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Obama’s speech controversy: Casey Mahon’s no-good, very-bad, horrible days

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how one school district tried to cope with the political fallout — and confusion — surrounding the president’s Tuesday talk.
Related: Prepared Remarks of President Obama’s Back to School EventEric Black: L

Casey Mahon has had a couple of no-good, very-bad, horrible days.

Ever since a principal contacted him Tuesday night to ask: What do you know about some kind of presidential address to the nation’s school kids?

He knew zip about that — not good for the official spokesman for the Elk River Area School District, population 12,306, in the north metro.

So he couldn’t knowledgeably advise that principal about handling the parent and community calls and emails seeping in, those cries of “Foul ball!” and charges the president would use his bully pulpit to indoctrinate children to his way of thinking.  

Early Wednesday morning, Mahon learned that district higher-ups weren’t keyed into the game plan either. 

What happened next is a rare behind-the-scenes story, as shared by Mahon Thursday, of how one school district tried to handle a political wildfire.  It’s the kind of background stuff district P.R. folks don’t often share with us education reporters.       

In a mad search for answers, Mahon called the high mucky-muck education folks in D.C., “not normal protocol,” but a necessity, Mahon said, as the complaints multiplied. Emails from parents and community members sent to the district charged that the feds were mandating school kids listen to their president. “That in and of itself sent up red flags,” Mahon said.

No, there was no mandate, no requirement that kids tune into the presidential podcast or the C-Span airing at 11 a.m. Tuesday, the feds said. Watching the prez speak is optional.

And, oh, we’re sorry you didn’t hear about the speech from us. Most districts did.

Back home, the angry protests from folks in Michele Bachmann’s 6th Congressional District kept coming. And, with the start of school just days away, “It became a logistical issue” — how to do all that needed doing before the first day and still and address the controversy, Mahon said. “We are not here to play politics. We are here to educate kids.”  

Certainly the district couldn’t afford to send parents a mailing: The district was cringing from wounds left by a recent and necessary $6 million budget reduction.

By the dozens, objectors sang the same song:  The president wasn’t really just going to inspire students of all colors and backgrounds to work hard and to do well in school — he was going to deliver a politically partisan message. And parents wouldn’t have their children exposed to that.

There were rumors of organized efforts to keep kids out of school if watching the president were incorporated into the school day. One person emailed saying the president would “indoctrinate kids with his health plan.” There were about 50 communications in all, which might not seem like many, but officials kept worrying the issue would explode. 

“It was, like: Where is this stuff coming from?” Mahon said. Nationwide, districts were encountering similar objections.

Then Mahon encountered a new issue. U.S. Department of Ed talking heads were describing the prez’s comments as a pep talk, but Mahon took a look at their official website and read suggested lesson plans, including one suggesting that students read a presidential biography, even one about Barack Obama. Could this be open to misinterpretation? Maybe it was that kind of curriculum suggestion that fueled the controversy, Mahon figured.

District officials made a decision: If staff or students wanted to watch the historic first presidential talk to kids across the nation at the same time, they could do it on their own time.

Even that, though, rubbed some folks the wrong way. An angry teacher called the administration “reading it completely wrong,” Mahon said. “Does that mean we can never talk about politics in class?” Mahon recalled that teacher asking.

“The perception could be that school district was trying to censor watching the president. That’s ridiculous,” Mahon said.

Suddenly, the veteran district public relations guy had nightmare visions of the misunderstanding mushrooming and finding Elk River schools spotlighted or ridiculed on MSNBC’s liberal “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

Mahon feared Elk River schools would be portrayed as “this big bad guy not allowing the president to be in the classroom.”

So he did his due diligence, calling the state Department of Ed, which told him it was taking no position on the matter. He conferred with school public relations folks and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

And the district modified its position. The address will be shown in schools outside the classrooms so those who CHOOSE to see it may, but it won’t be part of the curriculum for students Tuesday. The higher-ups and curriculum specialists will watch and later advise whether it could be appropriate for classrooms.

Further, SHOULD a teacher show it in a classroom, parents will be informed first and kids can opt out.  Otherwise, the speech could spark a “civil, nonpartisan, educational conversation,” Mahon said.

For now, life should be pretty much back to normal for Mahon. Except for the colonoscopy he had scheduled for today.

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