Then and Now
Forty-three years ago, I decided to run for a seat on the Dixon, IL school board. I don’t know what caused me to do that. It was just the right thing to do. So, in 1978, I ran and won. It was the second win of the only two times that I ever ran for something. The first time was when I ran for student body president in graduate school.
Reflecting back to the days on the Dixon school board, we spent most of our time doing the usual routine business that all school boards address. There were only three things that really motivated me and got me engaged. A friend of mine, the superintendent of schools, asked whether any board members wanted to attend the national school board convention in San Francisco, CA.
I jumped at that opportunity because Ralph Nader was the main attraction that year. Off I went to listen to Nader. He was the single most influential person that pushed for car safety against the carmakers that weren’t concerned about protection. He saved the lives of tens of thousands of people due to forcing Detroit to improve car safety.
When he spoke to the school board convention, I got to the auditorium early to get a good seat. However, it was so early that many of the audience hadn’t been seated. As they slowly arrived, I decided to go to the stage and walked behind the curtain to see if I could meet Nader. There he was going over his notes. Being a wide-eyed liberal, I walked over to him and introduced myself to one of the great icons of social movements. We chatted for a couple of moments, and he seemed interested in talking with one of his followers. Then I went back to my seat and listened to him give his speech.
Interestingly, the next critically important issue that I addressed while on the school board was bus safety. Dixon’s school district didn’t own any buses. They hired an outside contractor to provide buses for the district. However, there had been problems with the contractor in the past, which continued while I was on the board.
One day, a school bus broke down on the major bridge in Dixon with a busload of young children going to school. During the early morning rush hour, some people noticed the school bus stuck on the bridge. They helped the children to safely cross the bridge and transported them to their elementary school.
I talked to a friend of mine who worked in the Illinois Department of Transportation as an inspector and asked what I needed to do to get all the buses inspected. He said that we could do an unannounced inspection now, which we did. He did a cursory and unofficial inspection of thirty-some buses, which was the entire fleet of school buses. Every one of the buses had significant safety issues, ranging from bad tires, lights not working, emergency exit doors bolted shut, and exhaust problems. None of the buses came close to passing the most basic safety requirements.
I brought the results of the inspection to the next school board meeting. The school board terminated our contract with the bus company. For the remaining several months of school that year, the school system didn’t have any bus service to transport students to school. That meant every family had to do it themselves.
You can imagine the firestorm that not having buses created in Dixon. Parents were agitated by the actions of the school board. I got phone calls from disgruntled parents. Some of the upset parents came to the next school board meeting.
All that I could say was that the school board would rather listen to unhappy parents dealing with the inconvenience of transporting their children than address parents whose children could have been injured or worse due to the irresponsible bus company.
The other issue that the school board faced was that some parents wanted us to censor the books in the schools. Books like Mark Twain were at the top of the list of books that need to be burned. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were two particular books, both of which were stories about two kids living in the South prior to the Civil War.
Some of the parents didn’t like the racist words that Mark Twain used when referencing blacks. They saw Twain as a racist. I responded to the protesters that Twain wasn’t a racist. He merely used words that were used at that time in the antebellum South.
The school board didn’t burn any books of Mark Twain or censor them. However, the protestors didn’t know our American history or Mark Twain. He was for the abolition of slavery and was supportive of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Twain said of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that it “... not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also.” Twain saw whites in bondage to their ignorance and racial hatred.
Nevertheless, my time on the Dixon School Board was over four decades ago. Where are we today? George Santayana warned us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We haven’t learned yet in America, whether in school boards, state legislatures, or nationally.