A life in the day

7/17/2004

Tough choices on the BOE

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:13 pm

For those who don’t know, I’m on the local Board of Educations. It’s a somewhat unusual board in that it’s responsible for only a single school. Our elementary school houses nearly 400 students in pre-Kindergarten through 6th grade (about 12 years old, for my vast horde of international readers. :-) Also note that in the US, “public” schools are ones operated by local and/or state governments, generally open to all students of age in a geographical region.) In most of Connecticut, and indeed, most of the United States, Boards of Education are responsible for a number of schools, covering through 12th grade. But we share regional schools for grades 7 and 8 and for grades 9 through 12 with two neighboring towns. Those schools have their own independent Board of Education.

The number of members is also unusual. Most boards and commissions I know of have an odd number of members. We have six, although that should change when our new charter goes into effect. There is no provision for breaking a tie, so tie votes simply fail. This has rarely been an issue; the board has rarely ever come across as political, and the majority of votes taken are unanimous. The only time I’ve seen the 3 - 3 split of the board cause any real problems were this past spring, when we had a fairly rancorous budget debate and a board very split on one hiring decision.

The chairperson plays a funny little game though, and it is starting to get really annoying. Of course he runs the meetings, which means that he can really control the debate. After each significant motion, he polls the members to see if they have anything to add and to get a sense of how they will likely vote. But he rarely contributes to these discussions himself. Then, when the vote comes, he votes in a politically expedient manner. If he thinks a motion is necessary but likely to be unpopular with some group in the community, he waits to see if his polling has provided the votes necessary to pass it without including his. If it does, then he votes against it. Or the reverse, if he thinks a popular motion needs to be rejected, he tallies the votes and if there are enough votes to defeat it, he votes yea. Sometimes he tells the rest of the board that we really need to vote for something, that legal or other important considerations mean a motion really needs approval; but then, knowing that it will pass, he votes against it. This man was the biggest vote-getter across all contests in the last election, and I’m beginning to see why. He gets to play the good guy for the public, and avoid many of the hard decisions.

At this past week’s meeting this all came to a head for me. We were shy two members, the two who are, along with me, the more liberal side of the Board. And we had one contentious issue on the agenda. There is in our area a public Montessori school with an interesting funding method: there is a $2,000 tuition due not from the student’s family but from the local board of education in the child’s town. It’s an interesting approach; presumably the idea is that no child should be excluded for economic reasons. That surely cannot be the only source of funding for the school. I assume the state subsidizes the rest of it. I don’t know their costs, but in my town, it costs approximately $8,000 per pupil. So it sounds in one sense like a good deal. But that’s misleading. The marginal cost of adding a student is nowhere near $2,000, really just additional supplies and maybe an extremely minor increase in heating/cooling costs.

Nonetheless, I would love to support this. One of our members is very much in favor of the “school choice” program. I don’t support the usual version of it. I don’t think public monies shoulc go to fund religious schools or any schools which don’t take on the strict mandate of the public school system to educate all children in a district without regards to race, religion, gender, economic status, or disciplinary problems (within reason.) But this is a different situation. It is a public school, with a similar enough mandate. The only substantial difference I see in their mandate is that this Montessori school only accepts a student if the school — together with the parents — decides if their unorthodox pedagogical methods are likely to help the child. I think it’s a wonderful idea. When parents of a local child brought us a request for funding, we had no policy to allow us to support a student in this manner. I helped write such a policy and get it passed. But there was no funding provided for it. The policy very intentionally only said that the board could support a child in this manner if it so chose.

The trouble is money. This was a very tight year economically. As well as an arbitrated large increase in teachers’ pay, we had some legal expenses and an overdo restructuring of our administration, all of which increased our budget substantially. In order to submit a budget with a realistic chance of passage, we had to cut several staff positions. These were teachers’ aides, people fundamentally involved in the educational process, including one aide who’d been absolutely wonderful this year in my daughter’s class and another who is a personal friend. I don’t think there was any reasonable way to avoid the cuts, but it hurt to do so.

In this environment, I could not in good conscience vote to spend $2,000 to send a child out of our school. Even if times had been really hard, if we didn’t have to do layoffs, I would absolutely have tried to find a way to afford this. But not as it stood.

Unfortunately, the chairperson started playing his games again. We had discussed this before, and there was a clear consensus that although we would create a policy to allow us the option of sending a child to such a school, we wouldn’t be able to fund it this year. The mother of the child in question was in the audience, and I think the chairperson was playing to her when he did his polling. He knew that I was troubled by the thought of funding this while laying off aides, and he knew that another member agreed with me on this. He knew that the remaining member present was very much in favor of school choice. Although he had recently told other Board members unambiguously that he didn’t believe we should fund this, he knew that he could safely vote in favor of it. And he did so.

The vote was called. Two ayes. One nay. I hesitated as they stared at me. I know the school in question; I have two nephews attending. I like the school and the Montessori philosopy. I think this is exactly the right way to offer school choice. But I had recently voted to lay off several useful people at the school. And now the chairperson is playing politics with the issue. The total money was not insignificant; two thousand dollars is substantial in a budget the size of ours. But I’m sure we could have found a way to swing it.

I probably only hesitated ten seconds or so. But it felt forever. I was so very tempted to abstain, letting the chairperson’s vote help swing the vote in favor of the issue. He would likely have been furious, with no outlet to express his anger; that possibility amused me. It was obvious to anyone watching that I was torn by this issue; I could certainly have gotten away with abstaining. I would love to be able to tweak the chairperson about money thereafter.

In the end, though, that is not what I was elected to do. I was elected to make sure that our school does everything possible inside our budget constraints to ensure that our children learn what they should. In the end, I didn’t play the chairperson’s games. In the end, I voted no.

From now on, I will deal with the chairperson’s games in a different way. I will still ask questions and state some opinions when he does his polling. But he better not count any more on knowing which way I’m going to vote. And he damn well better not bemoan the passage of a motion that he himself approved.

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