To the Editor:
On Nov. 27, 2012, I attended what was billed as a Community Conversation, about challenges affecting our district from a financial concern. District Superintendent Dr. Marie Wiles hosted the event and reviewed many of the state and federal mandates the district must meet and answered questions submitted by audience members on index cards.
The issues that face our district are serious, and the presentation, while accurate, was devoid of how previous choices are affecting our present financial state and that these trends have been largely predictable and anticipated for years.
In the case of specific questions about topics like health-care costs, the answers given were intentionally misleading. The community-conversation format allows no mechanism for the audience to challenge these misleading responses. Dividing into small groups allows people to feel like they are being heard, but, as intended, no ideas are flushed out and a consensus is never reached.
The real purpose of the meeting is twofold; the school board wants to give the impression that it is gathering ideas for meeting financial challenges, and encouraging participants to rally around the idea that state and federal governments are the enemy. This demonizing of the federal and state governments is the board’s attempt to gather support for a budget that will likely exceed the state tax cap this year or next.
Secondly, they are trying to keep individuals from forming into groups that might try to support a specific program idea or express concern regarding contracts. This happened at least once before in the last decade when a group tried to stop the school board from using federal stimulus money to start a costly new [full-day kindergarten] program. The Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee wanted the district to follow the federal guidelines, which stipulated that the money should not be used to start any new programs. The board ignored that costly guidance and we have been cutting programs and staff since.
This board will never allow community consensus to happen again and the ineffectiveness of the Community Conversation’s format nearly guarantees it. For those of you who think this assessment is just hyperbole, then I encourage you to watch the board’s own meeting. The board meeting, following this farce, went on for over two hours. During that time, not a single idea or thought was mentioned by anyone that originated from the Community Conversation.
However, the board members did discuss the next Community Conversation, where they want to focus on getting you to lobby the legislature and governor to increase spending and allow them to raise taxes significantly without needing 60 percent of voters to pass it.
Additionally, not a single word was mentioned about the issues facing this year’s budget, or how to accurately convey the information to citizens who want to be part of the solution.
I still encourage my fellow citizens to participate in the Community Conversations, though the potential to bring about change may be low, the possibility of change has kept me going to board meetings and writing letters to the Enterprise editor for 10 years. Please educate yourself on how we got here and remember that, when you let the people spending your money define the debate, the outcome is a foregone conclusion: spend, spend, spend.
Editor’s note: Tom Burke served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee before it was dissolved.