Another school board meeting last night to set the budget for the coming school year. Another contentious, un-fun 2.5 hours of my life gone. Another chance for me to reflect on why we all do the things we do. Why we support the viewpoints we support. As I listened to both sides make their arguments over the course of the evening, it was clear some on both sides have completely dismissed the opposing viewpoint as shortsighted, wrong, or naive.
The things is, I believe each person views themselves as reasonable. Rational people who look at the situation and then come to the best possible choice. They’ve weighed the evidence and come to a conclusion. When this is about things that don’t matter a whole lot, none of us really care. If you think prefer to read or would rather watch television, whatever. Even (gasp!) if you like the Yankees instead of the Red Sox. It just doesn’t really matter. But when those decisions affect other people, things change. Other people have their own ideas. They’ve looked at the evidence and come to a different conclusion.
We’re never all going to agree on what the best course of action is. We all come from different backgrounds, and we have different experiences and values that have led us to make the choices we make. So I’m not trying to argue that disagreement of any sort is bad. But what I do think is that dismissing a differing point of view out of hand is dangerous and leads to toxic environments, especially when we begin to label people who don’t agree with us.
Of course, it’s easier to go through life coming up with reasons for why other people don’t agree with you. It excuses you from having to ever take a good hard look at your own beliefs to see if they’re off base. It would be easy for me, as a school budget supporter, to look at the people trying to vote the budget down each year and dismiss them as shortsighted. As people who are putting their own pocketbooks in front of the best interests of our students. As “stingy.” To do so would be a mistake. They are people who firmly believe school budgets have spiraled out of control, and that the districts are spending money frivolously. I might disagree, but I also think such a viewpoint is important, as it helps to keep those budgets in check. It constantly reminds us to scrutinize how we’re spending money and to be 100% sure an expense is necessary.
Likewise, I heard and read numerous remarks from those “no” voters about the people who vote yes. It seems some have come up with two narratives that explain why the school budget is approved each year, and why people vote in favor of it:
- The budget meetings are packed by the schools. Teachers and employees of the schools show up and vote their own salaries through. Never mind the fact that the only people who can vote are registered tax payers of the area.
- The people who vote for the budget are suckers, taken in by a school board and administration that’s solely interested in raising money for the school and willfully ignoring the voice of the people.
Those labels are just as wrong as the other labels would be.
In the end, what frustrates me the most about the situation is that the No side (some of them, at least) seem unwilling to really engage in a conversation about the budget. They are starting from a position that the school board is throwing money around casually. That the budget that’s been presented each year is wasteful, and that they have the obvious answers to fix it. I approach the budget each year with the idea that the school board has already deliberated for hours and hours over the issues at hand. That they’re fully cognizant of the needs of the schools and the desire to keep costs down, and that the budget they’ve put forward is the best compromise they can get. We’ve elected these people to do exactly that. If we don’t like what they come up with, sure, we can debate it. But we should look into voting for new representatives as well.
That baseline assumption makes a big difference in attitude. When I was in Jerusalem, I used to haggle a fair bit. It’s assumed that’s what you’ll do. The first price a vendor asked you, you’d come back with a price a quarter of that. And through the haggling process, you end up with something both can agree on. Haggling doesn’t work in American stores. Not most of them, at least. The assumption is that the store has already decided on a fair price. A price that lets it make a profit but lets you afford it. You can try to haggle, but you’ll get nowhere.
In these budget debates, it feels to me like the school board has taken an American approach to price setting, and the no voters come and assume it’s more of a Jerusalem approach. That there’s plenty of waste and fat to cut. I just don’t see it, though I’m willing to listen to see where it can be found. A few items came up last night. Social workers were debated for a while. In the end, I voted to leave the social worker positions in. Not because I’m a robot and vote for anything the school board tells me to, but because I feel like the schools and community argued well for why those positions are necessary. Vital.
Anyway. No idea how the actual referendum vote will go, but it likely will be contentious again. I’d love to have a face to face meeting with ardent no voters. One where disagreements can be ironed out and compromises made. But I’ve seen little evidence that they’re honestly willing to do that, and that they’d change any views at all if such a meeting were to take place.
Maybe I’m putting too many labels on them.