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Slip-sliding along

Essay by Martha Quillen

Media – March 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

ON FEBRUARY 2, The Denver Post led its “Perspective” section with an article about two insolvent Colorado school districts. “Broke schools, busted system” the feature declared, and it continued: “There is nothing unique about the ineptitude demonstrated by those two district boards and their leadership.”

Author Ed Lyell, a professor of business and economics at Adams State College, went on to examine how school boards end up being complacent, incompetent and even corrupt. Then he compared U.S. education with systems in Europe, Asia and “Australia-New Zealand” and found our schools seriously wanting.

“The United States currently has the highest level of high school noncompletion and lowest levels of student achievement of any developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,” he lamented.

Lyell writes about school boards that don’t review budgets, expenditures, revenues, or audits; school boards untrained and inexperienced in fiscal matters; school boards that believe their sole purpose is to set policy — not to provide oversight; school boards whose sole source of information is the superintendent; school boards that are unduly pressured by school administrators and personnel not to limit budgets or make changes; and school boards with members who have serious conflicts of interest (like businessmen who do work for the district or board members who have spouses who teach for the district).

According to Lyell our schools boards are inept, our schools are inferior, and our students are deficient. The only thing we seem to produce plenty of is costs. He concludes: “We need a different way to organize and fund our school districts; a different way to pay our teachers; a different way for impoverished children to learn. We need governing boards that will look to the rest of the world and adopt some of their policies for K-12….”

“We will not produce the necessary high levels of student achievement from just tinkering with the current system. We need to redesign our schools for excellence….”

It’s a great article and everyone should read it. But is Lyell right? Are many, or perhaps even most, school boards “apathetic, ignorant, incompetent or corrupt”?

Perhaps the most notable thing about Colorado school boards is that they don’t take very much responsibility for their fiascoes. Board members usually pass the buck when things go wrong, and they never, ever seem to learn from their mistakes.

But doesn’t that pretty much make them like everybody else? Accountability may be something that American politicians try to apply to schools, but our elected representatives seldom apply it to themselves — and neither do the rest of us.

THUS MY FIRST THOUGHT when I read Lyell’s piece was that it didn’t go nearly far enough. School boards aren’t the only government entities prone to overspending while producing questionable results. We’ve also got town boards, county commissioners, state legislatures, the U.S. congress, and President Bush. Also, since insolvency inspired Lyell’s slam on school boards, it should be noted that the city of Salida is broke, too.

But numerous other public institutions also seem broken — including the American medical establishment; our court system; social services; and government organizations like the INS, the IRS, the CIA, the DEA, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And the public sector certainly isn’t alone in providing less and less service for more and more money. The private sector isn’t doing well either. Look at the airlines, HMOs, insurance companies….

And for the ultimate cautionary tale of fiscal disaster there’s always Enron.

Of course, you may presume that the government should be held accountable for such corporate calamities, since it has clearly failed to inhibit fraud and adequately oversee banking, government contracts, transportation, et al. But government officials are not the only people expected to watch over public affairs. Journalists are supposed to be watchdogs, too. So shouldn’t the media also be held accountable?

America’s founding fathers provided for a free press because they thought that it would guard against government malfeasance. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

And James Madison said, “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

SO IT ONLY STANDS to reason that the media should share in the blame when so many institutions seem to be running downhill toward who knows what.

Furthermore, numerous critics feel that the press is unhealthily aligned with corporations and government. Robert McChesney, author of Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy despises the commercial aspect of the media. As he sees it, newspapers cover “sports, crime, and celebrities” instead of politics in order to appeal to a larger audience and thereby increase circulation and sell advertising. Thus the media have made Americans ignorant and ill-equipped to be good citizens.

McChesney isn’t alone in worrying. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is very difficult to have a free, fair and honest press anywhere in the world. In the first place, as a rule, papers are largely supported by advertising, and that immediately gives the advertisers a certain hold over the medium which they use.”

And journalistic conflicts go beyond commercial interests. McChesney also questions the media’s devotion to objectivity, which he believes merely makes the press a tool of the establishment — since in trying to report impersonal, unbiased stories, journalists usually rely upon “official sources” like government spokesmen and prominent businessmen.

And just in case you think that living in the middle of nowhere somehow protects you from media corruption, think again. Local publications have links to school board members, the police department, and the sheriff’s office, and they rely on them for information, records, and even news releases. And thus the media tends to be on the government’s side — or at the very least, reporters are pretty reluctant to criticize local officials.

As a matter of fact, if Lyell had been a local reporter writing about school board members whose names (occupations, children, and marital status) everyone in town would know, rather than a business teacher writing about districts far away, I’ll bet Lyell would have been more circumspect — presuming he ever wanted to interview a board member again, or send his kid to school.

THUS LYELL, the excellent, small town, investigative reporter, probably would have called local board members untrained rather than ignorant; ill-prepared rather than incompetent; reluctant to act rather than apathetic; and instead of calling them corrupt, he no doubt would have pointed out that a few of them had disturbing conflicts of interest.

And Lyell II, the normal small town reporter, probably would have merely quoted a few board members in his story about the school board’s financial problems and been done with it.

Of course, such circumspection is not entirely bad. After all, cozy congeniality is supposed to be a small town trait, and rude commentary can make public meetings degenerate into fracases more appropriate to the Jerry Springer Show.

But friendly relationships can lapse into some pretty unholy behavior, too. You only need to think about the tranquil rural towns in the ’20s when the Klan dominated. In those days, Klansman harassed and murdered neighbors, and communities looked the other way.

Although some citizens must have been appalled, almost none spoke out. Of course, they were probably afraid. But for the Klan to thrive across our nation for decades, would-be reformers must have been stifled on all sides: by habit and tradition; by important folks who insisted that lynchings were right and proper; by newspapers that championed vigilantes (as one of Salida’s early newspapers did); by loyalty to involved friends and family members; by self-doubt and uncertainty in the face of vocal opposition; and even by believing in democracy.

It’s hard to go up against a majority that disagrees with you on the big things — even when those things really matter and make a permanent difference, like murder does.

So it’s not too surprising that board members fail to object to paltry things, like five hundred dollars here and a thousand dollars there — even though they know that those dollars will invariably add up.

Lyell makes it sound easy to waylay a lousy budget or an ill-conceived proposal, but it’s not.

Of course, Lyell teaches business at a college, so he may not know how hard getting heard can be. But most school board members aren’t professional financial experts so their concerns usually can’t sway a board away from a superintendent’s insistence that a new program is a bargain. It doesn’t matter if the board member is actually more knowledgeable about finances than the administrator, either, because authority and credentials carry a lot of weight.

LIFE IS IRONIC. In the U.S. we’ve set up an elaborate system of checks and balances to make sure that no special interest groups can dominate our governmental affairs, and thus we elect boards to represent the citizens. But as often as not, our boards relegate their duties to government employees — because those employees are “professionals.”

And what about those professionals?

I find it curious that Lyell vents all of his disgust on school boards. What’s wrong with auditors? And superintendents, city managers, town treasurers, police and fire chiefs, public works directors, and administrative assistants?

With the entire system slipping year after year, it only stands to reason that both our school boards and professionals need to change — along with the media.

But charges of corruption may be excessive. After all, our school boards, city councils, commissioners, administrators and journalists don’t appear to be rolling in payback money. Nope, if they’re messing up, they seem to be doing it for free.

And they certainly do it publicly. Professionals and councils talk themselves out of cautious spending all of the time — in front of any citizen who cares enough to attend meetings.

“But revenues are bound to pick up,” someone says. “And if we get our own guy, we won’t have to subcontract so much of this out, so we’ll save money,” someone else agrees. “And as for this new pool (tennis court, gymkhana, golf course, or community center), it will pay for itself.”

And some new facilities do pay for themselves, but a lot of them don’t, which is why managers, boards, and concerned citizens should really do their homework — and why everybody should always pay attention to the books.

But when things go wrong, you find out that people usually expected someone else to check. The school board points to the superintendent; the superintendent blames accountants and auditors; the accountants blame the superintendent and school board; and I don’t know who the auditors blame since they tend to have lawyers by then.

BUT WHEN PEOPLE really want something — be they citizens, board members, department heads, superintendents, congressmen, senators, or presidents — they tend to underestimate the costs and exaggerate the benefits, and then get really, really mad at anyone who insists on working out the details.

In addition, even when the taxpayers make it amply clear that they’re not interested in a new project, it will most likely show up again and again — like a stalker. And such propositions are generally packaged without significant modification or budget cuts, making it clear that the proponents’ objective was not to improve the proposal, but to wear the citizens down.

It occurs to me that school boards and city councils get a lot of encouragement to run amuck. But there are warnings.

I remember when Monika Griesenbeck asked Salida’s auditor whether Salida should be running in the red year after year, and the auditor replied: “Well, it’s okay, for a couple of years, in good times when revenues are healthy, if you’re making capital improvements, because sometimes cities have to invest in buildings and water systems and such. But of course it can’t go on forever.”

Whereupon Monika decided that the spending should stop, since it had already been “a couple of years.” But everybody else seemed to feel that the party could play on.

And of course, there were warnings from the city administrator, too, usually right before a vote on some optional improvement, generally along the lines of: “Well we really don’t need this right now, so you might think about keeping the budget on line instead.”

But the council seldom did. And then Salida was broke.

But even then, things didn’t change much. A few city departments very graciously agreed to help in any way they could — to stretch their budgets, make sacrifices, and somehow deliver satisfactory service despite hardships until the city was back on track. But the police and fire departments were adamant; they couldn’t lose personnel.

And a former mayor actually lambasted the council for even considering cutting Salida’s finest. How could they? They should be ashamed of themselves. They shouldn’t even be allowed to remain in public office.

And hey, he’s right about some things. Police and firefighters are important, and so are secretaries and maintenance men and janitors. But darn it, how are boards supposed to budget wisely in the face of such zealous grandstanding? Salida can’t just eliminate all of the secretaries in billing, or discontinue sewer line maintenance in order to appease champions of the more popular, visible departments.

Or can it?

TERRIFYINGLY ENOUGH, that’s exactly what happens in America on every level. The elderly will get prescription drugs, but children will die waiting in emergency rooms of charity hospitals. Tax breaks will thrive, and homelessness will be ignored.

And like characters in a absurd Punch and Judy show, we’ll all do a lot of squabbling to get results that nobody wants: like medical care that no one can afford; airlines that can’t seem to get you where you want to go; housing developments sprouting in every direction in valleys that are almost out of water; and schools with poorly maintained buildings, underpaid teachers, overpaid administrators and lousy educational standards.

And sure, you can probably find a degree of corruption in all of this, since somebody must be making money, but it’s certainly not us little guys, and it’s probably not our school boards, commissioners, and town council members, either.

Yet we all allow our systems to run amuck, and maybe even encourage them.

Not long ago, I was bemused to hear a newly elected official in another city speculate about why a budgetary issue in her town turned ugly. The accusations, name-calling, personal aspersions, and threats of litigation which accompanied that decision surprised that politically astute board member, which can only mean one thing: It must have been a long time since that community attempted to cut expenses, because near-threats, intimidation, and allegations are pretty standard political rhetoric. And usually it doesn’t even take cuts to inspire gibes. Refuse a department a new vehicle, employee, or piece of equipment and the disappointment is very likely to stimulate outrage.

If you go to a lot of public meetings and discuss such meetings with others, you’re bound to hear the same things over and over:

“Some people just don’t care about education.” (Or the law, or our city, or the safety of our firemen — depending upon which budget is under review.) “All they care about is their pocketbooks.”

“How dare you insult people who put their lives on the line for you?”

“And what do you plan to do when your daughter gets raped?”

“So just who do you plan to call when your house burns down?”

Generally the last couple of comments come from overzealous citizens and board members. But occasionally they’re invoked by government employees who should know better, whereupon they’re usually perceived as threats rather than remarks. And then things just keep getting nastier and stranger until I usually quit wondering why government doesn’t work, and start worrying about whether western civilization will ever work.

BUT IT DOES, kind of, at least at the local level. Salida provides water, sewers, roads, police and fire protection, snow removal, and numerous administrative services daily. And most students from Chaffee County can pass a college entrance test and go on to college after graduation.

But we do seem to be slipping. In Chaffee County, our schools, medical facilities, and public services are actually pretty good. But they cost so much more than they used to that it’s almost incomprehensible, and wages in our area are not going up. In our county, we provide rural services for city prices, and that’s a problem, because people here don’t make city wages.

For years Chaffee County has experienced unprecedented growth and Salida’s revenues prospered. But now we’re facing drought, war, recession, and potential wildfires, which is more than a little scary. Most working people in our region are far from rich, and our businesses tend to be small establishments that cater to tourists, some of them seasonally.

Yet our institutions keep spending more and more money.

It’s Salida’s slow season, after a slow summer, followed by a slow fall, people here seem discouraged. But for people in our region, it’s not because they’ve lost their pension in the Enron scandal or their jobs to mass lay-offs. It just seems like things are going awry and there’s very little we can do about it.

But we’re wrong. Citizens do change things — all of the time. For example, if you’ve ever wondered why education seems to be the thing that our educational system can’t deliver, it’s probably because people shout more about sports, field houses, lunches, playgrounds, and discipline, than about books and tutors.

And all too often, we get manipulated and offered bad choices. For instance, Salida schools recently asked for a 12.8% raise across the board, even though only cooks, janitors, secretaries, and lower level teachers were seriously underpaid, while superintendents and top administrators enjoyed very comfortable salaries. In the end, though, administrators got thousands of dollars more and cooks got a few hundred.

But it was the second time pay raises were on the ballot, and we wanted to hire some new, young teachers, and darned if the cooks weren’t working for poverty level wages, so….

WE’VE GOT TO GET TOUGHER. Every time you turn around, your school, town, hospital, or county needs more: more staff, more equipment, more income, and more state and federal legislation to fix things. Yet after several decades of decline in our most cherished institutions, it’s obvious that more money and more bureaucracy aren’t the solution.

We’re in a recession; the rich are getting richer, and the rest of us are getting shafted. Blame whoever you will: school boards, city councils, administrators, corporations, the media, senators…. But it’s us little guys who really need a change, so it’s up to us.

Right now, we are sliding straight downhill, and we desperately need to veer in a new direction. The challenge lies in figuring out how to do that before it’s too late.

— Martha Quillen