Monthly Archives: May 2010

Why I Would be Better Off Not Going to Board of Ed Meetings…

So tonight I spent many hours (4, actually) attending a joint session of our local Board of Ed and our Township Council.  It’s been a rough spring for the BoE, as our school budget was defeated on April 20th as yet another annual rite of spring in town.  In NJ, the law is that a city or town council must decide on a dollar amount to cut from a defeated budget and pass along that amount, with recommendations for where to obtain that amount from, to the BoE within 30 days.   Sounds OK but the kicker is that the BoE is legally bound to cut the amount only; they are under no obligation (other than, say, common sense) to cut from the recommended areas.

From what I can gather from discussions with a few people post-vote, the resounding NO was largely due to 2 reasons:

1) the local teachers’ union had not shown any inclination to agree to a 1 year wage freeze (like all of the other collective bargaining units in the school district)

2) no administrative jobs would be cut, such as the extra Assistant Superintendent (and accessory, oops, I mean secretary)

In the weeks that followed, there was much finger pointing, both publicly and privately.  Sides had long since been drawn and the heels of all were digging ever deeper.  Some residents in town, whose professions were either CPA or Forensic Accountant, stepped up and volunteered to have a look at the defeated budget and see where some money could be cut – hopefully with efficiency, responsibility and accountability in mind.

Meanwhile, the Town Council paid money (hey, isn’t that tax payer money?) to have a Defeated School Budget Auditor pour through the voluminous budget and also make recommendations for cuts – total and from where.

Tonight’s meeting was a perfect storm in many ways.  On the high school stage, the town council took up one half of a large semi circle of tables and chairs while the BoE members sat at the other half.  The ensuing performance seemed sadly appropriate while also darkly ironic.   The Defeated School Budget Auditor and the Volunteer Review Committee politely reported their findings, copies of which had been delivered (allegedly) to the BoE’s Business Administrator at the very last possible minute.

This was, of course, a blatant attempt to show how unprepared the Business Administrator was!  Or… it merely shone a very bright and sparkly light on what has been obvious at previous meetings… hmm….

Showtime!

I was sitting in the back half of the large auditorium.  It was not a packed house but there were certainly a lot of people there.  All ages, too, I noticed a bunch of elderly people among the high school students, parents, teachers and occasional Guy with a Surly Expression.

The teens are always a well intended bunch of young people, the bravest of which makes his or her way to the mic for the Public Session part of the meeting and earnestly tells the folks on stage how much the teachers, sports, the arts, and awesome classes all matter.   I truly respect these kids but I also cringe (on the inside, I wouldn’t want any of them to see it).  They are so young still, pay no property taxes, and have no idea how hard it is to make decisions that stretch not only beyond their classes and clubs, but also to the grades below them and the students who will follow them for years to come.

Back to the drama… once the Council and BoE members went through the reports, line item by line item, a few things became obvious to me.

– I was going to have to say something at some point, which really pissed me off

– I was watching a pissing contest, with many pissers

– our school district was in the hands of some incompetent, unprofessional and sulky adults

All of these realizations made me want to cry and hit something, hard.  It is sad to see numbers argued like they were merely symbols – not the actual programs and services that affected thousands of kids.   The more the numbers were tossed around and dissected, I at one point wished I had a financial background so that I could have a shot at cutting through the crap and instead move toward real solutions.  That thought was immediately overruled by the thoughts of “Thank God I don’t have to do this stuff” and “This is bad, this is really, really bad…”

The reports were temporarily exhausted and the Public Session part of the meeting began.  That meant, let the public comments begin.  I was shocked that so few of the crowd planned to speak.  We’d just witnessed contradictory “facts” bouncing around like ping pong balls, the polite veneer of 2 committees wearing awfully thin, and the realization that the students were going to return to a vastly different school district in September.

A few comments were sad in tone, with reality sinking in.  One, from a highly respected elderly man showed me just how different my generation generally views education than his generation.  He talked about 80 students in a graduating class, with 40 kids in a class being “OK!”  He talked about his fixed income, how volunteers mowed the park grass, and how kids can do without the fluff we current day parents feel is mandatory.  Everyone listened patiently but his words were then shredded to pieces by other speakers, who pointed out that the world really has changed quite a bit in the past 40 years.   I felt bad for the old man but also had to shake my head – he has a pension and Social Security.  We most likely won’t have both, and Nicholas will most definitely not have either.  Forty years ago, most products were still made in the U.S.  Now, that’s the exception.  Yes, a lot has changed…

A few more speakers, including an angry rant by one of the Guys with a Surly Expression.  Finally I got up.  The regular symptoms kicked into gear as my feet started moving.  Heart pounding?  Check.  Face turning red?  Check.  (At least it felt like it was…)  Stomach turning over a few times?  Check.  Angry and concerned enough to tell the symptoms to eff off?  Check.

Based on previous comments earlier in the meeting, I had 3 questions/points: privatization, lying, and mistrust.   Basically, I told everyone there that someone (or maybe a few!) – in the BoE, the teachers’ union leadership, or the Town Council was lying and, as a result, there was a lot of mistrust by the public.  And, ta da! there go a few reasons why the budget was defeated.  I’m a genius.

By the end of the meeting, I’d seen enough to know a very simple fact:  The Superintendent and BoE will cut the Council’s recommended amount of $1.4 million but NOT from where the Council, the Defeated School Budget Auditor and Volunteer Review Committee recommended.  As long as the current Superintendent is on the job, no administrators will be cut.  Why listen to 3 different, respected groups.  Why listen to the public?  Nah, screw all of them!  Our Super knows better.  He only needs to listen to himself to know what we all really wanted to say, but those silly facts and crazy suggestions got in the way.

No, no, he thinks.  It’s far better for a top heavy district to continue to cut from the bottom, leaving the kids to have a sparse education and a town that no one with kids will want to move to.

In the end, I drove home, tired, cranky and resigned to the worst case scenario.  No doubt my blood pressure went up a few points tonight, my opinion of a few elected officials dropped quite a bit, and my mind wandered a bit with the idea of us moving.  I would have been better off to just read about the crappy outcome tomorrow.   It’s not like I couldn’t have predicted it.  It happened the same exact way last year.

What Volunteerism Panic Feels Like

In exactly a week from now, I will be probably in bed – hours before my usual bedtime.  I will be exhausted, probably a bit sore, and thoughts and lists will be racing through my brain.  We will have had God knows what for dinner, I’m thinking take out.  If I cooked over the weekend like I’m planning on doing, then we’ll have something homemade – defrosted and reheated.  Add that cooking to my ever growing list of things to do in the next 11 days.

For the past 8 months, I’ve been a part of a big project in our town of Succasunna, NJ.  The old playground at the local park, and play-hub of the township, for the past 19 years was going to come down for safety and insurance reasons.  It had been built by volunteers “way back when” and the plan was that the new one would come together the same way.

But things are different now, in many ways.  First, we’re in a recession.  The playground isn’t free or even cheap.  Second, the materials are recycled composite instead of treated wood.  The upfront costs are outweighed by the safety and longevity.  Third, our town is struggling with rising property taxes (hello, NJ!), a defeated school budget, a controversial turf field installed at the high school, and fewer businesses in town.

Originally, the members of the playground steering committee, myself among them, speculated that we’d have more volunteers than funds.  We set up a long range plan for recruiting volunteers as well as planned a comprehensive fund raising schedule.  Sub committees were formed, tasks assigned and off we went.

Lo and behold, here we are, just one week from the build.  And we have plenty of funds, amazingly,  from individuals, families, businesses and organizations.  Fund raisers were widely supported and local businesses stepped up in ways that absolutely surpassed what anyone could have reasonably expected in this economy.

And, yet, I’m panicking.  On the inside, of course.  Outwardly, I’m composed, organized and confident. Yes, hundreds of people will sign up in the next few days or walk up during the build itself.   The weather will be perfect, attracting all sorts of people that otherwise would have stayed home instead of helping for a few hours.

The tools, materials, miscellaneous supplies, food and beverages will be plentiful.  There will be a reliable generator, and the heavy equipment will all work perfectly.  No glitches!

But I am still panicking on the inside.  We need people.  LOTS of people.  As in, hundreds of people.  We need people over the course of 5 full and busy days.  I’ve talked to friends in town, extolling the fun – yes, this will be fun! – and hard work, culminating in a fantastic playground that our kids, and their kids, will enjoy.  This playground is truly designed to last for 30 years.  I do expect my (future) grandchildren to play on it, with Alicia and Nicholas telling them that we helped make it possible now and then.

So how do you get people to volunteer for something?  It’s a no brainer for me, as I’m drawn to helping someone, something, etc. without financial payment.  Mike and I are light years apart on this.  What is natural for me is inconceivable to him.  He supports my efforts, knowing that they are intrinsically important to me as well as rewarding to me, our family, our town, etc.  But he also looks at me with a shake of his head – he simply cannot understand why I spend my time and skills at something that I will not be paid for.  I’ve seen the looks, and I’ve given up trying to explain to him WHY and HOW it feels to help out.  I’ve also given up appealing to him to join me in some of the work.

During those 5 build days, he will either be working or home.  He will not be at the playground site at all.  If I can’t convince him to help, can I really expect to talk anyone else into it?

Let’s look at who have I been able to recruit so far – Nicholas, who easily signed up for the idea and has been (mostly) enthusiastic about it – he contributed to the design, collected pennies, wears his “Built it” t-shirt, and will be helping out on one of the build days.  Then there are my parents, who are taking time off from work (!) and coming from their home, out of state (!!), to help.   They are the trees, as it were, and I am an apple from either/both.

Sure, I could pull out the guilt card.  I fully intend to lay it on thick with Alicia (who is working all of those 5 days, so she has a good reason, but still….).  The carrot will be a spa day for she and I.  It’s a win-win, actually.

And, yep, I have no problem begging a few friends who may be on the fence and just need to be assured that their time will be well spent.  And that they don’t have to use a tool if they don’t want to, because, so far, mostly they don’t want to.

My experience with this particular project so far has already been extremely fun (at times) and rewarding.  I’ve met some wonderful people, gotten to know a few folks better than I knew them before this all started, and I am already proud of what we’ll accomplish.  I’ve honed some writing skills by writing press releases on a regular basis, collaborated on publicity measures, and worked with other committees to get some things coordinated smoothly.  I could possibly put some of these skills to work in an paying capacity at some point down the road.  Who knows?  My motives aren’t exclusively noble.  I benefit in many ways by helping, both short and long term.

But back to the playground…

Naive, maybe, as I really do think it will be a great bonus for the town.  The park is already wonderful with a beach, a walking/running/bike path, numerous fields, a performing arts center, and now, of course, a gem of a new playground.  We spend a lot of time at this park, almost all year long.  Now it will be even nicer to be there.  Build it and they will come and all that.

I wish I could, somehow, find the words to explain to Mike, and others, just how great it feels to be a part of something that extends beyond your family and home.  Maybe then the playground, and every other well intended and worthy project that will follow, will be successful because lots of people came together to make it happen.

Maybe then, I wouldn’t feel like so panicked.  On the inside only, of course.

In the meantime, it’s time to dust off the cape, don the suit and smile.  I have a long ‘to do’ list to tackle and the clock is ticking.  Loudly.