DOUBTING THOMAS Malcolm Thomas doesn’t give speeches. The Escambia County Superintendent of Schools preaches. The sermons are an odd blend of hubris and a collection of positives about his school district. The “his” is emphasized because in the course of 30 minutes of rapid-fire shouting, Thomas will use “I,” “me” and “my” over 150 times–yes, I actually counted them during a recent Thomas speech.
A folksy Art Linkletter-type moment about a kindergartener who is an only child calling herself the “lonely child” becomes an opportunity for the superintendent to talk about how hard he works and how he feels like a lonely child at times. The audience learns how he reflects at the end of every day and that the current talk is one of three or four public meetings that he will have or has had that day.
When he finishes, the audience is left wondering whether Escambia County even had public schools before Thomas was elected.
This is in sharp contrast to the speeches of two former school superintendents, Benny Russell and Jim Paul, who only mentioned themselves when they wished to take responsibility for a problem in their districts.
Bennett C. Russell served as superintendent for Santa Rosa County schools for 20 years, until he succumbed to cancer in 1999. The former pro football player might have occasionally mangled the English language, but he always gave credit, by name, to his board, principals, teachers and students. The first five minutes of a Benny Russell speech was spent recognizing community leaders and current and former educators in the audience. Benny never used the words “my school district.”
The same can be said about Jim Paul, who was the first two-term school superintendent in Escambia County in over two decades. Paul was an introvert, but his pride in the accomplishments of his staff and students rang out in every one of his speeches. He dealt with controversy head-on and never hesitated to apologize for missteps and take corrective action. Jim stayed out of the limelight and let others garner the praise.
One should expect a school superintendent to focus on the positives, such as the academic teams and plethora of magnet schools, as Thomas does. However, there is the risk of demagoguery when hyperbole leads to a less than realistic picture of the issues facing the school district.
During the course of his speeches, Thomas takes a shot at those who focus on what he calls the “warts” of his schools. Demagogues don’t like criticism. Transparency is anathema to them. They don’t like anyone questioning their decisions or pointing out inconsistencies in their statements.
Benny and Jim understood that questions would be asked and decisions challenged. They embraced the opportunity to better explain a decision and improve their school systems. Malcolm Thomas? Not so much.
Thomas has time to check his ego. He has just passed the halfway point of his term and has about 15 months to overcome his missteps. It will be interesting to see if he does.