Attila Weninger is not guilty of plagiarism. He is guilty of being Attila Weninger: controlling, condescending.
The borrowed-words flap of the past week will pass. Whether he is capable of learning from the multiple debacles of recent days, of being humbled by them and growing as a result, will determine his future as superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School.
This weekend, Weninger faces his first graduating class-his most public encounter to date with parents and community.
For many people, the bad press in the Chicago Tribune over his Memorial Day student assembly performance is their first real exposure to Weninger. By his eventual admission, Weninger garbled his off-the-cuff speech and in the process put the uncredited words of Sen. John McCain into the mouth of his own brother, a Vietnam vet.
That it took multiple apologies in multiple versions to students, faculty and the community before the entirety of the mess-up was clear goes, in my mind, to Weninger’s inclination to parse words. Instead of swallowing whole the screw-up he admits to having made, Weninger had to apologize again after the inevitable video of his speech turned up. The video showed that he had, in fact, not only failed to credit McCain for the war story, but had-as was suggested early on by faculty and students-actually credited it to his older brother.
Having been lectured repeatedly this year by the superintendent that “words are important,” I would now suggest that the superintendent has certainly been hammered enough on that front. The lesson he needs to learn here is that good faith is also important. Creating an atmosphere of trust and good will counts. He has work to do, and he has to change to accomplish it. I hope he can do that.
Attila Weninger is the most controlling public official I have encountered in Oak Park since Ralph DeSantis was village manager in the early 1980s. DeSantis, who, like Weninger, was right on most issues, saw his tenure end badly as Oak Park is not a place that likes top-down management.
From our first meeting a year back, I’ve sensed that Weninger has confused the lack of positive forward movement at the high school with a failure to make tough decisions at the top. My view is subtly different. This school has, for too long, lacked strong, focused leadership at the top. One of the outcomes of that leadership failure is hard decisions not getting made.
But the underlying issue is that before there can be decisions, there has to be leadership. OPRF needs a superintendent who can bring the school board, the powerful faculty and the community together around a handful of critical issues. It doesn’t need, and the factions won’t accept, an endless series of imposed decisions.
There is irony that it was a bootleg video of the Memorial Day assembly that finally made clear the full nature of Weninger’s botch.
Going again to his hopeless and troubling need for control, Weninger has been on this paper’s case through his first year over issues of recording public events. The recent and appalling decision of the school board to require that anyone, reporters included, who tape-records public meetings at the school must first notify the superintendent or board president violates state law. And it will be challenged. Weninger came to me months ago shocked that our high school reporter tape-records meetings. I was shocked that he was shocked. It’s a public meeting. The school itself records the meetings.
Later I had a run-in with the superintendent in early March after a student e-mailed the paper with a picture and quick notes reporting that Mayor Richard Daley had spoken to a high school class. We posted both the picture and the news to our Web site. A nice, positive moment, I thought.
No. We had screwed up again, said the superintendent. It was a private event. The mayor had not wanted publicity. The student had not been following “the rules” and ought to have asked before contacting the paper. Finally, he said, he had wanted this “exclusive” for the school paper, and we had “robbed them” of that chance.
In a wired world, control of information is gone. The impulse to control information is suspect. And if Attila Weninger is to survive and to thrive as the high school superintendent, he is going to have to get over himself.