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Jax Daily Record Monday, Sep. 17, 200112:00 PM EST

Ladies and gentleman, please welcome . . .


Usually, the only thing more boring than the speech at a meeting is the introduction of the speaker.

Exhibit A: me.

At the last Downtown Council meeting, our president, Lisa Rowe Baer, handed me John Peyton’s biography. “The person who was going to introduce him is running late,” she said. “You’ll have to do it.”

I have no fear of crowds and certainly not the Downtown Council (I preceded Lisa as president) but a piece of paper about a man I’d never met was a bit daunting, particularly five or so minutes before the fait had to be accompli.

Result: I came across as a stumble-bum. (Peyton didn’t; I was impressed, and I didn’t think I would be.)

Sound familiar?

Now, here’s why we’re getting into this matter. The subject of the adjacent story is another fellow I’ve never met. I’d seen him from a distance at a community college function, I’ve been told that he’s a great guy by a mutual friend who’s a great gal (Dr. Fran Kinne,) and his resume indicates he might be something special.

But, lots of people fall into that category, so no reason to seek this guy out. Sooner or later, we’d run into each other.

Fran wanted me to go to her Rotary Club recently to sit with someone (she was part of the day’s program and had to sit at the head table) and, being a trained journalist, I immediately saw the value of a free meal.

The speaker was school superintendent John Fryer, a rather interesting fellow but one who, given a microphone and several hundred people, would surely tell us about the great strides that the system has made under his guidance and the need for community support and how we need to work together and then we’ll all blahblahblah ... zzzz.

To introduce him, the club’s president had chosen Tom Fryer because he 1) was a fellow educator and 2) had the same last name. They have no relationship and you know that quickly; school board Fryer is a scrawny guy, community college Fryer is a tub.

Now, after 348 words, the point of this all. T. Fryer’s introduction. Verbatim.

“Our speaker and I are often mistaken for each other. This is not because our names are the same. It’s because our physiques are so similar.

“John C. Fryer Jr. — no relation — is a man of extraordinary achievement. Today’s Spokesman (the club newsletter) gives him a detailed introduction. I want to introduce the position he occupies.

“To review, this year over 125,000 students will enroll in a school system with annual budgets of 1.2 billion dollars. The schools are the county’s second largest employer, smaller than Winn-Dixie but larger than the Navy. Even with driver problems, they transport over three times more passengers than the JTA and serve more than twice as many breakfasts and lunches as McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King and Denny’s combined.

“That’s the simple part. The complicated part is that our schoolyards have become battlefields in our fractious society. When you can’t get 51percent of the people to agree on anything, everything becomes a battle, from how to dress the kids, to what to teach and how to teach it, whether to emphasize self-esteem or self-discipline, whether to pray or not to pray, where to close schools and where to open them, and what to do with failing kids and failing schools.

“The wars are over colliding cultural values and economic interests, racial tensions, slicing the 1.2 billion dollar pie, and who gets the contracts.

“Every decision John makes, no matter how good the decision, profoundly angers someone. Thus in this land of agendas, for the superintendent, friends may come and friends may go, but enemies accumulate.

“The superintendent works for eight bosses, the seven elected School Board members, two of whom we welcome here today, and the corporate entity they comprise. Well, you say, he really only works for the board because members have no authority as individuals. Every superintendent in America will tell you that the tenure of any school CEO who takes that tack will be nasty, brutish and short.

“In the recent media carnival over John’s contract, we learned that our superintendent is not a perfect person. He shares that quality with everyone here, but few of us have known the pure joy of having our own evaluations spread out in exquisite detail on page A-1 above the fold.

“These are a few features of the cockpit John Fryer climbs into every day. His mission is the make each of our 162 schools a more effective place for teaching and learning. He’s here to talk about that mission. Welcome him.”

Oh, if only John Peyton had been treated as well.

— Fred Seely is the editorial director of the Daily Record. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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