Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Budgetary Briar Patch, Part 2: The Process v. the People

I love government and the political process. I always have. (Here’s a past post that examines my love of country; it also explains why I fret so much about America’s schoolchildren and who I think our enemies really are.) The intent of this piece is not to shred the political people whom I criticize. It is a call for action on important matters where I live and work. In my community, political perspectives like mine tend to be drowned out by an increasingly single-minded madding crowd, and I have had enough.

For a girl known for her ceaseless perkiness, I sure am down-hearted these days. In education, the problem is rarely ever really the kids—it’s always the adults who are the root problem, always the adults. I feel powerless and hopeless because I am dealing with fellow citizens with likely good intentions who are doing awful things that harm kids and, therefore, the future of my community.

It’s budget time around these parts. Budget time in our county for the past decade or so has been a melodrama of hooliganism and an often logic-free (and certainly long-term-free) approach to municipal finance. I live in a politically conservative part of a politically liberal state, so budget time reinforces the dichotomies in my world and how they rarely work together.

My county, like many others, has a vocal band of libertarian-ish/conservative-esque/really-just-angry-to-be-angry folks who now dominate our political discourse. They are not numerous, but they are loud. They register to vote as "Republicans," but they are not Republicans according to the classic definition. Republicans are people who want less government in people’s lives but support the role that government needs to play in key services such as defense and public education. For the record, I respect true Republicans and share DNA and laughs with many of them. Instead, the Angry Ones accept no civic responsibilities at all. (A popular label exists for their political mindset, but I refuse to use it because it besmirches the good name of my morning cup of Earl Grey.)

These Angry Ones have polarized local political discussions to the extent that any candidate in any election with a “D” next to his or her name in the voting booth now loses to any candidate with an “R” next to his or her name. I am not exaggerating. This last election saw the loss of our remaining Democrats not because they were doing a bad job (in fact, they were generally touted by people not connected to the Angry Ones —including real Republicans—as having done a great job). Rather, they lost because of the “D.” Angry Ones are not true Republicans, but their relentless howling has convinced much of our electorate that they are.

Perhaps this trend began with the ouster several years ago of Wayne Gilchrest, our exceedingly moderate, thoughtful, and reasonable Republican Congressional representative (I miss him so much). Job competence, money, incumbency, and actual issues play little role in our elections these days. I don’t think even a good old-fashioned sex scandal would shake things up (is this even AMERICA anymore?).  It’s all about the “R” and the “D,” and this electoral myopia is damaging our community.

The Angry Ones want one thing: they want their money back. They do not want to pay taxes, and they do not think that they have any responsibility to pay for public services. They speak (in very small numbers) at local town hall forums and accuse such societal troublemakers as the schools, the libraries, and the park service of ruining their lives.

At these same forums, in exponentially larger numbers, are the parents, teachers, administrators, librarians, business owners, park rangers, students, and retired citizens asking that our county fully fund their public services (something that, by the way, our county can afford to do if it does not give the Angry Ones their tax cuts). Mystifyingly, despite their small numbers at budget events, the Angry Ones always prevail in the budget game.

In fact, at the most recent forum (theoretically devised for the citizens to share our thoughts on budget priorities), we were first subjected to 30+ PowerPoint slides that let us all know that the budget was, in effect, a done deal. As with so many meetings, a forum was held merely so that the county can later say that it had “involved stakeholders” and “solicited feedback.” Sadly, “involving” and “soliciting” rarely mean listening.

With these Angry Ones to the left of me and sad county history on the right, I still hoped that, last year, things would improve. After six years of vicious cuts to the school budget resulting in more than 180 jobs lost (and a further decline in our old school buildings and vehicles), we had a new county executive, one who ran for office as a more moderate voice and a supporter of education.

The budget goes to the county executive first and then to the county council. Any cuts that the county executive makes to that budget are not going to be reversed by the county council; in fact, the county council will likely feel the need to cut further…to publicly pledge allegiance to the Angry Ones.

The school budget is built on public feedback, vetted in public forums, and cut to the bone before it is submitted to the county executive because everything schools request is now considered an extravagance, from HVAC repairs to special education services to school safety equipment.  Many school folks were shocked when the county executive that many of us championed was the first to cut the school budget even though we could afford to fully fund it.

Entering this year’s budget cycle, I don’t know what to think. We have a new governor in our state, and he is already trying to cut the state education budget (click here to tell him to knock it off). Because of the governor’s cuts, our school system was required to find another $1.7 million to cut before the county executive gets the budget and potentially cuts it again. At press time, our school board bravely voted last night to refuse to make these cuts and is insisting that the county do right by our kids. I am more proud of them than I can say. (By the way, the school board is one elected body here whose candidates do not have to designate themselves as “D” or “R” on the ballot. The members differ in philosophy and approach, but there is not an Angry One among them.)

I voted for our Republican county executive. I believed in her. I want to believe in her again. (She’s the parent of one of my former students, and she’s a truly excellent parent and a lovely person.) But she was wrong last year when she made cuts for no clear reason other than muscle-flexing on the Angry Ones’ behalf. That approach obviously runs counter to the best interests of kids, our most important but least politically powerful citizens.

It takes a particular kind of political courage to do right by citizens like children who are able to do the least to enlist a public official’s support. They can’t vote, and they can’t donate money to a campaign. Supporting them means turning away from the demands of a louder, better financed, and more ruthless constituency who, in the case of the Angry Ones, want what they want out of the self-obsession that comes with a narrow, short-term worldview. I believe that our county executive is the kind of person who can learn from last year’s budget mistakes and who has the political courage to support the future of her most fragile citizens. I need to believe this.

At this point, our county government is not even following their own strategic plan (click here and start on page 6), which adds an unnerving sense of whimsy to the decision-making process. Additionally, in the time that schools have cut 180 jobs (because the county government insisted that those cuts occur or a financial apocalypse would ensue), that same county government has added some 30 positions to its roster. What’s going on here? Here’s what keeps me up at night.
  • I guess this would make sense if our county genuinely could not afford to fully fund its public services, if we were in the financial situation we were in back in 2009 or 2010. But that is not the case.
  • I guess it would make sense if the majority of people at those town halls were screaming for tax cuts and thus cuts to schools. But that is not the case.
  •  I guess it would make sense if real Republicans were supporting these cuts, but education has some true friends on the local Republican Central Committee, and my Republican friends roll their eyes at the Angry Ones as much as I do.  So that is not the case.
  •  I guess it would make sense if I thought that the elected county officials leading us were still the vicious dingbats of the recent past (dingbats first championed by the Angry Ones). But that is not the case.
None of this makes sense. The most nonsensical part of this equation? These same Angry Ones who irresponsibly want their services but do not want to pay for them have the nerve to label themselves “fiscal conservatives,” and no one calls them on it.

     The only thing that makes sense to me is that the Angry Ones hold such financial and political sway with our “R” elected officials that all public spending is considered bad, and all cuts to it are considered good. If this mentality actually served their rage-fueled self-interest, tax cuts would make sense. But that is not the case.
  •  Quality public schools play a significant role in whether companies want to locate here and in our real estate market, too (and thus the tax base). Good schools are in their self-interest.
  •  Quality public schools play a huge role in whether this county ever makes a dent in its increasing drug problem and the crime that comes with it. Good schools are in their self-interest.
  •  Quality public schools require MONEY. There is no getting around that, America, and good schools are in your self-interest.

People who want more money and more property value and more personal safety should clamor for funding for public schools, but they don’t.

Like I said, the problems in public education are almost solely rooted in the adults involved, not the students. Help me to believe in you, county officials. I waited during all of your party's political tomfoolery and let you play out your years-long internal reindeer games (if your memory is short, click here). Now, the scariest among you are out of office. This is your chance.

Do right by this community. It’s your duty to turn away from the pressure exerted by the Angry Ones and fully fund public education, and you can. In fact, you must.

In fact, on behalf of the children of this community (the future voters, businesspeople, and public servants—the future adults who will someday determine your elder care and your entitlement programs and your great-grandchildren’s education—people you presumably will hope have a greater sense of civic duty than the Angry Ones do), I insist. 

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