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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Boards and the game of trivial pursuit

David Colburn
Posted 8/12/20

I remember well the Christmas in the early 1980s when one of my sisters gave a gift to the entire family – a brand new board game called Trivial Pursuit.A typical Colburn Christmas wasn’t …

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Boards and the game of trivial pursuit

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I remember well the Christmas in the early 1980s when one of my sisters gave a gift to the entire family – a brand new board game called Trivial Pursuit.
A typical Colburn Christmas wasn’t complete without hours of playing games. Bridge and Monopoly were family favorites, and chess, checkers, and cribbage were often in the mix, too, as we played together for hours on end.
This particular year, all that was abandoned as we dove headlong into matching wits against each other in a game where obscure bits of knowledge suddenly became little golden nuggets of fortune. With all of us possessing competitive streaks, the game was on, barely stopping for dinner. So intent were we that we exhausted two entire boxes of clues that day and night. The Colburn clan was hopelessly trivia obsessed.
Across the following decades, I’ve noticed, without having to work too hard at it, that obsession with trivial pursuits infuses nearly all aspects of life.
But trivial, while easily defined as something of little importance, is more difficult to define in people’s lives, as something I consider trivial may be considered important by someone else. Fortunately, in the world of an individual, we get to make those choices for ourselves, for better or for worse. “Game of Thrones” was entirely trivial to me, but terribly important, apparently, to millions. For the life of me, I’ll never understand why. But to each his or her own.
When trivial branches out into society, that’s where it becomes extremely tricky, because it’s then that we enter the realm of collective public opinion. People make good livings off capitalizing on trivial. Anyone remember Pet Rocks? Those trivial little creatures made their creator a millionaire in only a year.
That word, trivial, came up in a recent ISD 2142 school board meeting, when board member Christine Taylor took the board to task for spending more time discussing a software program for bus scheduling than it did discussing how the district would ensure the health and safety of its students, staff, and families while resuming full in-person classes in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. By comparison, the bus software was trivial, she said.
As a former education administrator in charge of a $20 million Head Start program in Los Angeles, I found everything to be important. But indeed, some issues are minor, and some are major. Comparisons, particularly those made after the fact, often suggested minor issues to be trivial.
I’ve also been involved with many, many boards over the decades, and I can confidently say that giving undue attention to relatively minor issues is a challenge all of them faced at some time. There have been some real head-scratchers, to be sure. Why is it that boards can become so embroiled in relatively inconsequential things, while seeming at times almost detached from engaging with big issues confronting them?
My take on it is that most board members readily relate to issues with which they’re most familiar, and feel more competent in delving into those things, offering opinions and possible solutions at will. As organizations and issues get larger, typical board members have less expertise in dealing with those things, and that’s where they lean more heavily on the professionals they hire to run those operations.
But whether one calls it trivial or minor, Taylor was spot on in questioning the board’s action to go ahead with in-person learning without more thorough discussion.
Superintendent Reggie Engebritson came prepared with good information, including parent and teacher surveys, and the board should expect recommendations they receive to be well-supported.
How to best accomplish getting children back in school in the age of COVID-19 is a matter of heated debate even among education and health professionals. It’s not all that surprising that numerous board members would have few comments or questions and lean on the expertise of others on a district-wide issue that’s almost completely foreign to them.
To be sure, the COVID-19 landscape in our area is about as good as one could hope for to have children back in a school-based setting. But still, the virus is present. Cases among children have spiked significantly in recent weeks. Last week in St. Louis County, children ages 6 to 19 were the single largest age group among newly diagnosed cases. And children can spread it among themselves and others.
Taylor and fellow board member Chris Koivisto both raised good questions and concerns, and both voted against resuming in-person classes. That’s enough to suggest that an issue so concerning merited additional discussion, if only to ask more questions. Taylor suggested, and will get, a follow-up working session she hopes will help to convince herself and Koivisto that the board has made the right decision.
But there was nothing standing in the way of continuing the discussion that night to reach that consensus or tabling the decision and reconvening one or two nights later. While dissent on some issues is to be expected, on such an important issue as the health and safety of our children and communities, a unified front would have sent a stronger message of assurance. As it is, a split decision likely did little to help parents, who are undecided about what to do, reach a decision about their child’s schooling.
Schools in other parts of the country have already shown how difficult it is to create a safe and healthy in-person learning environment; then again, we’re not other parts of the country. The state left the ultimate decision to local districts, which are free to be more restrictive than the baseline benchmarks suggest. Koivisto even commented that he wants to see where the district can exceed minimum guidelines.
While district staff are already hard at work presumably doing their best to make in-person learning happen, it would have better if the board had taken the time to more fully discuss this incredibly important issue and get everyone on board. This is the same board that devoted time across three separate meetings to what to do about pay for spring sports coaches. Surely the health and safety of the district’s children and staff deserved more than an hour’s consideration, enough to reach a consensus that this is the right path forward. Hopefully that affirmation will come at the next meeting. Consensus in this is absolutely not a trivial pursuit.
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