
            “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

            Those oft-quoted words are from a sonnet called The New Colossus written by Emma Lazarus in 1883.  In 1903 they were engraved on a plaque and placed near the base of the Statue of liberty, where they have helped celebrate both freedom and immigrants for well over a century.

            But much like the late Emma, those words have been forgotten and ignored by many in America.  The metaphorical lamp Lady Liberty lifts so high might as well be a giant stop light, given what many in our great country are saying and urging these days.

            Immigration reform is a hot topic.  Unfortunately, the country is so polarized on the issue that all we can really accomplish is to fight with ourselves.  As we come out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we seem to have become a nation more concerned with denying others success and opportunity than actually achieving those things ourselves.

            In the last few years there has been a tremendous surge in children illegally entering the country from Central American nations where gang violence has escalated to unprecedented levels.  Parents are sending their young kids off on their own to a place many have only read about, most with nowhere to go and no family to support them when they arrive.

            Why are they doing it?  Because they want their children to live.  Because the children’s chances of surviving in their home country are slim.  Because they are out of options.  And because they love them.

            To be sure, there are some bad parents and children involved in this.  Some kids who cross the border illegally are gang members.  Some are running drugs.  Some are fleeing criminal prosecution in their own land. 

            But most of them are just children running for their lives.  They are crossing the border illegally and surrendering themselves to the first uniformed person they see.  They are running towards the place history books tell them is the beacon of freedom, a place different from any other country in the world.

            And many here want them sent back to the hell they escaped.  Despite the fact our own law, passed by the administration of George W. Bush, says we cannot legally deport them for two years.  Many believe we should not have to bear the cost of detaining them and determining if they have legal grounds for requesting asylum. 

            Just ship them back, we are told.  If they die, they die.  Do you know the problems they are causing us?  We have to house them.  We have to feed them.  We have to clothe them.  And what do we get in return?

            Do you know some of them have lice?  Why should we possibly get lice just because some foreign kids want to live and be free, or have a future?  Surely our right to avoid lice is more important than their lives?

            It’s pretty plain they are all just coming here for the food stamps and those luxurious abandoned military bases.  They want to go on welfare, get in-state tuition, and collect unemployment for the rest of their lives.  They’re all the same, you know.

            None of them will ever amount to anything, or become productive members of our society.  They will never start businesses and employ people, or serve in our military, or become hard-working taxpayers.  They steal all those low-level jobs we Americans complain about but won’t actually work ourselves.  Why should we allow them to stay?

            In all seriousness, we cannot continue to accept thousands of children streaming illegally across our borders.  We must address not only the problem of border security, but the reasons these kids are coming here in the first place.  We have to help make them safe in their own land, because we are America and that is what we do.

            Or at least, it’s what we used to do.  You know, back when that lady with the torch was seen as lighting the way instead of burning the bridges.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Trip Of The Moose and The Bear

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, July 11, 2014


AN INSIDE LOOK

By Bill Gouveia

 

Every time I think I’m going to teach my six-year old grandson something important, I end up being the one who learns a lesson.

 

Each year my wife and I take our oldest grandchild Will (did I mention his name is William?) on a trip to New Hampshire.  He is the only one of our three grandkids old enough to steal away on vacation for several days, though we keep plotting to include the other two soon. 

 

This year marked our fifth consecutive trip with young Will to the Great North.  We always stay in a hotel that includes either a pool and/or a water park to keep him busy.  Up until this past year we also went to nearby StoryLand which excited him to no end.

 

On this journey we shook things up a bit.  We visited Santa’s Village instead, and we also went to a nearby alpine slide where Will experienced his first ski-lift and first viewing of Grandpa’s terrified face as we hurtled down the side of a mountain.  We went on a new mountain coaster, visited an amazing trail and waterfall, and were in the water park every day of our trip.

 

In addition, we did the auto road up Mt. Washington – something that scared Will almost as much as it did his grandparents.  We took pictures at the summit and both on the way up and down.  It was a very exciting time for us all.

 

But after all that effort, all that planning, and all that expense – this year’s trip will always be known and remembered by our grandson as “TheTrip of the Moose and the Bear.”  And that part didn’t cost us a cent.

 

We were coming back from our alpine slide adventure, driving along Route 16 just outside of North Conway.  Suddenly Will shouted from the back seat.

 

“Grandma!  Grandpa!  It’s a moose!  We have to stop!”

 

My wife pulled the car over to the side of the road, joined by several other motorists.  Sure enough, there was a young moose taking a drink from a large puddle along the wooded roadside.  He (or she for all I know) was taking his time, keeping a wary eye on the people now snapping pictures from a safe distance.

 

If it had been up to Will, we would have shaken hands with the moose.  But he settled for standing nearby and getting his picture taken with the wild animal in the background.  Will excitedly told us he had never seen a real live moose before, and it was not until the skittish creature bounded off into the woods that we could get him back in the car.

 

Once again in his seat, Will wanted to call his parents and tell them about his amazing experience.  But first we decided to stop at a nearby Dairy Queen and get a treat before breaking his big news.

 

We were in line for ice cream when a man and his young son who had been at the moose sighting walked in and recognized us.  “Did you see the bear out behind the building?” the youngster asked Will excitedly.  Unable to believe he could be this lucky, Will glanced up at me and asked if we could go outside and take a look.

 

Sure enough, there was a good-sized black bear attempting to climb some pallets stacked behind the Dairy Queen.  Again, Will wanted to go make friends.  Again, I explained he would have to settle for a very long-distance photo op.  Grandma came out with our ice cream, and we sat watching the bear until it got bored and ran away.

 

When Will called his parents, he could barely (pun intended) contain himself.  Forgotten was the water park fun, the climb up the mountain, the roller coaster, the alpine slide, and Santa’s Village.  All he could talk about was that he had seen a moose and a bear.

 

And that is as it should be.  He reminded us what vacations are truly all about.  And the more excited he got, the more we realized the moose and the bear were now also the highlight of the trip for us.

 

It’s astounding what you can learn from a six year old…

 

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

You Can Bet On This Election...

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, July 7, 2014
 
AN INSIDE LOOK

By Bill Gouveia

 

There was always going to be a statewide election this fall, including a race for Governor.  But now it will be different from any other ever held in the Bay State.  Hold on to your hats folks – the political winds will soon be escalating to hurricane force level.

 

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that repealing the current “casino law” could be placed on the ballot this year, the political rules and landscape were immediately and severely altered.  You can throw out all the usual election philosophies, rules and assumptions if this question is on the same ballot as our elected state officials.  It’s a sure bet this election will be all about legalized gambling.

 

Massachusetts has always been both hypocritical and schizophrenic when it comes to betting.  It is as though our puritanical roots and our liberal leanings can only find common ground in how we project our public position on gambling.  We say one thing, while doing another.

 

In general, Massachusetts residents like to gamble.  We have long been home to one of the most successful state lotteries in the country.  We flock to casinos in Connecticut and other nearby states in search of winnings.   Casino operators in Las Vegas will tell you Massachusetts residents are prime customers.  And underground and illegal sports betting has been supporting the families of Boston bookies for many generations.

 

But we don’t like to see it where we live.  We prefer pretending we are above it all.  Casinos are for visiting, not having within our pristine borders.  Oh no – we can’t have that, even if it does bring in billions in revenue and ancillary business.

 

Gambling preys on the poor, we are told.  It is socially unfair.  And the gaming companies are unfeeling corporate entities that bring corruption and backroom deals to our already political state.

 

Corruption?  Here in Massachusetts?  Surely you jest.  You mean to say there may be corporate entities seeking to spend money and peddle influence in order to advance their own success?  Oh my, how out of the ordinary that would be compared to other types of industry located here.

 

And apparently we will save those “poor people” by making sure legalized gambling is located just on the other side of the state line.  That way we can fulfill our gambling urges while still maintaining the fa├žade that we are above the fray.  Apparently, appearance is everything.

 

Legalized casino opponents would rather see us drive residents to illegal betting, where there are no regulations to ensure fairness and the collection efforts tend to be a bit more extreme.  The poor are still victimized in this scenario, but it is harder to see them from the comfort of our high moral perches.

 

But now gambling will be the main issue, with money being tossed around on both sides – especially the pro-casino groups.  And as we know, money is the lifeblood of politics in America.  Massachusetts is no exception.

 

This will be a major issue in helping voters to choose candidates for statewide office.  While most running for office would like to ignore it and let the people decide the issue, they cannot and they know it. 

 

You need only look back a few years to Foxboro for an example of how this next election may be affected.  In 2012 gambling technically was not on the ballot, but everyone knew the local election was a referendum on allowing a casino locally.  The turnout was tremendous, way above average.  Candidates handily lost their races with vote totals that would have easily won any other year.

 

At least 20 states have legalized casino gambling.  Others have “Indian” casinos run by Native American tribes.  As with other industries, some are more successful than others.

 

But gambling itself will not be on the ballot this fall.  No matter how the electorate votes, Massachusetts residents will continue to gamble.  The question now is, will they do it here in a regulated or non-regulated setting and will the state collect taxes and benefit from new construction and new jobs?

 

This approach didn’t work during Prohibition, and it won’t work now.

 

One thing is certain - between today and November, pollsters are going to make a boatload of money.  You can bet on that.

 

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Plagiarism Charges Sticking With Mansfield Superintendent


This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Friday, July 4, 2014


GOUVEIA: Still a question of integrity

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Posted: Friday, July 4, 2014 12:13 am | Updated: 3:50 am, Fri Jul 4, 2014.
If a student of Mansfield School Superintendent Brenda Hodges submitted a speech or paper which was found to be largely copied from another source, and did not credit that source, that student would have some serious explaining to do.
But apparently in Mansfield, those in positions of power are held to a different standard. What some have dismissed as something "blown out of proportion" is now threatening the very integrity of the school system itself.
Charges of plagiarism began to circulate on social media after the June 8 Mansfield High graduation address by the superintendent. It seems Hodges' remarks were extremely similar to those given by Naval Adm. William H. McRaven at the University of Texas less than a month earlier.
The superintendent denies she is guilty of plagiarism, saying she heard a speech in Oklahoma in 2013 and asked the speaker (whom she declined to identify) if she could use it. She says he handed her a copy, and she drew from that for her message to graduating seniors.
But she does admit she should have handled the situation differently. "In hindsight, I would have said 'I recently heard a speech that resonated with me and I'd like to share some thoughts from it with you'," Hodges said recently. She added she had not seen or read the admiral's speech before giving her own, but was able to clearly see the connection.
Mansfield High claims to take plagiarism very seriously. Students often have to submit their work to a website that checks for similarities to other written or spoken materials. Hodges herself has pointed out the school department instills in the students, "You have to cite your sources."
Yes, superintendent - you do. And you didn't. And for that, there needs to be consequences.
Plagiarism is a tricky concept. It is debatable whether this particular instance rises to the level of actual plagiarism. But there is no question what Hodges did was wrong, irresponsible and unprofessional. She has damaged her own integrity and credibility with students, parents and fellow professional staff and administrators.
But it's just a commencement speech, you might be tempted to say. Why make such a big deal out of a few remarks to graduates and their families? The head of the school's English department called the alleged plagiarism "much ado about nothing."
That is wrong. It is a big deal. The school department has been quite clear about citing sources. This not only fails to set a good example, but is the epitome of a bad one.
Very little that is written or said is truly and completely original. As a columnist, I draw information for virtually every column from a wide variety of sources. If I gave attribution to every stray fact or statement I encountered, there would be little room for anything else.
But if I were to copy much of what I wrote directly from someone else's work, I would have to attribute it. To not do so would be dishonest and get me fired.
When you are the head of a school system, your responsibilities are clear. You have to be able to conform to the standards and behavior you expect and demand from students. The concept of "Do what I say, not what I do" doesn't work.
What would Superintendent Hodges do if one of her students virtually copied a speech or paper from another source? If they told the superintendent they had permission from someone else to use their work, would that make it OK? Or would they face disciplinary action for failure to follow the rules?
Superintendents and students are different and should not be treated exactly the same. That is understood. But in this case, they should both abide by basic principles of right and wrong.
The school committee needs to investigate this matter. Continued failure to take this seriously will result in its own integrity being questioned. And if it is confirmed Superintendent Hodges did indeed operate outside the very rules she is charged with enforcing, she should be subjected to disciplinary action.
There appears to be no valid excuse for what has been done here. And until and unless one is forthcoming, the school committee needs to show the community their lofty standards apply to everyone.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime area town official. He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.comand followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.