Thursday, June 11, 2009

Climbing back on my soapbox

“How can you even think of sneaking this by the public?” began the email recently sent to me, quickly followed by, “why is the [School Board] hiding a plan to cut the midday kindergarten bus runs?” I’ve always been amused when people are convinced something is being hidden from them simply because they are not aware of it.

I clarified for this person that this idea was one of many cost reduction measures discussed at our March 10, 2009 public meeting, the details of which were carefully “hidden” on NNTV meeting rebroadcasts, the Courier Times, and even within the pages of this blog. I hope this person can now plainly see nothing is being hidden from them. The simple truth is that they were unaware of what was being discussed since the beginning of this year because they weren’t paying attention. But now that they are aware of the painful aspects of next year’s budget, they and their friends want to storm the next board meeting and try to change a decision that was made (publicly) 3 months ago. While I welcome their attendance and input at the next meeting, I hope these folks now realize the best way to be informed of Neshaminy news is to attend school board meetings.

I know, I know . . . you’re busy, or you have scheduling conflicts, or whatever. We are all busy, but here is something that you must keep in mind – especially you parents who are concerned about the quality of the educational programs and resources available to your children – attendance at school board meetings is dominated by people more concerned about reducing the budget than they are with maintaining our educational programs. And to their credit, these people attend meetings regularly and converse with school board members about their concerns every single chance they get. How is it that parents expect that they can show up in force at 1 or 2 meetings and have the same impact that budget-conscious attendees accomplish over the course of 5 or 7 or 10 meetings? So what’s a concerned parent with scheduling issues to do?

Here is a simple idea to boost parental attendance at board meetings – Every school organization that is supported by parent volunteers (PTO’s, boosters, etc.) should nominate one (1) person from within their group to be the official school board meeting representative. That person’s sole responsibility is to attend school board meetings each month and report back to the group. If every parent group in each of the schools implemented this idea, there would be no less than 20-30 more parents present for every school board meeting, and hundreds more would be kept up-to-date on important details.

So for all of you PTO/Booster officers out there, here is your summer assignment . . . as you prepare for next school year’s meetings, be sure to include this idea in your very first agenda. Just one parent volunteer from each of your groups is all it takes, and it’s for a really great cause – the children.



KClarinet said...

Mr. O'Connor, I understand your comments and I know you've been saying the same thing consistently over all the months that the budget crisis has been in development. Overseeing a school district is a tremendous responsibility that involves difficult decisions that are often bound to leave some part of the community dissatisfied or angry while rarely leaving anyone completely content.

However, it's hard for me to understand those members of the board who seem always to act in sympathy with those "people more concerned about reducing the budget than they are with maintaining our educational programs" (your words, not mine, but exactly on target). They know better. The board meetings are not the only forums in which discussion of school issues take place. Board members hear, I'm certain, from a broader range of their constituency via email, phone calls and community encounters. And, while school employees (below the rank of Superintendent) will rarely approach board members about specific issues for fear of being considered insubordinate, there's nothing to stop board members from approaching school employees with questions. The board members who react favorably to the "lower taxes at all cost" (and are still apparently pushing as close as they can to a 0% tax increase) do so because that was their purpose in running for a board seat in the first place. It's hard for me to believe, despite your regrets that more education-minded people don't attend and speak at meetings, that those who want only to cut costs would be swayed simply by people sitting in the audience seats. Those who would speak run the risk of verbal confrontation with those who have dominated the meetings themselves at least since the debate over a new vs. renovated high school first became an issue (even on this blog, views favoring compromise between lower taxes and program preservation often are attacked with demeaning sarcasm).

The members of the school board live in the community, not in an isolation ward. They are, if they pay any attention, aware of at least some of the educational consequences of their actions (and they could find out more by asking the people closest to the problems under discussion). They simply take the position that the community can't afford the education many in the community, especially parents with kids currently in the schools, want, and they vote accordingly. That they and the cadre of "people more concerned about reducing the budget than they are with maintaining our educational programs" are in such agreement, in my humble opinion, has less to do with the current distress being visited on the Neshaminy schools than the fact that not enough education-minded citizens come out to vote when these people run for office. For this I find absolutely no excuse. Even the board members who seem truly concerned about educational programs and school conditions are forced to put into their campaign literature very near the top of their priority lists something about controlling costs and taxes. Anyone who said openly "I'm for moderately higher taxes in order to keep our schools strong and well-maintained" would never get a party's backing to run.

I don't think attendance at board meetings is, nor should be, nearly the issue that attendance at the polls is. Boards don't operate in a vacuum, and many people don't like feel comfortable speaking publicly, especially at a large gathering when they sense a hostile opposition in the room. Board members should be voting their intellects and their consciences, not reacting to an applause meter in the meeting hall.

srodos said...

Well said,KClarinet. It seems to me that the Board finds it much easier to eliminate teaching positions than to delve into the deeper mysteries of the budget process. Eliminating the mid-day bus will save money.
However, the inconvenience to working families will be huge. The better question to me is why do we spend almost $2 million more than Pennsbury to transport fewer students fewer miles.The only real saving in the Transportation budget appears to be the lower cost of gas relative to last year.

JS said...

One quick devil's advocate point.

The midday Kindergarten bus. We're talking about 5/6 year olds. Whether they are catching the bus to or getting of it from, they are there with a parent. These aren't latchkey kids we're talking about coming home from upper grades. These are kids still under supervision at most times.

Why, if the parent has the time to sit at home and wait for the bus, could they not make the trip to drop off that same child?

You talk about working families? If they work from home, they can easily take the 20-30 minutes to drop off their child. If they don't, where is their child before/after kindergarten now?

I for one do understand the midday run, but can understand the cutting. I also remember never having a late bus at all in high school (slightly smaller district), but still had to get a ride home none the less.

No solution in this climate is perfect, but pleading for mere "convenience" doesn't work either.

Pianomom said...

I think I understand your frustration William. In the past few days alone I know of at least 5 people who backed out of showing up at Tuesday's meeting. Last week they were worried about what was being cut from the budget and wanted to urge the board not to take away programs. Now all of a sudden they have something else to do.
I am so thankful there are people like you and others out there protecting our children while trying to control spending, but I wonder how successful any district can be when the parents find excuses not to get involved until it's too late.

KClarinet said...

By the way, i didn't mean for anything I said in my earlier post to excuse anyone's complaining that things have been sneaked past the public that have been out in plain view. People who don't attend meetings can still read and watch the meetings afterward on NNTV.

Levittowner said...

I agree that the polls are so very important. I used to go to all the school board meetings, but I have come to believe that to have real change is at the polls.
And unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that-once again-uninformed voters will either just not care enough to vote..or they will make uniformed votes.
The lack of interest (at least in Levittown) is actually a bit depressing. Even people I talked with who were going to the school board meeting were going uninformed. They don't even know what is going on and instead just get fired up over scuttlebutt. It's frustrating. I personally have mentioned to my school's PTO that we should mention what the school board voted on..discussed (just the news, no opinion) but no one took me up on the offer.