"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

School Boards Aren't Getting The Message

 Cool Hand Luke

There seems to be an epidemic of communications breakdown between government and the people. It goes all the way to the President, who gave over 100 speeches in which he tried to get the public to see the beauty of the Healthcare bill.  He was largely unsuccessful. It was seen in the state likes Arizona where the immigration law SB 1070 was supported by the majority of the AZ population, but is being prosecuted by the Justice Department.  It can even be found at the local school board level where in Rockwood, for instance, the public did not vote in sufficiently large numbers to pass the latest bond issue Proposition R, but the school Superintendent has decided the problem was that the people were swayed by the media and so the district needs to hire a consultant to tell them why they voted wrong.

Proposition R was a $43.2 million "no-tax increase" bond issue to support technology, safety measures and infrastructure and maintenance of current Rockwood facilities.  The Rockwood School District (RSD) spans more than 150 square miles in total and is the fourth largest district in Missouri. RSD has 19 elementary, six middle and four high schools, in addition to separate campuses for two early childhood complexes, two Centers for Creative Learning (gifted students' programs), and an Alternative High School Education location. The district encompasses the communities of Wildwood, Eureka, Ballwin, Chesterfield, Ellisville, Fenton, Manchester and Clarkson Valley.

The no-tax increase descriptor is a favorite one for government officials because it gives the measure the aura of being free. In fact, any bond issue has cost for the issuer. The principal repayment requires cash, as does the interest payment, which is paid to the bondholders.  And then there is the cost of the company that handles the bond issuance for the organization.  Calling it a No-Tax Increase was Rockwood's way of selling the bond to the public. Apparently they weren't buying. One commenter on Rockwood's own website said, "Does this interest come from the interest fairy or does it come from my tax money?"

Failure to pass the bond issue has left the school board with a budget deficit that must be addressed. But here they are no different than the state, the country and even other countries like Greece and Spain. The public here (and in Germany) seems to be screaming that the time is now to start really tightening the belt and looking at budget cuts as the means to get us to a balanced state. That was the message that was sent by 46% of the voters in Rockwood in April (the measure needed 57% of the vote to pass but got only 53%.) That was not the message received by the school's top administration.

Superintendent Bruce Borchers stated at a June 7 School Board meeting that “the community needed to be refocused with effective data.” Refocused on what?  Education. To him, the vote against Proposition R was a clear indication that the community was not focused on education. In order to address that he has proposed hiring a consultant to "engage the community."

So a public who said, "We do not believe you are spending our tax money prudently," will now have to pay for a consultant to tell them why their priorities are wrong. Spending money to convince you to spend more money. Sounds like the logic for the stimulus plan.

Borchers claimed that the public was swayed (incorrectly) by media coverage on Prop R.  Apparently he didn't think they could read Rockwood's own finance website which said Rockwood has only 85% capacity in elementary schools, with a forecasted decline of 5% by 2013/2014 and 7% by 2015/2016. Middle schools are at 80% capacity and will only fluctuate +/- 1% in enrollment through 2016. High schools are at 90% capacity with enrollment projected to increase < 2% through 2016. Combine that with the understanding that a bond issue, while perhaps not requiring a tax increase, was not cost-free and meant that tax money would be used to service debt instead of providing services directly to students and you have a public who was very well informed.

I would say that the public was directly focused on education. Most of the money was going to be used on construction projects like replacing gymnasium floors, updating fire sprinkler systems and build outs of library space or nurses stations. While it would certainly be nice to have shiny new facilities with everything totally up to date, such improvements do not improve student education on a dollar for dollar cost basis.

Rockwood is in their second round of "listening tours", but they don't seem to be very good at the listening part. If money is so tight and these projects are so necessary, why then did they vote 5:2 to extend the Superintendent's contract and provide a raise, in an economy where most people still are not seeing raises in their pay?

The Rockwood School District Stakeholders offered this advice:

simply listen
  • listen – without an elaborate complicated “process” that takes 6 to 9 months.
  • listen -  without delivering  “key messages”, which you have already done through the Guiding Change Processes of  2010 & 2011,  and the Superintendent’s Listening Tour of 2010.
  • listen without a formal presentation.
  • listen without an immediate rebuttal.
simply listen
  • hold a number of meetings with stakeholders during the months of June and July
  • have a fair number of Board Directors and Superintendent Cabinet personnel present at each meeting to hear and acknowledge the stakeholder input
  • provide a variety of meeting locations and times  (early morning, mid-morning, afternoon and evenings)  reaching the different segments of our district community
  • record the stakeholders’ input so there is public record of the feedback
seek  answers

Rockwood is not alone in its deafness to the voters. Washington School District, which touches on three counties, Franklin, St. Charles and Warren, also failed to pass a $65 million bond issue which included a 46 cent property tax increase this past April. They are looking to go back for another bite at the apple with hopes to get a slightly revised proposal on the November ballot. They too are holding listening sessions with the public. So far, they have focused on educating the public more about the need for the money to build new schools as well as renovate a building for an alternative education site, and make technology improvements districtwide. They have not yet begun discussions on program and service reductions and reorganization should the bond issue not pass the next time.
WSD Superintendent VanLeer said, "We also need to talk about what will be cut if a bond issue fails again. We will need to spell that out to voters."

It seems few school boards focus on this last statement. The first option is to go to the public and ask for more money because, it is all for the children. Then the only option presented to the public is how much more money the board wants and maybe how to finance those wants. It is an all or nothing vote. If you don't vote for the money, then you are misinformed or against the children. 

Like charter schools, this is really not a choice.  True choice would require the boards to seriously look at different ways to fund their wants/needs. Realistic program, service, and staff cuts should be developed that would reach the same goal. Then the public could weigh those changes against the new wants/needs and make an informed decision about which changes they wanted and how they wanted to pay for them.

RSDS recommends that school boards ask these four questions at their listening sessions if they truly want public direction on which way to go.
  • What do you value in your school district?
  • What do you want changed in your school district?
  • What are you willing to do without in your school district?
  • What are you willing and not willing to support in your school district?

 Then, of course, the school board has to listen to the answers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Keep it clean and constructive. We reserve the right to delete comments that are profane, off topic, or spam.

Site Meter