Wednesday, April 24, 2019

some thoughts on yesterday's school board meeting...

Some (sort of lengthy) thoughts on our school board meeting yesterday evening (Tuesday, April 23):

(1) In a 7-2 vote, the board passed a budget that does not call for increasing local property taxes while earmarking funds for additional personnel and capital investments. This hasn’t happened in a while. It’s a good thing.

Why were there two objections? I can only guess. (And I'm afraid the answer has more to do with politics than policy.) One of the objectors was making a recorded comment to a News-Chronicle reporter as I left, so perhaps we’ll get to read about it tomorrow.

The budget calls for dipping into the fund balance (which is a kind of district savings account that accumulates, primarily, from one-off revenue--real estate transaction fees like from a warehouse sale, for instance) for some much needed capital improvements, including long overdue renovations to the high school auditorium. However, it is only a dip. Our overall budget is around $50 million. Remaining fund balance (though some of it is already earmarked for specific projects) is about 16 percent of that. To me, that’s a pretty healthy rainy-day fund (especially as this fund continues to grow through these one-off revenue sources; in other words, we don't have to actually set money aside to still grow our savings account).

Which brings me to this point: I believe this is a fiscally responsible budget. However, fiscal responsibility is not the only or even my primary concern as a school director.

It puzzles me that some would criticize the budget as being too aggressive (too spendy), and in the same breathe complain about the lack of resources to adequately fund this or that program.

Quality public services and infrastructure require spending. Without spending, infrastructure collapses and services simply don’t meet the end for which they were intended. Fiscal conservatism as a value to the exclusion of other values does not make for responsible government. It also does not make for communities that anyone wants to live in. I understand the duty of public institutions is to provide value for investment. Underfunded services are of poor value and therefore reflect poor governing. (Though, to be sure, sometimes those who govern are hampered by the tightfistedness of their constituents.)

In short, our schools don’t get better by not spending money.

I’m happy we’ve passed a budget without having to raise taxes. But I’m happier that we’ve passed a budget that will result in hiring three new teachers, an intervention specialist, and a much needed secretary (to deal with some state-mandated data reporting requirements), as well as upgrades to facilities (auditorium, student computers, classroom tech, and various deferred maintenance projects and equipment). These are not earth-shattering changes, but they will make our schools better—BECAUSE we chose to spend rather than save.

(2) From time to time I’ve heard grumblings about the time the board spends in executive session. The implication is that the board is conducting business in private that should be conducted in public.

I can’t speak to practice before my time on the board, but since December, 2017, I can say that this charge is unequivocally false.

If the board is meeting in executive session, then we are discussing a matter that CANNOT, by law, be discussed in public. Which means it’s a personnel matter or a student disciplinary matter.

I don’t think any board member enjoys these meetings. We’re often discussing matters that weigh heavy. We all feel it. We all take it seriously. And, as annoying as it is to the public to see the board disappear behind a closed door—and in some rare cases for an hour or more—you should take the length of absence as a sign of our diligence in trying to fully understand the issues and engage in good-faith debate on the consequences of any particular action.

Personally, I’ve been impressed with the tone of compassion and demonstration of good will I’ve experienced in these meetings.

(3) The budget passed yesterday earmarks $100,000 for hiring a school resource officer. No decision has yet been made to hire a resource officer, but the money is in the budget should the board reach that decision.

There are several resource officer models. For instance, an armed security guard that pretty much is just that. Or, the district could fund the salary of a borough police officer who is specifically trained as a school resource officer, but is not a district employee and reports, ultimately, to the borough chief of police. The board is just beginning this discussion. Neither has the board made a decision to hire a school resource officer, nor on what model the district would choose should we decide on one.

However, based on the research I’ve reviewed, and given what I understand of the district’s needs, I am NOT in favor of hiring a school resource officer of any kind.

Presently. Which is to say my mind can be changed.

My review of the literature on school resource officers suggests that their presence tends to result in at least two negative consequences: (1) Ordinary disciplinary matters tend to escalate from the administrative to the criminal. (2) Reliance on school resource officers in managing disciplinary matters tends to contribute to what’s called the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.

I’m less concerned about the later (in Shippensburg) than I am the former. However, I’m mostly concerned that (1) the desire to have an officer in the schools is a knee-jerk response to the fear of an event (school shooting) that having an officer most likely wouldn’t do anything to prevent anyway and (2) that the salary of a school resource officer would better serve our students’ needs invested in some other way—hiring a couple of social workers, for instance.

I look forward to what I hope will be productive debate on this matter in the coming months.

If you’ve comments, questions, or insight on any of the above, I welcome them.

(Did you really read all of that? Should I be impressed or alarmed?)