The Art of Writing Op-Eds

Superintendents can find a personal and professional outlet for expressing ideas through a regular column in the local press by Linda Chion Kenney

When John Whritner was hired for his first superintendency, the school system he soon would lead had recently approved a town budget for education. But by the time Whritner showed up for work in East Lyme, Conn., the fickle electorate had changed its collective mindset and reversed its approval by referendum.

It was a short honeymoon for Whritner, whose leadership was tested at the outset through a personal campaign to convince his public that “schools are a good place to spend your money.” There were meetings in homes, public debates, talks with politicians and more meetings in homes. Then Whritner added to his plan what was for him a new strategic twist: He wrote a local newspaper column.

It’s one thing to write a commentary based on one’s point of view and another thing to get it published. But Whritner, who continues to write an occasional column even now in his retirement after 26 years in three superintendencies, says he found breaking into print wasn’t that difficult. He simply placed a call to the local newspaper editor and said: “I want to write a column. Is this something you see as having any value?”

He received an enthusiastic response. “I would say 100 percent of the time the editors will work it in when they have space,” Whritner says. “And weeklies are always hungry to fill space.”

A Personal Outlet
Indeed, it has been said that journalism, as observed by the journalist and novelist Rebecca West, “is the ability to meet the challenge of filling space.” But superintendents who write columns aren’t so glib. Rather, they recognize that even in a time when many are flocking to electronic avenues of communication, the print medium maintains a unique position by providing an accessible forum for community conversations on timely and compelling topics.

It worked like a charm for Whritner back in 1972, when as the new superintendent in a town that reversed its referendum he needed a quick way to build trust. “The next time we had a referendum, it passed,” Whritner recalls, “and for the next 13 years we were able to pass budgets every year.”

But it’s not only the big-ticket items that superintendents feel compelled to write about.

Whether they prefer to take a stand on controversial issues or to offer folksy advice on how best to teach and nurture children, superintendents-turned-columnists find in their work an outlet for both personal expression and professional outreach. More importantly, they help shape the conversation that affects how people view and support not only the work of individual educators, but also the overarching aims of public education itself.

Superintendent William Cirone of Santa Barbara, Calif., finds a place for hard and soft news in his columns submitted to more than a dozen publications countywide. In the latter category, he says he’ll write about “topics that relate to children and families,” such as good nutrition, homework tips and strategies for getting prepared for the new school year. In the hard news category, he’ll cover more pressing issues, like the recent vote on Proposition 55, California’s $12.3 million bond measure earmarked in part to relieve crowded schools and to modernize existing schools.

Cirone heads the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, which provides 23 school districts with auditing, business and financial services, teacher training, vocational education, migrant, special education and other services. His service area includes about 100 schools enrolling some 64,000 students. His media sphere includes roughly four daily newspapers and 10 weeklies, and he is involved with community cable and radio productions. His focus, like that of the other superintendents who assume column-writing roles, is to become an essential part of the discussion that affects how people view their schools by building a solid level of trust and credibility.

“I talk about problems, what needs to be done, what is being done, the partnerships that are at work to make that happen and how people can help,” Cirone says.

Recognizing that by nature people will react to something compelling, Cirone says it is his job to give them something they should react to, with an emphasis on “very simple, practical things that get people involved and engaged.”

He adds: “Ninety-nine percent of the time in most places — and this to me is really central to why we do what we do — people are reacting. They’re in a reactive mode because someone calls about a problem. My sense is we have a responsibility, obviously, to deal with those issues, but those issues deal with only a small part of what we’re all about. What we’re trying to do is have a say in sending out those messages. Ultimately, the paper will decide what to print, but if a piece is well-written on a timely topic that the editors think will be of interest to their readers, then more often than not they will run it.”

A Bully Pulpit
Of a like mind is veteran superintendent Gary Burton of Wayland, Mass. The monthly newspaper column he has written for the past 25 years during his superintendency in two states is in effect a bully pulpit from which he says he gets to put a friendly face on his public and professional persona. It’s also the means through which he shares his “unabashed advocacy for the public schools.”

“I wanted people to get to know me as a person,” Burton says. “I don’t try to overpower them with my writing. Rather, I try to have a conversation, to give them something that can be read out loud across the table over a cup of coffee.”

Moreover, he adds, “I don’t knock the public schools. I don’t write articles that disclose all our dirty secrets. I’m really proud that public schools made this country great. Public schools are not a byproduct of this nation. They’re the very cause of it because we invested money in educating children and children grew up to become productive adults. There, I am on my soap box!”

Burton’s writing started when he was a superintendent in Meredith, N.H., a school district that served about 1,500 children. He continues his commentaries today as the superintendent of Wayland Public Schools, a 2,900-student district just outside of Boston. He says his work runs predominantly in the weekly Wayland Town Crier, but is sometimes picked up by the area’s major daily newspapers, the Manchester Union-Leader in New Hampshire and The Boston Globe. From the beginning, Burton has focused on what could be called the three P’s — or as he described it in his first column, “the programs, problems and progress of your schools.”

“Usually, I don’t write about my own local school district,” Burton says. “I talk generally about education. I talk generally about raising children. I don’t talk about specific problems in the school system except for once in a while, like when we have a major building program going on. I’ve also over the years had people call me to suggest a couple topics they thought I should write about.”

Topics he has addressed include classroom discipline, the need for state support and cheating in public schools. Sometimes he rails against certain federal actions.

“My column gives me a chance to express an opinion in the hopes it will generate some kind of reaction in the community,” Burton says, noting that one of his most memorable pieces explored his 10 favorite books of all time.

“The purpose of the article wasn’t for me to tell you what my favorite books were, but for you to talk about your 10 favorite books and to do that in front of children because children need to see adults talking about reading,” Burton says. “In my writing, I’m not trying to be moralistic. I’m not talking down to people. I aim at your heart and not your head.”

Burton says he doesn’t consider himself a columnist, but rather an educator who enjoys the chance to express himself. “And my work is like that of the building principals who write weekly and monthly newsletters, except my work gets published in the newspaper and theirs get sent home with the kids and I have contact with the 70 percent of the people who don’t have kids in school.”

Imparting Advice
Susan Dudley, too, stresses her role as an educator in the columns she produces. As superintendent of the Edinburg, Ill., schools, 18 miles southeast of Springfield, Dudley is responsible for about 400 students in prekindergarten through grade 12. Her pen is poised, once a month, to write for the local paper, The Herald-Star, a community newspaper that often leads its front page with even the most routine news about the school district. One recent page one piece carried the headline, “School Board Met; Registration Numbers Up and Budget in Order.”

“I started the column as a way to communicate with the community, but I found that it blossomed into other things,” Dudley says about her “Around the School” column, which covers wide-ranging topics such as how parents can best read to a child.

“There’s lots of ways to help a child learn to read,” she explains. “We’re the trained educators. We learn how to do that. You can’t expect somebody who doesn’t have an education background to know how to do that most effectively, so as an educator you can share what you know with others. And that should be one of our goals and obligations, to share our knowledge and experience.”

For Dudley, the means to that end is her column, which originated with a suggestion from a school board member whose daughter had taken over the town newspaper founded by her grandfather. The board member suggested Dudley write a column because she had a knack for explaining things to others.

Rather than write a letter to the editor, Dudley called her.

“She’s a young girl, real approachable, and I asked her, ‘What do you think about me writing a newspaper article?’” Dudley says. “For the first couple of articles, she gave me my assignments. I said, ‘You know your readership base better than I do. What do you think they want to read?’”

Eventually, Dudley came up with her own ideas and used her writing to further discussion on the essential issues of the day — with a homespun twist. One such column expressed concern for the reputation the district was getting for poor sportsmanship. Complaints had been lodged with the Illinois High School Association, Dudley says, “and we needed to turn that around right away.”

“You really can’t have a reputation of being that kind of community,” she adds. “You’ve got to have the reputation of a community that tries its best, and if you lose, you’re still a good sport because that’s how you want to raise children. You want to raise them to do their best and be good sports about it.”

Dudley wrote a column about spectator decorum and why the school community needed to demonstrate good sportsmanship. Though she ruffled a few feathers with her words, she says her vindication came in receiving “lots of positive comments from parents who thanked me for saying the things they thought should be said.”

“The article was my call to arms to the parents,” Dudley adds. “I thought parents needed to clean up not only their kids’ acts, but their own acts as well. Facing the problem is part of the solution. You can’t have hot tempers get in the way of playing high school sports.”

A Promotional Edge
In Conway, Mo., Larry Clinefelter says his weekly column is intended primarily to give “fluff” a good name.

“My philosophy is that it takes 10 positive things to offset any one negative that comes out of a school system,” says Clinefelter, who is in his 14th year as superintendent of the Laclede County R-1 Schools. “So if you get a chance to put out good news, do it every chance you get.”

Clinefelter writes a regular newspaper column. But there’s a twist in Conway. About 10 years ago, the school system launched its own newspaper, the Conway Chronicles, which Clinefelter said is “published by another newspaper about 15 miles up the road. They publish it for us, they distribute it for us, but we have editorial control.”

The superintendent’s philosophy on school leadership carries over into the tone of his newspaper articles.

“In a small town, you have to make your writing kind of folksy,” Clinefelter says. “I’ll take some silly thing my cat or dog did and tie it into the school testing program. You can’t make it too dry if you’re going to keep peoples’ attention 50 weeks a year.”

The Conway Chronicles publishes notices about upcoming events and news about school board elections, the state assessment program and changes in class sizes. Often, a superintendent who writes local copy can expand those themes into articles that may get picked up by larger-circulation newspapers or magazines.

A case in point is a guest column Clinefelter first wrote for his district newspaper, which he later adapted for The School Administrator. His column explored the marketing of American schools by addressing what he called the “greatest title, slogan or descriptor of a new initiative in the history of human thought.” While “No Child Left Behind” stood its own with “save the whales, save the environment, save the trees, save our souls, save money, save detergent, save coupons or save a little time,” Clinefelter noted, the federal law itself needed a closer look as “big-time marketing is at work on this child thing.”

In his hometown feature articles, Clinefelter uses humor and folksy writing to explore the larger issues inherent in a timely topic. As he sees it, his column affords him a chance to engage the public in the work of public education.

“We explain the thinking behind the things we do,” Clinefelter says. “Sometimes it’s not about things on peoples’ minds, but I think it doesn’t hurt to get those issues out there. I think we get a lot of good PR out of that and a chance to explain things, especially controversial or difficult issues.”

Compact Thinking
Clarifying the issues for the masses is a great reason to write a column, but William Mathis makes it a point to emphasize that the benefits are felt internally as well. There are parameters to the business of writing for outside publications, and one of the most pressing restrictions is to write concisely.

For school officials accustomed to facilitating long meetings and writing in a scholarly longhand, it’s almost paralyzing to write succinctly.

Mathis, who is superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Vermont, says the journalistic payoff transcends the satisfaction of seeing your name in print in a medium that has a direct link to the people most affected by your work.

“I found it to be beneficial because you’re having to work within 600 to 750 words on a very complex issue,” Mathis says. “It really places a premium on getting your ideas well-organized. Somebody once said, ‘How do I know what I’m thinking until I write it down?’ It really does help focus your thinking.”

Mathis, in his 24th year as a superintendent, stresses that taking a reader on a journey to greater understanding should be the ultimate mission of every published article. “There’s not one piece that started one way that didn’t end up morphing into something else,” he says. “I don’t know how it got started, except that there was an issue of public interest and I thought, ‘I can write something that could help this discussion.’”

Mathis, who today tends to write for national publications such as Education Week and Kappan magazine, says he wrote his first piece two decades ago about the necessity of state standards done right. Ever since, Mathis has focused his prose on major educational policy issues, “whatever happens to be hot,” he explains. “Because that will bring more attention to the piece.”

Whritner, too, says he was so pleased with his initial columns that he kept writing even when he switched from the superintendency in Grosse Pointe, Mich., to the top post in Greenwich, Conn. Even now, as a superintendent search consultant and interim superintendent of a regional school district serving three Connecticut towns, Whritner will write an occasional column on topics he feels strongly about. Hundreds of articles later, he finds himself still building upon his initial message, which was, as he put it, “to convince voters that we’re doing the right thing for your kids and supporting schools is a good way to spend money to make money.”

A Community Forum
Media expert Rick Kenney, an ethics fellow associated with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., salutes the active use by public school leaders of the newspaper op-ed page, which by definition, he says, “should present a greater range of viewpoints than the institutional editorials of the newspaper itself.

“The newspaper op-ed page ought to be the ‘conversational commons’ in the community, meaning it should offer all citizens a place to discuss and negotiate issues and to become part of the dialogue about those issues,” Kenney says. “This keeps the newspaper from talking at its readers by allowing other voices to be heard.”

“No matter what newspaper circulation figures show, it still remains that opinion leaders and decision makers and the most engaged and active citizens do read newspapers,” Kenney says. “People thoughtful enough to vote and otherwise participate in a democracy are inclined to read the editorial and op-ed pages of a newspaper in their community. So, by becoming a part of that page, you’re contributing to the dialogue by stimulating ideas, stimulating thought and stimulating action.”

Cirone, the superintendent in Santa Barbara County, Calif., says he has contributed to that commons for about 23 years, with more recent pieces submitted in collaboration with Wendy Shelton, his district director of communications. Many of his columns offer parenting advice and help to cast him in a friendly light. The ensuing relationship can lead to trust, which he says is needed once the conversation turns to more controversial issues.

That happened when Cirone composed a column critical of the No Child Left Behind Act that appeared in several newspapers countywide. “We felt like we’ve been had,” he wrote in the piece, “and like everybody else we’re frustrated about the changes that need to be made but aren’t being made.”

While not afraid to make strong statements in his columns, he does so judiciously. “By picking your battles carefully, it gives you more credibility,” he explains. “People recognize us more for talking about positive partnerships and for giving important information and parenting tips. So when we do come out with something strong and hard-hitting, we’re not just seen as ‘whiners.’ Sadly, because administrators are so overburdened, they feel they don’t have time for this sort of thing. I believe it’s critical to what we do.”

Linda Chion Kenney is a senior reporter with Sunbelt Newspapers in Brandon, Fla., and founder of Our Town Histories, a company specializing in oral history projects. E-mail: lckourtown@aol.com