When March Madness Is Local
Heading back north after a long southern road trip is like running the reel backwards, watching the trees become more faintly leaved along I-95 and the ground become more brown than green. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but not if you’re a school administrator, and not if you’re in the northern half of the country. Then, without doubt, it’s not April, but March with its long, muddy slog towards spring, dragging itself first through budget season.
The mild spring weather in the north this year is unusual; the budget problems are not. Many administrators still don’t have a clear picture of what state and federal aid they’ll have to work with next year. Some have begun notifying teachers on the bubble that they may not have jobs next year. Some are trying to figure out where else they can cut costs. Some are defending their budget choices to parents who are unhappy about the loss of music or art or electives. No question: March is the least favorite month for school people. If it weren’t for basketball, I don’t know how we’d survive it.
I was listening to college basketball on the way home, and because it was March I started thinking about one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make as a school administrator – selecting the new boys’ basketball coach. If you’ve never worked in a small rural school, you may not recognize how important basketball is during the long, serious winter. The boys’ team was always competitive. The retiring coach had built the program from the ground up, making basketball players out of boys who would never have made the cut in other high schools. He was a strong role model, and he was never reluctant to bench even the best player who found himself in academic or behavioral trouble. His would be big shoes to fill, and while he never won the state title, he came close. So it was a hard call for me, especially since I knew that a bad choice could affect a budget vote in the spring.
The teachers’ union, of course, thought I should base the appointment not on skills or potential, but on longevity, and they pressed hard for me to name a guy with plenty of experience but with modest success as a coach in the district. My board heard from their constituents, and someone even wrote them an anonymous letter pointing out what an idiot I was for not naming the teachers’ choice immediately. The board made no attempt to influence the decision, however, and I finally chose a young man who had once been a local basketball star himself and was now back teaching elementary school.
The boys’ team won the state title in their division last weekend. Like every administrator, I’ve made some good calls and some not so good calls. Savoring this one.