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Sunday, November 7, 2010

How Groupthink Brought A $400 Million Edifice

New Building Only Option Considered
Groupthink Shut Out Alternate Visions For School District

Opinion/News Analysis
What started out as an idea to increase academic achievement at Emeryville schools morphed instead into a strange insistence by the polity that an expensive new building must be erected.  The culture became permeated with groupthink after critical thinking was purged from supportive committees by the school board and the city council.
Is this really the best way?
As a consequence, the recently passed campaign for Measure J, the school rebuild bond, progressed just how the hired political consulting firm said it would.  From the opening salvos of city-wide push polling with its hidden agenda meant to sway voters to the final stubbing out of oppositional voices by the cancelling of freewheeling public forums called "living room conversations" along with the purging of alternative voices from official committees; the only idea taken into consideration was the building of a $120 million new school edifice (nearly $400 million with interest).  All fell into line and dissent was effectively quashed.  And that was the intent, right from the start.

How about something different?
The whole idea that a new school building is the best way to increase student academic achievement, accepted carte blanche by the elite, was never challenged because contrary voices were not allowed on any of the committees that were set up ostensibly to investigate this dubious premise.  The enablers never saw fit to question the official 'wisdom'.  Other voices, were they allowed to flourish, might  have argued a different vision be considered; a vision that, as it turns out is supported by a majority of educators.

Real Academic Achievement:
Small Class Size & Higher Pay For Teachers
In the academic community, as it turns out, there is no consensus on this Emeryville steamroller idea that it takes a new building to produce good academic results for students.  On the contrary, most educators outside Emeryville say it's small class sizes that brings higher academic student achievement.  Teachers are almost unanimous about this.  Many also point to the need for quality teachers and higher teacher pay is a proven way to attract better teachers.  Many academicians will say new buildings may help increase student performance somewhat but pale when compared to making smaller class sizes and hiring better teachers.

Center Of Community Life committee meeting
Those that might have asked if the emperor has clothes and question the inevitable new school building project were never able to point out the plethora of other school districts getting by with much older school buildings than the 1962 Emery High.  One only needs to look to Berkeley High School, built in 1901 (added onto in subsequent years including a large add on in 1964) and doing a far better job educating its students than Emery.   In fact the Berkeley High campus was recently designated a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places, something Emery High School is not eligible for because it's too new.  It is an inconvenient fact that many school districts across the United States are educating their children in much older schools than Emery and that they have exceptionally high academic student achievement.

Now There Are Fewer Options
We've put all our eggs in one basket
Perhaps most disturbing is the likely prospect that the $400 million dollar school rebuild project will squander Emeryville voter's admirable penchant for fiscally supporting their schools, possibly for a generation or more.  Any chance of reducing class sizes or increasing teacher pay with additional financial help from the residents is now much less likely because of the expensive new building we're going to get.  It would seem we have put all our hopes for a new regime of academic achievement in one basket; the one basket that will offer the least chance for success.  In terms of bang for bucks, we have gone for a lot of bucks and not much bang.

In an alternate universe where dissenting voices were welcome in Emeryville, these other ideas for driving up student achievement might have been part of the dialogue, they might have saved the residents a lot of money and better achieved the goal of improving education at our schools.  But back here on Earth, in this Emeryville, it seems the only alternative is their way or the highway.


  1. we are indeed stuck with the voters decision...however, complaining that dissenting voices did not get heard begs the issue viz people are free to speak up anyway and if indeed there was opposition that did not get heard, it was not because of any squashing... it was and is the responsibility of the individuals to speak up..

    meanwhile, the refusal of the council to address the excessive costs of the city mgr and attorney, the councils refusal to invite fair competition for their positions and investigate the need to fire the city mgr for failed performance, and the councils refusal as well to fire the marina contractors who have failed to perform on the contract to get a restauarant at the marina remains egregiously fiscally irresponsible and really should be addressed by the voters asap... and bukowski remains on the council while we try to attract business here, ignoring their awareness of how he conducted himself in office and how the council gutlessly permits him to remain.

  2. Any Emeryville resident is free to speak out about any issue in multiple forums, of course. The 'power elite' cannot stop free speech. The stifling of dissenting voices with regard to the Measure J school project took the form of a purging of such voices from all decision making bodies and from the canceling of the much touted "living room conversations" wherein ordinary residents could weigh in with the decision makers about the project in a open dialog rather than a three minute public comment (as is allowed at school board and council meetings).
    If any resident wanted to dialog with colleagues in power positions that that building a new school building is less effective than reducing class sizes or hiring better teachers and that's a path that should be taken, they would not have found a forum to do that in.

  3. Yep, it was forced down our throats (via a pricey media blitz) that Emeryville schools were horse-n-buggy, and the ONLY way to improve them was to buy this Rolls Royce of a building for them. Regardless of any argument on if we could afford it or not, or if there were indeed more sensible fixes. As long as Ruth, Nora, Ken, and Miguel get their names on this legacy project, that's all that matters...

  4. I don't think a measure that 73% of voter approve is "forced down our throats." Sure, you can say it was all due to the "media blitz," but the reality is that 73% of voters are not that stupid. That many people don't vote for something just because they get a brochure in the mail. I was on the fence about the measure, but I voted for it because after examining all the arguments against Measure J presented on this blog and elsewhere, I decided the opposition did not have compelling arguments, while those supporting it did. It definitely was not "forced down [my] throat."

  5. The vast majority of white blue collar middle class Americans voted for George W Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. They examined all the arguments for and against George W and they thought that Bush presented the most compelling argument. They determined Bush was the one that had their interests at heart.

  6. So what you're saying with the Bush thing is that many Emeryville voters didn't cast a vote for Measure J that will end up being in their interests? Is that possible? To vote for something that ends up not being in you own best interests? There could be some misrepresenting going on? Perhaps the side with the money selling the thing didn't exactly tell everyone everything, good and bad about the proposal?
    I guess it is possible.

  7. The difference is that Bush won by slim margins both times and Measure J was approved by over 73% of voters.

    Also, you would argue that Bush did not have the best interests of "white blue collar middle class Americans" at heart, and it is true that per capita middle class income declined during the last decade, but your "best interest" does not just include economic measures. There are a myriad of other ways to measure "best interest."
    And maybe there are things more important to voters than their own best interest. It is a depressing notion that people would always only vote for their own best interest. That's not how I vote.

  8. Who says "best interests" means exclusively financial interests? Best interests would constitute all that a person or group finds desirable, possibly including seeing their neighbors prosper or even the whole country. Who would ever vote outside of their own best interests except someone that's been fooled?

  9. I disagree. There are more important things than my own best interest. I am willing to sacrifice my own best interest for the best interest of my community among other things.

  10. I wouldn't say the educators were behind it, but those of us that have survived at the school district know, that if you want to keep your job, you keep your mouth shut if what you have to say doesn't agree with the administrators, and in this economic climate, people have an easy time keeping their mouths shut.