"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

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Transition To Local Control Likely To Be Painful

If those opposed to Common Core are to be successful, local school districts may have more control than they've had in years. Are they prepared for it?

Kirkwood school district, one which could be locally controlled today since so very little of their operating budget comes from the state, has taken what has come from the state as a matter of course. Like many school districts they have enjoyed modest increases in their budget for a number of years, and have had the benefit of being able to pass bond issues or tax increases with relative ease because of their property values and demographics.

In fact, getting property tax money from Kirkwood residents has been so easy that they have a veritable war chest in their "maintenance" fund. In August 2010 they went to the voters with two bond initiatives which each needed 57-58 percent to pass.  Prop 1 built new classrooms across the district, new cafeterias, and science labs, passed by a margin of 400 or so votes.  Prop 2 which would have built a new swimming pool complex, new track at a middle school, turf fields for lacrosse, baseball and softball (which also had planned dugouts), plus a host of football stadium renovations only got 48 percent of the vote, way below the 57 needed to pass. No problem. Kirkwood was flush with funds in their maintenance budget so last year, they went ahead and put in the new track at the middle school as well as the dugouts at the baseball and softball fields.

That woke the public up, so this year, when the school board tried the same end run for the stadium renovations, the public showed up en mass to remind the board that the public specifically voted these projects down in 2010. Unfortunately the transition to local control is not complete and school boards still run somewhat unfettered by the public will. The decision to spend the money on the football stadium passed last night in Kirkwood 5:1.

It will take an active aware public to really make local control work. School boards can expect a lot more public scrutiny.  Being able to just push things through like they have is a thing of the past.

A little further west, the Rockwood School District, the third largest in the state, is also dealing with a public who is not going to go along easily. A bond issue failed in the August 2012 election which leaves the district with between a $5-$6 million deficit going forward. They hired a fancy consultant to figure out what went wrong and used public"listening sessions" to figure out how to sell what they want to the public better next time. They have whittled down the proposals to a choice of two, both including additional new teachers and full day kindergarten. The only difference is how the district will pay for these things and other operational needs, with a bond or not.

The problem seems to be that the public is awake, educated and cranky. They are tired of the school board constantly coming back for another dip at the public trough. Only 19 percent of the district has children currently in school. The other 81 percent are made up of private school families and mostly empty nesters who are being hit by the economic downturn, living on fixed incomes and looking at permanent property tax increases from the recent Special School District tax levy and Library Levy. Looming over all of this is the expected though not completely known impact of the Health Care law going into effect next year. These combine to make a very cranky electorate.

Making the sale all the more difficult are the district's own numbers which show things like a static or declining student population, very good student test scores under current conditions and a request for a staggering 10% budget increase with few concrete details as to where that money is going. One of the facilitators even said at a recent public meeting that they tried not to confuse things at the public sessions by providing a whole bunch of confusing "numbers." From the questions in the room it seems like the public has taken the time to educate themselves about the numbers and is ready to talk about them. If only the district were.  All detail questions seem to be answered on a one-to-one basis through follow up after the meetings making such clarifications as were sought available only to individuals, not the public.

The public is only going to get better at this which should throw the Missouri School Board Association into a tizzy as they retool their school board member training program. MSBA should keep in mind that the public will be empowered by local control as much as the school boards. "After cutting through all the rhetoric, what today’s critical and inquiring public truly demands is an honest, unguarded representation of facts, figures, recommendations and actions that are not masking ulterior motives or hidden agendas." Michael T. Adamson Transparency and Good Governance

Local School Boards should also remember that the public is not as illiterate as the national media paint them, that local school issues easily cross party lines allowing for greater public coalitions and that there are an awful lot of us college educated mommies out here who have no problem analyzing a budget. We have also been known to be quite clever when it comes to raising money (just look at any PTO, Booster organization or private philanthropy) or stretching a budget,  so maybe they should start listening to us for a change.

If you're tired of your school board not listening, today is the opening of the filing for school board positions. The filing period runs through January 15th.

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