To the Editor:
I have a couple of thoughts relative to the letter from Tim Burke regarding the Guilderland School District’s “Community Conversations” that appeared in the last edition of The Enterprise.
As someone who has attended a great many meetings, or forums, or conversations, or whatever you may call them over many years dealing with the activities, philosophy, and spending habits of the Guilderland Central School District, I have to say that I have seen very few local residents over the years who take a more active role in the life of the school district than Mr. Burke.
He is a regular attendee, he makes it a point to read materials provided, and he always speaks his mind. Whether you agree with him or not on a specific matter, his care and concern is always commendable.
I don’t exactly agree with his conspiracy theory regarding the “Community Conversation” format adopted by the district in the past couple of years as a forum for the airing of views on Guilderland’s programmatic priorities and the funding of our schools. I believe that most school board members and district administrators honestly believe that this format is the most appropriate way of gauging community sentiment on a range of issues.
Unlike Mr. Burke, I do not believe that district leadership is deliberately disingenuous in either its presentations or in its responses to direct questioning.
Why then, would I limit myself to saying that I “don’t exactly” agree with Mr. Burke’s theories?
While I don’t agree with Mr. Burke that a conspiracy is afoot, I do believe that the “Community Conversation” is an incomplete, and therefore essentially flawed, approach to engaging the entire community about the educational policies and funding mechanisms of the entity that spends the overwhelming majority of our local tax dollars.
For many years, the Guilderland School District invited residents to participate in the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, a group that met to discuss and question the priorities and costs associated with the draft budget presented by district administrators early in the year. The CBAC raised questions and concerns that, at least occasionally, resulted in changes to draft budgets before final drafts were approved by the school board and presented to the district’s voters in the May referendum.
The CBAC attracted a broad spectrum of membership, from parents narrowly focused on specific items affecting their own children, to chronic nay-sayers who were always going to oppose any school budget ever created, to opportunists seeking to use the free exposure provided by the forum as a steppingstone to who-knows-what.
It may not have been a fun series of meetings for district leadership, but it was a straight-ahead attempt at honest discourse over the only public expense of this magnitude in which the community has a direct say.
I participated in this group for a great many years, and always felt that its goals would be better served by separating program components from fiscal ones. I suggested to several school boards that “community conversations” on programs and policy be held in the fall, followed by the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee program in late winter/early spring, as had historically been the case.
A couple of years ago, the district opted to introduce the “Community Conversation” program as a replacement for, rather than an addition to, the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee. I did not support that approach then, nor do I support it now. The approach that the district has opted for continues a pattern where too much of the conversation takes place within a closed circle of administrators, staff, and parents, and fails to make a strong effort at outreach to the wider community, the community that has no children in the school system, yet which pays the biggest portion of the considerable cost of operating the system.
Voter inertia over a prolonged period of time has allowed for the routine passage of budgets with limited voter turnouts, but the failure of last year’s library referendum clearly reveals that the expectation of voter passivity is extremely dangerous for policymakers.
The Guilderland School District needs to do a much better job of reaching out and engaging a wider community than it currently does, and of convincing that wider community that there is real value to what it does. In the current economic climate, that which does not add value will almost certainly be lost in the shuffle.
When it comes to the shortcomings of our school district on outreach to the broader community, I think Mr. Burke and I have much that we agree on, and I think that the subject matter is worthy of attention.