Communication problem

Last year, when the first school budget went down by a 2-1 margin, the board concluded it had no shot at passing anything above the state-mandated austerity level and went straight to a contingency budget. Many in the community were angry they didn’t get the opportunity to vote on a budget somewhere between the original and austerity, and trustees got an earful. So this year, after the first budget once again was defeated, the board decided to put a second proposal to public vote.

Second-round votes tend to have a smaller turnout, and the prevailing wisdom is that low turnouts favor ‘yea’ votes due to the ability of the many teachers and other district employees who live here to mobilize their friends and family. If this budget is approved, there will be no significant further cuts to programs. Actually, there will be a restoration of many, including sports, art and music, that were cut in last year’s budget and subsequently brought back through community fundraising.

But I’m concerned about what will happen if this budget goes down. This proposal comes in at roughly the same level as austerity would be, so voters are essentially getting to say yea or nay on what is usually an automatic fallback. Although the board has not discussed what it would do in the event the budget goes down again, it seems logical that it would take such an outcome as an indication the community wants to see a budget significantly under austerity level. Otherwise, why would it go to through the time and expense of holding a second vote? But this has created a problem: residents don’t know what they’re voting for if they go against the budget. Lacking this knowledge, many are confused and fearful. This is not good.

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I can’t help but think it’s a communication problem. Trustees and advocates for a first-class K-12 education are not making the right pitch to voters. (One could say they shouldn’t have to, but in our system voters make the call here, and voters need to be persuaded by someone.) The pitch for education is not hard to make. The difference in tax rates can be framed in terms of a daily cup of coffee, usually cheaper. In a time when many public schools are feeling the pinch, charter and private schools are booming in urban and suburban areas. There, the rich kids are getting a good education and everyone else is struggling to keep programs intact. Each year, instead of new initiatives to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technology in the growing parts of the economy and the new ways today’s children learn, public school districts are being forced to play defense, just trying to maintain what we already had. It’s not sustainable.

Being a small-town district in a rural area, there is no charter-school option. If we can’t find the money, we risk a future of diminishing returns that could strangle our town’s vitality.

Voters need to understand this, and this case needs to be made frequently in public. I can’t think of a better place than this newspaper’s letters to the editor and op-ed sections, yet this year we received very little input – especially for this second vote. Absent these affirmations, voters, struggling to pay the bills and uncertain about their own financial futures, have a tendency to cast the few proponents of the budget as a self-interested district insiders looking to assure annual raises and (relatively) generous benefit packages. Many American teachers are scratching their heads. Their salaries used to be widely regarded as modest, even joked about as such, and now they find themselves criticized for making too much.

A cynic once said that Democracy is a theory that the people know what kind of government they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. Well, Saugerties knows it deserves a first-class school system, but we need to do more than know: we need to say it, and we need to say why.

 

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