Field notes: Of budget deficits, baseball fields, and the messiness of democracy
It was standing room only yet again at Monday night's meeting of the board of education, of which I am a member, in our 2000-student upstate New York school district; nearly 200 people were jammed into the high school cafeteria when I arrived.? This was not good. As a member of the board, you always survey the crowd (which is normally a group of 15 to 20 die-hards and union reps, maybe a reporter or two, and a couple people with ?issues?) and, depending on who is there ? and how many -- you can usually tell how the meeting will go. A big crowd is usually a harbinger of some drama.? Monday night did not disappoint.??
There were several dozen teachers (wearing their black union t-shirts), several dozen students, several dozen parents, and assorted knots of district employees and ordinary citizens. Our security guard, who does not normally come to meetings, smiled at me from the back of the room.? I knew just about everyone and I knew they were not there for the Board of Cooperative Education Services report or for the Walking School Bus program PowerPoint.
In fact, because it's a small town, I knew that most of the people were there for an item that was not even on the Agenda: ?the board's decision the previous week not to allow the varsity baseball team to play its home games at a nifty new stadium, owned by the town, just down the road. ?For some reason, a majority of board members had gotten it in their heads that the team was being disrespectful by wanting to play in a modern facility, with lights, bathrooms, parking, bleachers, dugout, and ?no cost to the district? ? instead of the district's field, which was, pretty much just that, a field ? no lights, no bleachers, no dugout. Bathrooms were available if you walked around the outfield and across a soccer field and into the school. ?The board had voted 6 to 1 (I lost another one) to force the kids to play on our field. ?
It would take several posts to explain the majority's rationale here ? and why are we talking about this anyway? ? but anyone who has ever been to a little league game anywhere in America should know? that the last constituency in America that you want to alienate is that of sports parents.? A petition was generated, the phone- and email-trees activated. Sports parents are among the most connected in any town. And they were mad.? And they got other people mad. And lots of them?were now at a board meeting. They glared and stared (a potential violation of the new anti-bullying policy) and, at the Public Forum part of the meeting, they spoke. They spoke passionately, angrily, some articulately, some not.? There was clapping and cheers after each speech.? The stack of petitions ? 200 signatures ? was handed over. Exhilarated, I made a motion to rescind the decision from last week. I got a second; a good sign. But the board was unmoved, save the one member who seconded the motion and another who, inexplicably, abstained: ?4-2-1 to stick by its insanely unpopular decision.?
Without going into all the excruciating detail, all hell broke loose. ?Parents shouted taunts and insults from the back of the room, threw papers, and shouted some more, before storming out, issuing threats as they went.
Is all of this a reason for school boards or for no school boards??How will the problem be handled in the school of one? How about in the?consolidated, statewide district? ??If you'd asked me Monday night, after the three-hour meeting and the post-meeting phone calls, I would have said no way, Jose. ?Kill the boards.??As Mike said, quoting Obama, in a democracy we have to ?disagree without being disagreeable.?? Has the President ever been to a school board meeting?
Is it a system we should rely on to educate our kids??
After the baseball parents left, there were still about a 120 people in the room, most of whom were there to watch the board revote on another hot issue: moving high school graduation from Sunday afternoon to Friday evening.? I was saying my Hail Mary's on this one.? It was on the Agenda, a good sign. We had already had one meeting with a booing crowd as the board switched from pro-Friday back to Sunday because, as the Superintendent announced, ?the local synagogue had objected. Not surprisingly, that brought one teacher (tenured!)?to her feet to tell us "you dropped the ball on this one."? She proclaimed her longstanding tolerance for graduation on Sunday, ?even though that's my Sabbath.? (Mind you, small does not mean uninteresting; we once had a race riot and teacher strike in the same year. Diversity is not all it's cracked up to be.)? But this time, there was a better outcome.? I had convinced the parties to meet and, as luck would have it, there were no Jews in this year's graduating class.? Friday was okay ? this year! ?Another 80 people left the meeting ? but they were happy.?
We then slugged our way through field trip approvals, Special Ed placements, a professional development conference day report, and the budget ? the big news out of Albany that day was a tentative legislative agreement (slashing $1.2 billion in state aid to education), which will have an enormous effect (see here and here) on our state-aid dependent district.? (The Times had a brilliant editorial on Sunday, called ?Rich District, Poor District, We are a poor district.) ?One senior citizen rose to say he was on a fixed income and couldn't make the meetings because he had to work to pay the taxes.? A teacher rose to criticize me for my comment at the last meeting saying I would not vote for any budget that raised taxes more than zero.? Boo!?Meyer! It was late and I was tired and I returned fire ? a big violation of board etiquette -- delivering a rant about our failure to do proactive budgeting and making taxpayers pay for our wasteful ways. ???
Everyone did a lot soul-searching after the meeting.?The next day?there were more phone calls, from teachers and parents, wanting to review the drama from the previous night.??More meetings.? And by the end of Tuesday, we got word from the Superitendent that the baseball field question was going to be on?next Monday's Agenda.? Lordy, Lordy!
I am not convinced that yelling is the best way to get a good school.? But I must say: it does have some accountability value.? And?my faith in democracy grows stronger with each public debate about things that people care about.?
--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow