County superintendent says thank you and farewell

By Bill Cirone

With the recent celebration of July 4 in mind, I want to thank first and foremost the Santa Barbara County community for the privilege and honor it has been to work as your elected representative in a system of governance and representation that is unmatched on our planet.

Our nation remains strong because of the foresight and wisdom of the founding fathers who constructed a nation based on freedom and equality for all.

It has been particularly rewarding to be able to take part in the system of public education that has always been the cornerstone of our great democracy — a melting pot where children from all walks of life, all religions, all races, all levels of income and ability come together and work side by side, learning together, and learning from each other, all equal. This is the lifeblood of democracy, and it is how we make sure it stays strong and continues to thrive.

It has always been vital to remain vigilant and not take these freedoms for granted.

The late Frosty Troy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from Oklahoma, was one of the most outspoken supporters of public education I have ever met. We happily invited him to Santa Barbara County on several occasions so that the public could hear first-hand his wisdom, his common sense, and his passion.

“I am your public school,” he once wrote, “a 200-year-old experiment giving America the strongest economy in world history. And we are as diverse as this great country.

“When the buses roll up, my doors are flung open to children of all shapes, sizes, levels of ability. They speak more than 100 languages. I represent home schooling at its best, for I am the home school of 10 million latchkey children,” he wrote.

He added that “many of the children who drop out are those who arrive undisciplined, unwanted, unloved; some strung out on drugs and alcohol; some abused and neglected. The miracle is that my doors are open to all of them and many are reached, not by textbooks alone but by teachers who know there is more to a child’s life than rote learning. For thousands of kids, the only hug they ever get they get in school. … Aren’t feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and nurturing the little ones’ spiritual injunctions in all the great religions of the world?”

Thanks to the vision of our forebears, America had a 100-year head start on every other nation in creating universal free public education. Today, with all its flaws, it is the finest system in the industrial world.

As Frosty said, “Some of you would dim my lights, leaving in the shadows the poor, the halt, the blind, the lame, and the special education student. Do as you will, but for me, I will stand proudly in my neighborhood — America’s last egalitarian institution, my arms embracing the finest educators, administrators, and support personnel in the world, dedicated to helping our children realize the American dream.”

Another passionate supporter of public education, the late Harriet Miller, who was born on the Fourth of July, served as superintendent of public instruction for Montana before she became more well-known locally as mayor of Santa Barbara. She delivered a remarkable speech as Montana’s state superintendent in March 1962. See how her words resonate so powerfully today:

“There are forces at work today whose business is fear and suspicion. These forces masquerade in a wide array of disguises, some apparently quite respectable. By inference and innuendo, by oversimplification to the point of falsehood, by shameless appeals to emotion and ignorance and prejudice, these forces are working to destroy the fabric of America by turning us against each other. Their method: create deadly suspicion; their goal: divide and conquer. This has become the new un-Americanism.”

She said we must not fail “in preserving the tradition of American education and the American way of life.”

I believe the words that Frosty and Harriet stated so passionately bear repeating in these very fraught times for public education. Their views reflect so well my ongoing vision for our children and our communities, united in our quest to be a unifying force in our country and to meet every child where he or she stands, and enhance those God-given potentials to the very best of our abilities. That’s what public schools have always done, and that’s why they have always been the glue that binds the members of our democracy.

I hope we will never lose that vision or passion, for the sake of our children and the future they represent. It is our sacred duty to pass on to future generations the gifts we have all received by working side by side in public classrooms, learning from each other and from the heroic teachers who will receive a special form of immortality by living on in the children they have touched. My passion for public education has not diminished in any way, and I hope that torch will go forward in the hearts of all of you. For that, I thank you all.

Bill Cirone retired July 1 after 34 years as the Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools.