Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Open Mike Night in the RISD

Among the things I learned not in school but at a school board meeting, I can now add the word "recognee". Google doesn't find the word in any dictionary but it's a word all right. You know what it means without needing a dictionary to tell you. And it was used in public with the audience understanding the speaker's meaning. That's how language works, so it's a word. (By the way, Google records only 226 hits on the word "recognee" in an advanced search of billions of documents in its vast database. Try to come up with some other somewhat plausible word that scores more than 0 but fewer than 226 hits. It's not easy.)

The recognees were teachers and students honored for outstanding achievement by the Richardson school board (RISD) at its regular meeting Monday night. Honored were All-State musicians (RISD has one of the best music programs in the state, no, in the nation), art students who won scholarships and awards, schools that won national recognition for high performance, and teachers who won state or national awards (Jim Ledford is an RISD treasure who was named a national finalist for the "2011 Positive Coaching Alliance Double Goal Coach Award." Try parsing that. It sounds more like a trick play you call when you're down by two touchdowns with time running out in a football game.)

After the awards, the school board quickly went through the rest of the agenda, approving items on the consent agenda, recognizing gifts and gaveling the meeting to a close.

The only unscripted part of the meeting was the Visitors section, where members of the public address the school board on any topic they choose. After the jump, this week's two visitors.


Open mike night in local government sometimes brings out the nuts and kooks. Monday night wasn't like that. There were two rational RISD residents who voiced their concerns about providing good education in the RISD and the cost of providing that education.

The first visitor lobbied the school board to spend more money, although he didn't put it like that. He wants the RISD to open a magnet school for talented and gifted students. Or at least I think that's what he wants. He started by comparing the RISD to neighboring school districts, where he said children graduate with "three or four majors," whatever that means. He offered to explain, offline, his suggestion for a fast track for high achievers. He did not acknowledge the RISD's existing magnet schools, its REACH program for elementary students or its Advanced Placement classes in the high schools that can lead to students earning college credits. Can the RISD do more? Sure, and the school board acknowledged as much during its last superintendent search, when the school board said it wanted to raise the low bar the legislature uses to measure success (i.e., TAKS testing). But getting there has now been made much more difficult with the state's $27 billion budget deficit and the Legislature's threatened cutbacks in education funding. Good idea or not, starting a talented and gifted magnet school in the RISD is almost certainly not affordable right now given the parsimony in Austin.

Which brings us to the second visitor, who lobbied the school board to spend less money, although he didn't put it like that. He had several complaints.

First, he accused the school board of approving a $170 million bond proposal without getting any public input. I don't know where he's been, but the school board has had this bond proposal on its meeting agenda numerous times. All regular weekly school board meetings offer opportunities for the public to speak. The school district held at least four town hall meetings specifically to get public feedback. And, technically, the school board didn't approve the bond proposal. It approved putting the bond proposal up for public vote, the ultimate public input.

The visitor's second complaint was that the school board should not approve a capital spending program before the operational budget is set. Using this logic, one could never set a capital budget. State law mandates a public vote to issue bonds and the timing of such an election forces decisions before the next year's operational budget is fixed. Besides, there'll be numerous annual operating budgets set during the life of the bonds issued this year for capital expenditures. It's impossible to pair them up one to one.

In practice, this is not as problematic as one might think. The items paid for with the operational budget and the items paid for with the capital budget are different. We know what's needed to maintain roofs, A/C units, plumbing, computer networks, etc., even if we don't know exactly how much money Austin will allow us to spend in the classrooms. Finally, it's not true that the RISD is, as the visitor charged, "without a clue" what the operational budget will be. We all know it's going to be bad. We just don't know exactly how bad. Still, the RISD does have an informed estimate.

This visitor claimed that the RISD's statement that no tax increase is needed is false. His reasoning is based on the fact that if the RISD did not pass this bond package, then as it pays off the balance of old bonds it could cut taxes no longer needed to pay for the old bonds. So, by his reckoning, because the RISD is not cutting taxes, it's actually raising taxes. That logic requires either some creative language skills or some creative math skills. I hope it's not the kind of creative thinking that is being fostered in our RISD classrooms.

Pay close attention to what these two visitors have to say. It's just possible that they have aspirations of speaking from the other side of the microphone at some future school board meeting. One has already filed to run for school board. And the other? We'll see.

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