Monday, January 30, 2012

Democracy on the Local Level

Our local school board, of which I am vice president, recently held an open town hall meeting. The meeting was very well attended and the individuals present represented a broad spectrum of local opinion. These are challenging times for many local schools and in fact for many residents in the community. A sluggish economy and high taxes take their toll. But even with the formidable challenges present and the vast differences of opinion, I was impressed by the community and had great respect for all the voices that made their opinions known. In New York, we have a strict tax cap that will impact the school budget beginning next year. A very passionate resident who spoke early in the meeting pushed us to propose overriding the cap. Later in the program there were multiple retirees talking about the impact that the school budget and real estate taxes in general have on their well being. I understand and sympathize with both points of view. If resources weren’t scarce, we could do more in terms of serving the needs of our kids. If taxes didn’t rise, social security recipients who waited two years for an increase would have their purchasing power remain stable rather than being compromised by higher taxes. As the meeting continued, there were speakers who expressed concern about services for special needs children, speakers who questioned why there were defined benefit pension plans for individuals working in the school system, speakers who wanted to know the effect on class size and elective offerings under the tax cap. We reassured parents that special education programs were mandated and would not be trimmed. We talked about the problems inherent in a defined benefit pension plan but no one suggested or would suggest any change or diminution for existing employees. And we reminded the audience that defined benefit pensions were legislated by the state and that the school board had no options other than to adhere to the state requirements. We talked about the modest impact of the tax cap on class size, on elective offerings and the overall breadth and depth of the education we provide. At the end of the town hall meeting, almost three hours later, I think everyone in the audience had a clearer sense of the issues, of the opinion of others, and the fact that difficult questions rarely have black and white easy answers. What happens next? I have confidence that the critical issues are being aired in an open and transparent manner. I have confidence that the community is being well informed and that it has a real voice in the decision making process. And I also have confidence in the school board and especially in my colleagues and the superintendent that at the end of the day, we will make the decisions that are in the best interests of our kids, of our teachers, and of our community. Doing more with less should always be a goal but won’t result in major savings assuming that basic efficiencies are already in place. With mandated costs that are rising faster than the tax cap, there will be an impact and at the margin we will be making changes. But by hearing, listening, working together and striking a balance, I am convinced we will make the right decisions and serve the community well. Now if only Washington could function in the same collaborative way.

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