In all honesty, I don’t remember the date I was assigned to that beat. But believe me, it’s somewhere around 20 years. The first few years I worked at the station, I covered a little of everything, mostly lighter stories, which was fine by me. One day the boss called me in and said, “We want you to specialize in something, you know, your own beat.” I agreed, with one condition. “Look,” I said. “I’m not a confrontational kind of guy. Could you give me something with no politics, no controversy, no violence?”
They said, “How about schools?” Little did I know….
But to coin a phrase, it’s been educational. Most of the time, I’ve loved it. I go into more schools than the milk delivery guy. Twenty different counties and school districts, more than 100 schools every year. The rich ones, the poor ones, the new ones, the crumbling ones. I’ve attended the groundbreakings and dedication ceremonies for just about every new school that’s opened in the past 20 years, and that’s always fun.
While reminiscing about School Patrol, I thought about a lot of principals. I’ve known hundreds of them. Some of them like me, others not so much.
Most of them understand my role. If their school has great test scores, or wins a big award, I should cover it. But if their school is vandalized, or a teacher gets in trouble, I should cover that too. Early on, a few principals hit me with this painful accusation: “You only come here when it’s something bad.” Sadly, too often they were right. I pledged to visit them when something good was going on too, to give them positive coverage. It’s still my goal, yet try as I might, I fail far too often.
As you might expect, being a TV news guy, I get plenty of parental complaints. They used to arrive by letter, a few still come by phone, and now they’re most often by e-mail or Facebook. Many of the complaints are about bus drivers, quite a few are about teachers, and the majority are about principals. I look into each one. Most are the result of poor communication, and when the two sides actually talk, the problem resolves itself. However, some of them are valid complaints which turn into news stories. If I do my job well, the problem either gets solved, or becomes a story in which the public is informed about an issue that could affect them.
There are a few red flags. When I see a complaint about a “principle,” I sigh and keep on reading. In this era of spell check, I seem to sigh a lot. And besides, I’ve had a few complaints about principals myself. Some principals I’ve known were sure that I was out to get them. There have been a few cases in which my news coverage may have played a role in a principal being demoted, transferred, or even dismissed. I can remember another situation or two when a stubborn superintendent would resist moving a sub-par principal, just to avoid admitting a mistake. No doubt about it: there are unqualified, poor performing principals, just as there are poor performers in every occupation you can name, even news reporters. Still, I sympathize with principals, particularly those in public schools who feel like they’re wearing huge targets on their backs.
The best principals are the ones who understand what I believe to be the three most important parts of their job. I tell them they should spend 40% of their time on academics, 40% on discipline and 40% on public/parent relations. Yes, that adds up to 120%, but any principal will tell you they have to put in that extra time. Especially the high school principals; the money is good, absolutely. But who among us wants to unlock the door at 6:00 a.m., be responsible for the safety of 1500 or more teenagers in this post-Columbine, Facebook-frenzied world, and attend every athletic event, PTA meeting, dance and fundraiser? Folks, they earn their money.
I’ve known some duds. There’s the guy who threw me out of a high school during my KZ-106 radio days. Some cheerleaders invited me to give away prizes at a pep rally, and I was happy to do so. I no sooner got on stage when the secretary tapped me on the shoulder and said “Mr So-and-So wants to see you.” Assuming that he wanted to thank me for generously bringing a box of Journey albums, I strolled down to his office, expecting the red carpet treatment. He promptly yelled, “What do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to take over my school?” As I started mumbling something about my cheerleader pals, his neck turned beet red and he bellowed, “You’d better get out of here!” I thought that was good advice. A few days later, one of the lovely cheerleaders called and said, “What happened to you? You left before the pep rally even started!” I guess the kindly old principal just let the matter drop. I wish I could. To this day, when I see his scowling face on the school’s wall of principal portraits, I growl at him.
Oh, I’ve been tossed out of schools since then, but you never forget your first.
I’m glad to say though, that most principals I’ve dealt with have been terrific. Some, past and present are among my best friends. Most of them know they’re the face of their school, and the good ones know how to set the right tone for their particular campus. One of my favorites is at a rural high school. Walking down the hall with him one day, he spotted a 9th grader out of dress code. “Boy, you get that shirt tail in, or I’ll whup your ass,” he said in a stern tone of voice. He could tell I was a bit startled by his colorful choice of words. “Aw, that’s nothing,” he said. “I grew up with that boy’s daddy. That’s the only language he understands. And he knows I’m not really gonna whup his ass. I’d let his daddy handle that.”
Such is the life of a high school principal. Middle school principals deal with raging hormones. Elementary principals get a lot of hugs, but have to wave off clingy parents. Above all, my School Patrol experience has taught me this: I’d rather report on principals than be one.