Once Upon A Time…When Politics Worked For The Common Good

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times

Delaware County’s Daily Newspaper     Sunday, January 5, 2020

By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist

In 1984, when I was offered the opportunity to become the superintendent of schools in Upper Darby, I had one serious reservation.

I had to learn more about the “political factor” before I would accept the job. My predecessor and mentor, Mike Maines had built relationships with the local politicians and cultivated these connections. As an assistant superintendent at that time, I didn’t know much about this.

I was certainly aware that most of Upper Darby’s school board members had won election because of being endorsed by the Upper Darby Republican political powers which had an overwhelming voting majority of the community at that time. But I knew little else.

And so, a political breakfast meeting at a table reserved for such purposes took place in the back of Upper Darby’s Llanerch Diner. I met with John McNichol, the legendary and powerful leader of Upper Darby’s Republican political machine, and my knees were shaking.  What in blazes did I know about dealing with politicians?   John had had a private meeting with President Ronald Reagan in the White House the previous day. Talk about intimidating…. I was scared to death and didn’t sleep the night before.

Heavy things were about to come down!  I ordered scrapple and eggs to gear up my Philadelphia toughness. I screwed up my courage and made myself very clear to Upper Darby’s political leader: This is an opportunity I never dreamed of and I really am honored and grateful.  But I can’t possibly function with a bunch of people micromanaging my every move as a superintendent. So, if that’s the way it’s going to be, it’s not going to be me.

John smiled knowingly and looked me dead in the eyes. I was certain that my dream job was about to go right down the drain in front of my eyes. But then his response astounded me: If we had planned to micromanage every move of Upper Darby’s superintendent of schools then we would’ve put an idiot in the job and God knows there are plenty of idiots available.

John then roared with laughter at his joke and he continued: But this community is on the ropes with money problems, educational challenges, and the student body is growing and changing. We need someone with brains to effectively handle the years ahead. And that’s why we want you for the job!  BUT… before you think this is all “nicey-nicey” for you, let’s get real here. What’s in this for us as politicians is that good schools are good for our politics …when schools like all other services in the community are solid, then we’re solid …politically.  You’ll have your freedom as the superintendent because we want the same things you do…maybe not for the same reasons but ultimately because we are in this together.

Two nights later, I became Upper Darby‘s new superintendent of schools. During my 15-year tenure, I had many contacts/meetings with Upper Darby’s John McNichol. This is certainly not some unilateral recommendation for any school leader.  But in my situation, it was what I deemed to be necessary.  And John turned out to be bright, articulate, supportive and caring about Upper Darby’s schools. As promised, he did no micromanaging. And I actually enjoyed conversing with him.

Many educational administrators and school board members from across America might be horrified to think of such a practice by a school superintendent. The conventional (and perhaps naïve) view is that political maneuvering is to be avoided. Nevertheless, my strategy of periodically interacting with the Upper Darby’s top political leader was pragmatic and ultimately benefited the school system and its community.  This was primarily about upfront communication…my efforts to keep Upper Darby’s political leader updated in a timely manner.  The reason is simple:  Local politicians should never be getting secondhand and often incorrect information about their school-community.

Sometimes, I shared my plans for school improvements and educational innovations. At other times, I apprised John of a situation which might cause community concern/debate. And, on other occasions, I was simply asking for advice regarding the implementation/timing of some complex school-community matter.

John often asked in-depth questions to obtain more understanding about what was happening or about to happen in the school system.  Sometimes he offered insightful views. But, my authority and direction as the school district leader was never challenged.

This was not a pathway for amateurs.  Nor am I recommending it in any way. A cynic might say “I was dancing with the devil,” but this was just not the case! And in Upper Darby’s unique situation, it was what I was convinced I had to do. And when I look back on all of this, I would not have done anything differently. My periodic communication with John McNichol was a vital need for my educational system to function effectively.  I put this political communication on an equal footing with all of my other ongoing information dissemination to parent leaders, administrators and staff, union leadership, clergy round tables, and community groups.

In summary, as political demagoguery and bickering threatens to tear our nation apart, I can only reflect very positively on a day and a time when the relationship between a non-politician (that’s me) and a political giant mutually worked for the best interest of the students and schools in Upper Darby. I make no judgments about John McNichol as he ruled the daily political affairs of his Upper Darby empire during all those years when I was superintendent of schools. Politics is what it is.

But regarding the Upper Darby School District, John McNichol was a tremendously supportive asset in helping me to pursue and achieve the best for the schools, the students and the community.

____________________________________________________________

Adapted from Joseph Batory’s, Joey Lets It All Hang Out (2003), with permission from the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, Lanham, Maryland.Joseph Batory was the Upper Darby Superintendent of Schools from 1984 to 1999. During that time, the school district received numerous recognitions and awards for its educational creativity, innovations and accom

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