Calling All Bridge Builders

Jason Barney's Thoughts on Gilbert Public Schools

April 2014 (Part 2 Added July 2014)

To the Community of Gilbert:

Recently I've been getting multiple inquiries as to where I stand with the upcoming Gilbert School Board election and Gilbert Schools in general. First of all, I welcome direct conversation. If you have questions or concerns about where I stand, feel free to email at or call my cell at 480-818-2000.

Here is where I'm at:

First and most essential, I am an avid believer in the importance of Gilbert Public Schools and the critical role education and our schools play in the quality of our community. When it comes to our schools, everything I do is intended to:

  1. Attract, retain, empower and strengthen the very best teachers as well as the best staff and administrators to support our teachers.
  2. Ensure that our schools remain the amazing learning environment they have become over decades of hard work.
  3. Continually improve and adapt to the ever-changing demands on new generations of graduates.
  4. Promote a complete and fully rounded out educational experience where students can not only pass tests, but can also change the world for the better.
  5. Achieve all of that in a culture of inclusion, participation, respect, parent involvement, and an attitude of building community.

I am a graduate of Gilbert High School and count some of those GHS teachers and learning experiences as being among the most pivotal, foundational, and important in my life. I went to school to be a teacher and to this day admire educators as being among the most noble and essential people to a strong and healthy community. Taking care of our schools is one of the most important things we can do. Here are links to things I've written in years past about our schools:

Unfortunately, over the past several months, the district and the community seem to have become more and more fractured and at odds with each other particularly around the topic of our schools. This contentious dynamic is discouraging to me and only serves to dilute the good will and strong sense of community that is the foundation of what has made Gilbert schools great and Gilbert strong as a community.

There is too much acrimony and mistrust amongst people who have been and should remain friends and neighbors. I have felt this at a personal level and sense that it is spreading throughout the community. According to some people, I'm too far left. According to others I'm too far right. The recurring theme I hear is that the very act of talking to and seeking to understand someone from another group or perspective implies a) that I agree with everything they do and say and b) that there must something wrong or radical about me just for talking to "those guys". The truth is I care deeply about talking openly with people from all sides in the hopes of finding common ground, bringing people together, and finding a path forward that supports and builds one of our most important assets, our schools. I both agree and disagree with people at all ends of the spectrum, but sincerely desire to do so with a tone and in a way that friendships, communication, and collaboration can endure beyond disagreements, tough issues, and elections. As I have watched this fracturing unfold, I am convinced that a lack of "talking" and "seeking to understand" is what got us into the mess in the first place. I am equally convinced that the only way out is a widespread, humble, concerted, and sincere effort to talk, listen, and seek to understand at a community level.

With that in mind, the most important quality I am looking for in a School Board Member is the ability to be a Bridge Builder, to be able to talk openly to the many groups of many viewpoints, and bring them all together in a spirit of problem solving. I'd like to see us all be able to talk openly to people from different groups, belief systems, and backgrounds without risk of being painted as "too much left" or "too much right" or "too much anything." We don't solve hard problems and build community by "not talking." Left, right, liberal, moderate, conservative, educator, citizen, parent, student—we all have to figure out how to stop bomb throwing from afar and start talking with a heavy emphasis on listening. We need to quit being haters and we need to quit calling other people haters. For the record, I too have had guilty moments and continue to reassess my heart and realign my actions as needed toward this worthy goal. If you feel a need to question or correct mistakes I've made, please call. If I've done anything to harm or offend, I can only hope for the opportunity to attempt reconciliation. Bridge Building includes fixing when inevitably mistakes are made.

A History of Supporting GPS Based on Friendships

To put this Bridge Building thing into perspective, here are some of the friendships and associations I've had in this Town related to education. I do this to highlight the broad swing in personalities and belief systems represented by the people I've worked with as well as the positive outcomes of such diverse people working together.

    1. I worked for a year and a half side by side with EJ Anderson, Barb Dwyer, Adelaida Severson, Dave Allison, Diane Drazinski, Nonda Chomokos, Kathy Tilque, Sharon Orr, Maria Hesse, and many other wonderful people in authoring a strategic plan for the district. We did not share the same political leanings. We periodically disagreed. But, we ALWAYS disagreed with respect, professionalism, and a sincere desire to understand and accommodate all people at the table. Every member of that group made huge and meaningful contributions. The end result was far better than any one person could have done alone. I admire each of them, came to consider them friends, and I'm proud to have my name sitting next to theirs as co-authors of that plan. Core to that document are the principles I'm referencing now: a culture of inclusion, outreach, trust, collaboration, and respect. That strategic plan seems all but forgotten these days. It would do us all well to go back to it as a guide for building and strengthening our schools. Go to the GPS web site and grab a copy:

    2. I worked side by side with Jill Humphries and many others for countless hours, weeks, and months advocating for our music programs. It was her passion for our kids and the critical role of music in their learning process that first inspired me to come off the blissfully disconnected sidelines to engage for the betterment of our schools. It would eventually cost me thousands of hours, but worth every minute.

    3. I have worked side by side with Mayor John Lewis, Karen Udall, Ben Cooper, Eddie Cook, Jill Humphries, Diane Drazinski, Jack Keegan, Paul Marchant, Liz Nichols, Daryl Colvin, Robin Phillips, Michaela Huso, Jamie Pace, Colette Evans, Staci Burk, H Steven Johnson (as my co-chair), and dozens of other passionate education supporters in trying to get the override passed last fall. For me that was a case of "the only thing I hate more than a property tax is not supporting our schools." It was a unique moment in time to have that many people from that many different places on the political spectrum to come together for one cause: our schools. It was truly Gilbert at its best with many Bridge Builders hard at work. It wasn't perfect, but it was based on the right spirit. Although dozens of people made huge sacrifices for that campaign, I must point out two people for whom I came away with a special appreciation. During a of time of extremely difficult personal medical issues, Staci Burk played a key and leading role in rallying so many disparate types of people together for that cause. I think it is safe to say that without her, we would not have had the diverse team we had. Then, I was so brutally busy during that campaign, time after time it was Jill Humphries coming in and mopping up all the hard work and details that I certainly didn't have time to do. I think it is safe to say that without Jill, critical things that had to get done would not have gotten done. There are so many others as well that deserve to have their efforts highlighted. But, I'll just say this: many people, many talents, many perspectives, and a thoroughly enjoyable group of people to work with.

The over-arching theme of all those examples is 1) passionate support for our schools and 2) broadest possible outreach to build that support. Although I view myself to be a conservative, I have people I admire, respect, and consider to be personal friends from the right to the left. I value those friendships. Not only will I not cut off lines of communication with these different people from different points on the spectrum, I believe deeply that a widespread attitude of building and maintaining those lines of communication is essential to the success and healing of our community and schools.

So, what is the way forward?

We (me included) need to be more willing to see the world from other eyes and be more willing to see other people for the good they can bring. We (me included) tend to be too extreme in how we paint people, too quick to judge character, and too slow to see the common ground. For example, those who are perceived to focus mostly on accountability (fiscal and otherwise) are too hastily painted as haters of public education determined to defund and destroy our schools. Those who are perceived to focus mostly on the best possible support for the best possible education are too hastily painted as fiscally irresponsible and unconcerned with accountability. Generally speaking, neither is true, fair, or constructive. The proper role of the School Board and by extension the community is to vigilantly seek both. In my many conversations across the ideological spectrum, I would say that most people believe in and pursue both. I would also say that all of us have a lot more to learn about both. That learning is best achieved by listening more, talking less, being less hasty in assuming we are right and someone else is wrong, thinking longer about other perspectives, more fact finding, getting the rest of the story, and taking more time and care in coming to conclusions. It is time to do away with anger, resentment, taking things personal, demonizing, and broad brush painting of other people and groups as crazies and haters. If there is someone in the community that you have concerns with, instead of posting a potentially inflammatory rant on Facebook, pick up the phone and ask: "So….tell me what you are about? Can I share with you what I'm about? What do we share in common that we can build on?"

Now, Bridge Building is NOT a euphemism for "Brushing Things Under the Rug" or "Rolling Over for the Sake of Consensus." When there are hard and complicated problems to solve, I am NOT an advocate of the "Group-Hug and Blind-Eye" method. We still have to engage, debate, challenge each other, and go through the tough and laborious process of getting to the truth. However, that kind of tough truth seeking is best done through direct and respectful dialog. Some issues will have deeply rooted disagreement where a "meeting of the minds" is simply not possible. My goal is to work hard to find consensus and common ground where possible. Then, when I face a person with whom I vigorously disagree, I can make my case, hold my ground, and hope to do so in a way that we can still walk away friends and neighbors. Bridge Building also means doing everything possible to avoid Bridge Burning. I've burned a few in my life and they are much harder to re-build the second time.

Election and Candidates

There you have it…these are some of the things I'm about. If you still have questions or concerns, please call. As for School Board Candidate endorsements, you can see that I have long histories and close personal friendships with many of the currently announced candidates. In addition to the names above, you can add Ron Bellus and Charlie Santa Cruz to the list of people I've worked closely with, admire, and respect. Each has strengths and much to contribute. Each has weaknesses that could potentially dampen their effectiveness. I'm sure there are others I haven't met yet who also have much to offer. Based on what I think the district needs right now, the skill set and character trait I seek most in a candidate is Bridge Builder.

Yes, we must have someone who is passionate about quality education and is knowledgeable enough to know how to achieve that. Yes, we must have someone who can understand and implement accountability. While those qualifications are mandatory and non-negotiable for me, there is one more that I believe is even more essential. I am looking for the person best positioned to reach out to all sides and be able to hear, understand, empathize, and bring people together. By "positioned" I'm referring to attitudes, skill sets, communication style, relationships, open mindedness, humility, and any other factor that would make a person most effective in Bridge Building.

As of right now, my only "official endorsement" is Reed Carr. We've shared an office for the past few years and we've talked for countless hours about the schools. Yes, like the rest of us, he is imperfect and has a lot to learn. But, I know what he is about and believe he has the mind set and skill set to learn and be that Bridge Builder. Even though he is only weeks into his campaign, he is also confronted with the same issue of being perceived as too far right for some and too far left for others. Hopefully that says something about what he and I have set out to do, to reach out in both directions and bring people together. Same principle applies...If you have questions or concerns about ANY of the candidates, Reed included, contact them directly and discover for yourself what they are about. Try not to rely on second and third hand filters. You'll be amazed at how much good you can find in all of these people through direct communication.

As the campaign progresses, I will very thoughtfully and carefully consider the other candidates and get behind the one that seems best positioned and most effective at Bridge Building. Of the candidates I know personally, I believe each desires and works for this lofty goal. But, Bridge Building is a tough job and some will be more effective at it than others.

The end goal is for our schools to be the best AND most accountable they can be. In my view, Bridge Building is an essential path to get there. In the end, elections come and go. When this one is over, I hope that friendships will infinitely trump campaigns and that as a community, we use these times to grow stronger together instead of farther apart.

Originally written in April 2014. Part 2 Added July 2014.

Thank You,
Jason Barney

(2012 School Board Campaign)