Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Budget Battle Force Awakens

It's county budget season, the least wonderful time of the year, and you won't be surprised to hear that I am super ticked. I've got my Icee, my handsome sidekick, and my outrage, so let's get to it, citizens! 




The “Memories” function on Facebook is usually joy-inducing. “Aw, look—that time my BFFs and I went to see Bruce Springsteen in Philly.” “Aw, look—April and I fangirling over a Dolly Parton video.” It doesn’t take much to make me smile on Facebook, but it doesn’t take much to make me scowl either.

Speaking of scowling, recently my first three budget blogs from last year popped up in my Memories feed. This year’s budget debate has been a little different from last year’s, in some ways quieter, in some ways more sinister. What public education advocates learned last year was twofold.
  • If we motivate people (especially parents) to be vocal about the county education budget, we can’t stop all of the tomfoolery surrounding it, but we can avoid worst-case scenarios.
  • The core groups of reactionary citizens determined to view the budget through a short-term lens (groups I termed "the Angry Ones") are endlessly vocal and thus able to have more influence over our County Council than they should. Our only way to balance their influence is to be more vocal than they are.


The State of the Union

Three key issues face Cecil County in this budget cycle.

1. Tari Moore has (sadly) decided not to run for reelection to the office of County Executive. For years, she has been the sanest and smartest elected member of our county government. Even when I disagreed with her, even when I have been mad at her, I still knew she was our only hope, Obi-Wan. I don’t blame her for getting out, but her departure means that the County Council will be even more subject to the whims of the election year because…   

2. The Republican primary election to replace Mrs. Moore pits two members of the County Council against each other (along with two other candidates). That primary is April 26, a few weeks after Mrs. Moore submits her county budget proposal to the County Council. Imagine what the County Council budget debates could be like after that if one council member wins and the other loses, especially given recent County Council debate history. Imagine.

Meanwhile…[cue Stormtrooper music]

3. The Angry Ones are attempting a hostile takeover of the Board of Education. In the nastiest and most cynical aspect of this budget season, two Angry Ones are running for election to the Board of Education. In the Chesapeake City district, Bill Manlove has been a smart, thoughtful, qualified, and caring member of the Board. His challenger is Kevin Emmerich. Mr. Emmerich aligns himself consistently with political interests that are diametrically opposed to quality public education in Cecil County. One of his close allies in this regard is Ron Lobos.

In the Elkton district, Mr. Lobos, one of the most vocal of the Angry Ones, is running for the Board of Education seat against two caring parents of schoolchildren, Jim Fazzino and Erin Doordan. Having three candidates in one district requires a run-off election in the primary on April 26. To help you decide which two candidates should win that primary, allow me to demonstrate the nature of Mr. Lobos’ public statements about education.

Last year, after making misleading and inaccurate statements at various county budget forums (the audiotapes of which I encourage you to listen to at your leisure when you visit the County Council website), Mr. Lobos took the mic at the July 2015 County Council session for the budget post-mortem. 

Here is the audio clip of his statements there. Please listen to all five minutes of it. You may want to sit down and remove any sharp objects from your reach. 

I’m an English teacher, so let’s approach his story one plot hole at a time.

1. On the audiotape, Mr. Lobos says that he thinks he knows where to find school system officials—underneath cows “milking” the county budget. I’m not Google Maps, but I can help him with this. Here’s where you can find school officials, sir. I have seen you attend their Board of Education meetings on occasion this year, and I encourage the public to do the same. Here’s the meeting schedule. You can even access all of their budget documents online. Click on “Feb 8” on the left menu, and then scroll down the menu for these items:

4.15 Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Update
http://www.boarddocs.com/global.nsf/page_copy.png4.16 Adoption of Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request - Operating Budget
http://www.boarddocs.com/global.nsf/page_copy.png4.17 Adoption of Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request - School Construction Budget
http://www.boarddocs.com/global.nsf/page_copy.png4.18 Adoption of Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request - Debt Service Budget


It’s all there. Please stop scaring the cows, sir.

2. Mr. Lobos says that the county’s “discretionary” money went to the school system. Here’s what the word discretionary means:

Public funding of the public schools is not optional, voluntary, or elective; it is a legal obligation, sir. You will need to learn that if you want to serve on the Board of Education.  

3. Mr. Lobos says that providing strong school budget funding does not make schools better. He needs to check his facts on that. Here’s some reading for you, sir.

4. Mr. Lobos says that schools justify spending by using “excuses” for children who come from challenging circumstances. Here’s some more reading for you, sir. Read this, too. And, based on this statement, if your candidacy involves—in any way—a love of, concern for, or understanding of children, you will need to show some evidence of that. This statement makes you sound less than knowledgeable and less than caring than a Board of Education member should be about the difficulties that many of our children and families face.

5. Mr. Lobos says the school system is a “special interest” that benefits only its employees, parents, and children, that it does not benefit the undefined “us” he mentions, and that thus it does not deserve funding. He uses this language often, especially the word benefactors, to describe CCPS employees (including the members of the Board of Education), parents, and students. On his campaign’s Facebook page at press time, his “About” statement read as follows:

                             

Such an interesting choice of words, “benefactors.” Here is the definition of the word benefactor:



If this is indeed the word he means, then I must agree with him. CCPS employees and the families they serve are, in fact, benefactors of the schools. As I wrote last year, CCPS employees in particular spend a great deal of their own money supporting our schools financially these days because of the underfunding of our school budget, underfunding that Mr. Lobos supports. Does his use of this word to describe school employees mean that he finally gets it, that taxpayers actually do have the responsibility to fund the schools appropriately? I doubt it. 

I think he means that CCPS employees and their families are the only citizens who benefit from educating our children. The word I think he means is beneficiaries. If that is the case, then I take issue with his statement on the audiotape that educating Cecil County’s children does not benefit “us.”

Exactly who is “us,” sir? Could “us” be you, sir? Your child attended Cecil County Public Schools, correct? That means that you have been a Cecil County Public Schools parent, correct? Thus, by your own definition, you have benefited from Cecil County Public Schools, correct? So who is “us,” sir? You, like every other citizen of Cecil County, directly benefit from an educated populace, and thus from Cecil County Public Schools.

6. Mr. Lobos says that he doesn’t have the answers. Wait—he’s not wrong about that.

7. Mr. Lobos says the schools are “artists” in “milking the county dry.” This phrasing is too bizarre to craft an appropriate counterargument to it because it is a mixed metaphor. As an English teacher, I can help you with that, too, sir.

8. Mr. Lobos says that the North East High School tennis courts are in perfect condition and have no cracks in them. The most popular budget blog I posted last year was the one concerning school facilities, including the dangerous state of the tennis courts at all five high schools. That post motivated more people to advocate for the school budget than anything else I’ve ever written, but those courts have still not been repaired. The tennis courts are in the school budget proposal again (costing more than ever to fix, of course, because of these repeated county budget shenanigans). Here are the photos of the NEHS tennis courts that I took last year:

Here are photos of those same tennis courts now (with proof-of-life inclusion of a Cecil Whig to demonstrate that they were shot this week):
    Oh my stars, look! They are perfect and free of cracks! But wait—perhaps something lingers under the snow...  


Oh, there they are. Cracks. The same cracks. Long, deep, dangerous cracks all along the nets, all along the service line, all along the boundary lines. The snow highlights them nicely, doesn't it? The same cracks at all high schools for several years now. 

My husband and I took those photos on Monday. Now that the snow has melted, I took a snow-free photo today from my classroom window. Note that, even from far away, the cracks (painted a brighter red and a brighter green than the rest of the courts) are visible to the human eye. 



Is the school system being dishonest in saying that these courts need repair (as you imply in the audiotape), or are you, sir, being dishonest in saying they have no cracks in them? Sir, I work at North East High School. I love North East High School. North East High School is a friend of mine. And you, sir, are not telling the truth about North East High School. [I’ve been waiting my whole writer's life to make a Dan Quayle reference. Dreams do come true.]

9. Mr. Lobos says he’s “not coming down on the school.” On the contrary, he says, he wants better schools. Please provide some evidence—any evidence—for that statement, sir. You have offered nothing to show that you want to serve the citizens of Cecil County, especially its children. You are serving your personal financial bottom line, and that has consistently been your only priority in your public statements.

10. Mr. Lobos says the school system doesn’t budget its money well and needs to come up with “fresh ideas.” What are those ideas, sir, specifically? Do you mean ideas like the school systems’ long-term commitment to controlling energy costs with the use of geothermal heating and the solar energy  innovations that other local entities are now mimicking? Do you mean ideas like streamlining costs in every way for years?

And as for not budgeting its money well…well, every oversight agency disagrees with you, sir. As I wrote last year,
The schools’ books are clean:
verifiably [Scroll down to "Maryland."], 
certifiably [Search "Cecil County Public Schools."], 
undeniably [Scroll down to "Cecil County" under "Maryland."], 
squeaky [Do you know the search terms by now?] 
clean.
11. Mr. Lobos says that he doesn’t like the way the schools are using the School of Technology property. He says that it is not being used for job creation. Sir, have you ever researched the programs at that school? Perhaps you could talk to students and parents about how well that school helps students to get jobs. Here’s some reading for you to help you understand the nature of those programs: Start here, then read this, and then read this.

12. Mr. Lobos says that the schools “never wanna give back; they only wanna take.” Sir, perhaps you need to research what “education” is and its influence on communities. As a member of the Board of Education, understanding education and its benefits is your responsibility.

The duties of a Board of Education member are codified in the law.

Here...
EDUCATION
DIVISION II.  ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION
TITLE 4.  LOCAL SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION
SUBTITLE 1.  COUNTY BOARDS OF EDUCATION

§ 4-101. Control and promotion of education


   (a) Control of educational matters. -- Subject to the provisions of Subtitle 4 of this title, educational matters that affect the counties shall be under the control of a county board of education in each county.

(b) Promotion of schools. -- Each county board shall seek in every way to promote the interests of the schools under its jurisdiction.




And here...


EDUCATION
DIVISION II.  ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION
TITLE 4.  LOCAL SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION
SUBTITLE 1.  COUNTY BOARDS OF EDUCATION

§ 4-108. Duties in general


   Each county board shall:

   (1) To the best of its ability carry out the applicable provisions of this article and the bylaws, rules, regulations, and policies of the State Board;

   (2) Maintain throughout its county a reasonably uniform system of public schools that is designed to provide quality education and equal educational opportunity for all children;

   (3) Subject to this article and to the applicable bylaws, rules, and regulations of the State Board, determine, with the advice of the county superintendent, the educational policies of the county school system; and

   (4) Adopt, codify, and make available to the public bylaws, rules, and regulations not inconsistent with State law, for the conduct and management of the county public schools.



Read any of Mr. Lobos’ or Mr. Emmerich's public statements about education and ask yourself if they have any  intention of following these laws (especially the parts that I have highlighted in boldface). 

Do Mr. Lobos and Mr. Emmerich intend to fulfill the responsibilities as Board of Education members under the law, or are they serving another agenda, an agenda that is neither about quality public schools nor about children but rather solely focuses on their own cash flow? And then cast your vote.

Full Disclosure: Jim Fazzino’s wife, Melissa, is a close friend of mine, and I am actively working on Jim’s campaign. My husband, Randy, is serving as his campaign treasurer. Also, I do not know Erin Doordan personally, but I count some of her family members among my friends, and her brother-in-law was my younger son’s supervisor at his first job. Read into all of this whatever you like, but rest assured: I would write this blog regardless of whomever Mr. Lobos is running against, and I support each candidate running against Ron Lobos and Kevin Emmerich for the Board of Education.

What the People Can Do
  • VOTE on April 26. A primary election on April 26 will decide who runs for the Board of Education from the Elkton district. My hope is that the two caring parents running for that seat, Jim Fazzino and Erin Doordan, will win that primary.
  • You can contact Tari Moore now and ask her to stand strongly for education and long-term thinking in her final county budget submission.
  • You can contact the County Council now to let them know that you understand their campaign quandary. Tell them that, if they want your vote, too, perhaps they can be stronger where the Angry Ones are concerned this year.
  • Find out as much about the county budget as a whole (and the education budget, too) as you can. That knowledge motivated people to act last year. Follow Perryville Parent for accurate data and analysis from Frances Bowman, attend county budget meetings, and attend Board of Education meetings.

The Angry Ones are not honest, and they are not motivated by the best interests of the children of this community, but they are influential. That should mobilize us, not make us cower.

Act now. Act purposefully. Act meaningfully. And save our schools from the vicious silliness and dangerousness of these political games.

And may The Force be with you. 



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