Every civic effort can be traced back to a time when something changed, when caring people decided to set a new course. OPSAN’s moment came in the form of inspiration from an individual who spent a lifetime traveling to every corner of Ohio and talking with people about their schools. His name was Corky O’Callaghan. He was my good friend and colleague.
Corky began his career as a political organizer working with lobbyists to advance business interests in Ohio. Then, as his own children became school age, his attention shifted to helping school districts pass tax levies. His early on work looked a lot like his political activity which involved surveys, demographic studies and a lot of campaign messaging and organizing. He became quite successful at giving school districts what they sought — a win at the ballot box.
His work took him across Ohio as he always preferred meeting with his clients face to face. That not only strengthened his personal relation with them, but it also put him in touch with the people from these communities. It was through these informal conversations that he began to think about his work as something more than keeping track of his wins and losses.
He collected stories about the difficult, sometimes impossible condition teachers faced every day. At the same time, he was hearing about a wall being built between the schools and and the people of their communities. That was when he began to realize that the problems schools faced were founded in more than inadequate funding. Schools and citizens were growing apart. He had been leaning that people wanted their public schools to be seen as more than the sum of the school’s individual outputs. They wanted them to be part of the community. But, too often their stories ended up being about lost hope.
So he began to talk directly and honestly about this growing problem. It wasn’t a comfortable conversation. He held up a mirror that revealed the silos everyone was building. He noted that the school was becoming viewed as a technical service, much too complex for regular citizens to understand. And, the people were beginning to look at themselves as taxpayers and entitled customers, looking out for only their children, instead of responsible caretakers of all the youth in their community.
Corky changed the way he approached his work. He continued to engage with school districts around their levy needs, but his approach did a 180 degree turn. The responsibility had to be owned by the community. He knew that people felt increasingly removed from decision making, so he encouraged school leaders to involve citizens in the process of deciding what is at stake before the board even considered putting an issue on the ballot. In fact, he sought ways to include people in decision making that had little to do with finances. His work was no longer about levies. It had become solely about building relationships.
This change ushered in a new relationship with school superintendents. No longer did they ask him, how do I get this levy passed? It became a more universal, how do we save public education? Corky had arrived at this new place in his career at the same time school leaders were beginning to worry about the future of their school districts. It wasn’t just about adequate funding. The legitimacy of public education was at stake.
Slowly, but with an unyielding purpose, Corky worked to bring about an understanding among public school advocates that its future was entirely in the hands of the people. They would be the ones who would have to act to save it. But he knew it would take more than giving one’s schools high marks on surveys, passing the next levy, or writing letters to legislators. It would happen only if citizens saw public schools as their responsibility, and that there was a path to aligning them with civic life.
Corky’s message was clear. It was time for citizens to step forward and accept responsibility for the overall well-being of their youth. And it was time for school leaders to insist upon and help people take that step. This would take a form that eventually became OPSAN.
Today, citizens in OPSAN communities are asking themselves how they are doing at taking care of the children in their communities. And superintendents are asking one another what it takes for their institution to become local again. But is isn’t happening in isolation. The people from various communities are talking with one another about what they have in common and what they are learning. In doing so, they are reestablishing a lost sense of confidence that they are the ones best able to decide what their children need. So, when the legislators come knocking at the community’s door with canned solutions to their challenges, the people can respond clearly and stridently about what they really need.
This hasn’t been a story about a super human who always knew what he wanted and how to get there. Corky was as human as the rest of us, often finding himself in a blind alley, having to gently back out. But he had a quality that most of us overlook. He had an abiding curiosity about what was around the corner, combined with the courage to take a look. He was honest with himself and humble about what he saw. Life was all about the journey and the people he met along the way. He listened to them and he responded. His embrace of that simple attribute has made a difference for scores and scores of schools.