Another Approach To The Annual Dog and Pony Show
Most of my writing for the Tentacle has focused on my recent experiences as a member of the House of Delegates. I tried to make the point during last summerís campaign that my collective experience in local government gives me a unique perspective on the most pertinent issues facing Frederick County.
Nowhere is this more true than in the area of public education, and the issues regarding adequacy of funding. The highest level of intensity and scrutiny applied to the county budget process surrounds the annual argument between the county commissioners and the Board of Education.
During my short tenure on the Board of County Commissioners, the disagreements between the two groups led to charges, counter-charges, and name-calling better suited to the playground than the boardroom.
The players in this annual, on-going drama see a great deal at stake. The county commissioners face a classic expense vs. revenue struggle, having to justify a county budget for critical services and needs to a fairly conservative voter base.
The county commissioners and their senior staff have been frustrated by having to turn down employee salary increases for non-FCPS employees while FCPS personnel receive more generous increases within the BOE budget.
Former County Manager Ron Hart, a dedicated, career county employee, expressed deep personal frustration over the BOE budget request and the process that led to that request.
The countyís Board of Education, now a fully elected body, views the questions as challenges to their authority and autonomy. The BOE is essentially a volunteer endeavor, with serious, dedicated public servants spending a great deal of time on very complex issues.
The nature of the work dictates that the BOE place a great deal of faith and trust in the staff work done by Dr. Jack Dale and the FCPS central office staff. I have seen the agenda packet for the BOE meetings. Trust me when I tell you that the workload is daunting.
Dr. Dale and his senior administrators spend an exorbitant amount of time reviewing departmental requests, prioritizing needs, and evaluating the merits of on-going programs. The school system remains our countyís largest non-federal employer and largest contracting entity.
Hal Keller, the Director of Finance, found himself the recipient of most of Manager Hartís vitriol during the FY í02 budget process. Mr. Keller had the unenviable task of having to explain the source of a surplus and the intended use of that same surplus. He was angered and offended by the tone and tenor of the questions, and probably thought his veracity was being questioned.
The problem might be easier to manage if these were the only interest groups involved in the process. The Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA) does the job they are contracted to do. They advocate aggressively and enthusiastically for pay, benefit, and workplace proposals for their members. The FCPS Support Services workers do the same thing for their people, with the additional handicap that their work is less visible, but no less important.
These bargaining entities use all of the advocacy tools available to them, including a close connection to the county PTA Council and school-based PTA organizations throughout the county. Parents of school-age children are very effective advocates, and offer some of the most passionate and compelling testimony Iíve ever heard.
A wise man once suggested that a true measure of insanity was doing things exactly the same way, time after time, and yet expecting a different result.
This pretty well sums up the annual BOCC/BOE budget dance. The music starts playing; the state and federal governments pile on the mandates; the accusations of dishonesty start to fly; the county employees complain that FCPS employees will get more than they deserve; the FCTA complains that teachers are so dramatically underpaid that any teacher worth their salt will immediately move to Pennsylvania or the Peopleís Republic of Montgomery County; and parents fill the TJ High auditorium to beg for more funding. [Tentacle creator John Ashbury would insert the violin music at this point.]
Iím suggesting we take a different approach. Iíve spoken at length with Commissioner Jan Gardner, BOE President Ron Peppe, and Superintendent Dale about the concept of a series of community conversations on the adequacy of funding for public education. Clearly, the approach weíve been taking is not producing the optimum output.
The first of these forums is scheduled for Monday June 16, 2003, at 6 P. M. at the Conference Center at Frederick Community College. Kudos to President Pat Stanley for her incredible hospitality.
This forum will only work if Frederick County residents, possessing a wide range of opinions on the question of what we expect from our public schools and how much weíre willing to pay to get that, take time to express those opinions.
Rest assured that the folks and groups Iíve mentioned above will be in attendance. If you hold the belief that only you can adequately explain your personal perspective, we need you to show up and share your thoughts.