Why the School District Meeting was an Exercise in Futility

So as promised, I attended the school board meeting tonight, foolishly thinking rational people were going to be involved in a decision making process.

Boy, was I wrong.

Impassioned people were involved in a public display of willful ignorance. I’m sorry, but I just call it as I see it. It turned out that the purpose of the meeting was not–as had been understood by most people there–to reject or accept the budget. It was to jump through a legal hoop that would then let the public accept or reject the school budget on Thursday. At this meeting, legally all that could be done was reduce the budget to a smaller amount. No funds could change categories. Essentially, this was the meeting people could go to to object if they felt the overall budget was too high. If they felt like people were getting paid too much.

Well, when you have a huge group of people show up, wanting to vote “no,” it appears they’re not satisfied unless they get to vote “no.”

For 3/4 of the meeting, it looked like the people in attendance were going to pass a school budget of about $16. No million there, folks. Sixteen dollars and zero cents. For the year.

Why? Because they wanted to “prove a point” to the people. To show how displeased they were with how things were being run. Never mind that if–by some freak of chance–the towns had accepted that budget, then the entire school district wouldn’t be funded for the next year, which in turn would have put all those impassioned people out of a job. Never mind that fixing such a huge clusterbomb of a decision would have inevitably made things worse, which would have meant more jobs cut.

They were explained all this by a lawyer, the superintendent, and several school board members.

Didn’t matter. They wanted blood, and they were going to get it, come hell or high water.

Now I didn’t go because I wanted to cut jobs. I went because I believed that hard decisions have to be made. I didn’t go to attend a figurative mobbing.

It was nasty, folks. Downright nasty. And I get that people felt threatened, but this wasn’t supposed to be personal. The school board was faced with tough decisions, and they’d done their best to make those decisions in the interest of the public good.

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t a fun meeting. And no, I didn’t get up and make an impassioned plea for sanity. You might as well jump in a lion’s den and start persuading them to become vegetarians.

Thankfully, the $16 budget didn’t pass. The full budget passed, with the promise that the school board would go back to the bargaining table with the custodians.

In my opinion, this sets a terrible precedent. It shows that all people need to do to bully the school board into a decision is get enough like-minded individuals in a room and try to vote a $16 budget through. What’s worse, the superintendent made it sound like there’d been money they had squirreled away for contingencies, and that they could find a different way forward. He made it sound like all these impassioned people had it spot on–the school board really did have it in for the custodians, and had just been trying to cut their positions out of spite.

What’s incredibly frustrating to me is that people will lose their jobs over the decision that happened tonight. Either that, or students will suffer from getting programming cuts. But the people who lose their jobs or the students who lose their programming won’t have a chance to be willfully ignorant in the face of rational thought. They won’t have the chance to speak out in their own defense. Because it’s all going to have to happen at the last minute.

Like I said earlier, the money has to come from somewhere. Fact.

So I’m trying to think of how a situation like this could be avoided in the future. I think it all comes down to the fact that people thought they were choosing between cutting jobs or saving jobs. There was no alternative given. If a real set of alternatives had been presented to the public from the beginning, I don’t think one special interest group would have been able to ramrod their opinions down the throat of the board.

What I mean to say is that if it had been publicly stated that “either A loses their job or B programs get cut,” then you would have seen more of a real debate. Suddenly the decision isn’t “cut jobs or save jobs”–it’s “which jobs or programs get cut.” (Yes, theoretically you could argue that all staff at the school could take a pay cut or something like that–but with the number of unions involved, I highly doubt such a course would ever be feasible.)

If the choice last night had been “Outsource Custodians or Cut Special Education,” it would have been a very different meeting. It’s easy to argue against a single bad option. But when you have to actively choose between a variety of bad options? That’s difficult.

And that’s what the school board had to do. They did their best to look at all the options on the table–did what they had been elected to do. And they spent hours and hours–weeks and months–doing that. The outsourcing option was what they came up with.

The public didn’t have to make that choice. They could just sit back and take pot shots at the “vendetta” the school board had against the support staff.

That has to change in the future, if we’re to avoid a debacle like this. Maybe if the public is forced to see the difficult decisions that have to be made, then some rationality will return to the debate.

Enough. I’ve wasted enough of my life being irritated about this.

Deep breaths, Bryce.

Deep breaths.

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