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Medford school district showed leadership in making tough calls

Leadership is more than finding a parade and jumping in front of it.

People often confuse leadership with doing what is popular with the people in the room. Those people would likely be disappointed by some of the decisions made at the Medford School Board meeting Monday night as board members and administration struggled to make choices that were for the good of the entire district, not just for those sitting in front of them.

Leadership is about making tough choices based on sound reasoning and after exploring viable options. It is about relying on the counsel of those entrusted with providing advice and knowing when to question that advice. When it comes to setting public policy, leadership can be messy and at times abrasive as it cleaves through the rocky shoals of emotions to try and find a true course to follow.

Members of the Medford School Board, like those in every community across the state, face tough choices about reopening schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They are charged to do the best for their communities and their staff. On one side there are those who seek to follow the path of ensuring an abundance of caution. These include people such as board member Brian Hallgren who says the district should do everything possible to guarantee the safety and well-being of students, staff and others who enter the school buildings.

On the opposite side are those such as district resident John Kuhn, a parent of a football player, who spoke at the meeting stating that freedom of choice and risktaking are fundamental parts of being an American. He said it should be up to parents to choose what level of concern they have about the pandemic and how they wish to respond.

The district administration, under the leadership of Pat Sullivan, has attempted to set a path between these poles. At Monday’s meeting the administration delivered their mandate of coming up with a plan that seeks to balance caution and risk in order to provide students with as normal an experience as possible. Sullivan, in particular, drew fire for his decision to follow the guidance of the WIAA and county health officials in limiting face-to-face activities at the school in recent weeks as the county moved from moderate to high risk based on the escalating number of cases.

Considering Sullivan’s track record of support for athletics and other co-curricular activities, his decision to reduce access to school facilities and to cancel the planned school-sponsored prom were not made lightly. These were the right calls given the information available at the time.

The school board showed leadership Monday night in the process of coming to the decision to start the school year returning to every day attendance and requiring masks to be worn by staff and students. Arguments for and against the plan were presented and, in the end, a workable solution was reached. While not universally loved, it gives a starting point and a path forward.

Time will tell if the district was over cautious, or not cautious enough. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from being over. No matter how tired everyone is of hearing about the pandemic, it will continue to impact public policy decisions for a long time to come.

The final part of leadership is accepting when a decision has been made and moving forward with a united front. Parents, district staff and the community at large must accept that decision. While there is always room for dissent, no one should seek to undermine the leadership that went into making that decision.