Port: Head of major education lobbying group accuses lawmakers of 'stupidity' and calls some 'extreme'
"If it was ever there a time [sic] that I was stunned over stupidity -- it has happened," Aimee Copas of the North Dakota Council of Education Leaders wrote. "The extremes are more extreme than ever."
This article has been updated with an apology sent by Copas to her membership after publication.
MINOT, N.D. — Per their website, "The North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders is the state professional association devoted exclusively to protecting educational leaders' interests and making their interests known in all educational matters in North Dakota."
This group represents the state's school superintendents, principals, business officials, athletic directors, etc. It isn't high profile in the public's mind, but they have clout in Bismarck. They have members in every legislative district. Legislators listen to their local school officials on education policy.
So it's newsworthy that, in a recent newsletter, the executive director of the NDCEL, Dr. Aimee Copas, ripped lawmakers for "stupidity" and called some "extreme" even as she simultaneously called for the cultivation of a better relationship with the elected officials.
When I reached her for comment, Copas denied calling any specific person stupid. You can read the newsletter and decide for yourselves.
In a section dubbed "ten things I've learned through this legislative session," Copas accused lawmakers of being obsessed with the education drama in other states, such as Florida, Missouri, or Georgia, and not what's happening in North Dakota's schools.
Not an unfair criticism, frankly, given this Legislature's preoccupation with the sort of culture war topics that dominate social media and cable news shows. I mean, earlier this session we had a bill banning kitty litter boxes for students in public schools, so the frustration is understandable.
"There are times in the past months when I've wondered what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the North Dakota House of Representatives of the Senate," Copas also wrote. "I'm pretty sure, however, that it would say something about CRT," a reference to critical race theory.
Copas also used "stupidity" and "extreme" to describe lawmakers and the legislative process.
"If it was ever there a time [sic] that I was stunned over stupidity — it has happened," she wrote. "The extremes are more extreme than ever. Almost to the edge of scary. And it seems that will continue to get worse as well with term limits."
She suggests that "very few legislators" understand the funding formula for public schools. "It is scary," she wrote, arguing that "with term limits, it's possible that the only humans who will understand it shortly will be superintendents and Adam," an apparent reference to Adam Tescher, a state employee with the Department of Public Instruction who works in school finance.
Yet, despite these barbs, Copas also called for a better relationship with lawmakers. "We must be more active in the interim in helping legislators see the value of public education," she wrote. "We must lobby just as hard in the even years as we do in the odd. We must strengthen our relationships."
Reached for comment by email, Copas said the list was supposed to be "jovial."
"At the end of each session I do a top 10 and have for years. It is not meant to insult anyone in any way. It is honestly meant to be a little more jovial and most of our members understand that," she wrote. "However, if legislators feel slighted — I do apologize about that." Nothing in her newsletter should be "construed as to insinuate level of intelligence," she added.
"It think [sic] it is important to note that in no way did the article call anyone 'stupid,' and it is imperative that fact be very clear," she wrote.
She acknowledged saying that lawmakers don't understand the school funding formula. "Not because they cannot — but simply because it takes dedicated work to do so," she explained.
"With term limits, having that expertise will be much harder to obtain," she continued.
As for the comments about "extreme" lawmakers, "it exists here," she wrote. "Just as it does everywhere in politics in our nation. We have very conservative legislators, those that are more moderate, and those that are quite liberal in beliefs. That has always existed however, never before have we seen the number of bills that are more extreme in nature than we have this session."
"I’ve made my fair share of mistakes — but haven’t we all? We are all up here working sometimes 12-16 hour days and patience wears thin and we are all looking for a little humor to lighten the days," she concluded.
In an email to her membership sent after this article originally published, and forwarded to me by a recipient, Copas apologized for the list.
"To my leaders I owe you all an apology," she wrote. "The newsletter article I wrote this past month with the “top 10” is one I do each April during session and is meant to be jovial in spirit. As reflected in a recent Rob Port blog, it wasn’t taken as such, and for that I apologize. Since our NDCEL membership newsletter this month was shared with Mr. Port and with some legislators with intent to highlight this piece, it clearly must have also bothered some of you and I was misunderstood in the spirit behind the piece. I am terribly sorry for that. This is certainly not something I nor our organization ever wishes to do."
At least one respondent, Rob Lech, the superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, responded with support for Copas. "Maybe, given the chance, we would take a mulligan on some of the veracity embedded into the Top 10, but that doesn't change that it represents the feelings of many, if not all, of us," he wrote.
What should we make of all this?
First, the newsletter was probably a mistake. Copas says it was intended to be jocular, and perhaps that's true, but it didn't land that way. Certainly not with the lawmakers I've spoken to about it, who represent an ideological cross-section of the Legislature. The very lawmakers Copas wants a better relationship with.
You can't build bridges with people you have contempt for, and while contempt may not be what Copas intended to communicate, it's what came through for many.
Second, remember that we rarely get authenticity in politics. People professionally involved in the political process are so polished, their messages so thoroughly massaged, that when they give us something rawer, whether they intended to or not, we should pay attention.
Some very real frustration is palpable in this newsletter, and given that it's coming from the leader of one of the most influential education groups in the state, it's noteworthy.
But, in fairness to Copas, she's not the only one frustrated. A few lawmakers I spoke to about her newsletter acknowledged that she has some points. And I agree. She does.
When this legislative session ends, I wonder how many who were involved are going to feel truly proud about what happened.