Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Had a Hot Date Last Night

...with the Rochester Public School district.

Here's what went down, from my column in today's Post-Bulletin.

* * *

Holy Hannah, that was intense.

I just spent 3-1/2 hours at the Rochester Public School board meeting. I’ve been home for about an hour now, and I’m still sorting through what I heard—mainly because a hearty portion of tonight’s meeting centered around the 2011-2012 budget cuts.

It’s heavy stuff. A few of the potential items on the cutting block included media specialist positions, Quarry Hill funding, the closing of two school swimming pools, and select high school sports. Let’s just say the community showed up.

During the “public input” portion of the meeting, several people rose to speak. They asked that the board make cuts that don’t directly affect students. They asked that the board not close the swimming pools. They pointed out the social, academic and physical benefits of sports programs. One well-spoken parent recommended the district pull from its reserve funds—which, I learned, currently sit at $19 million, or 14% of our operating budget. Good points, all.

I get that being a school board member is a difficult, often thankless job. But so is being a parent. And instead of finishing dinner with my family tonight—instead of helping with piano practice, talking through my son’s “historical event” project, and putting my kids to bed, I spent 3-1/2 hours watching the district’s leadership come to no conclusion.

It was frustrating. Over the course of the evening, one board member offered a specific, altered budget solution. Two others stepped up and indicated they’d like to take action tonight and vote on the existing options. But mostly I witnessed vague non-solutions:

“I’m just not happy with any of these options…”

“Well, we don’t want our students to suffer…”

“There has to be a better solution…”

No one wants our students to suffer. But we knew more cuts were coming if we didn’t pass that referendum in November and now we have to follow through. And whether the cuts come from student programs or staff changes, students will be affected.

“We’re going to need more community involvement,” said one board member. “More volunteerism.”

Yes, we will. But it seems to me that manning the ticket booths at basketball games and shelving books in the library isn’t going to make much of a dent in a multi-million dollar gap. There’s no getting away from this. Decisions have to be made, and they’re not going to get any easier. But instead of voting on the budget reductions tonight—something Superintendent Silver said she wished would happen—the board put it off again until March 1.

In the end, the evening left me with more questions than answers. Here are some things I wish I understood better:

Why aren’t we pulling from our $19 million reserve? My understanding—and maybe I’m wrong here—is that it’s to be used in times of trouble. Aren’t we in trouble?

Also, why do we need $25,000 to find a new superintendent? It was announced tonight that the search firm has agreed not to exceed $24,995 in the search for a superintendent. Is that really what it takes to fill a position in this economy?

And, finally, is there an easier way for community members to access district information? Does the district have a blog or a Facebook page that I haven’t uncovered? A place where community members can find materials and offer input without having to muddle through the district website? Because if the turnout at tonight’s meeting is any indication, the people of Rochester want to help.

We have to. In fact, “pulling together” was one thing that everyone wholeheartedly agreed upon tonight. Because according to tonight’s meeting, we’re looking at even deeper reductions for the 2012-2013 school year.

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