I consider myself fortunate that the LIRR didn't continue its stretch of significant delays, and that our babysitter was free last night, so both Lauren and I could attend the Board of Education meeting.
It was, by no means, my first board meeting. I've covered them for various newspapers, attended SWR BOE meetings when I lived in Wading River and have a pretty good feel for what they're supposed to be like, especially when big budget items come to the table. That said, it was my first Sachem BOE meeting, and it was a doozy.
First, just some general observations:
- Sachem, you have a very patient and very gracious board. The board went out of its way to allow parent and resident commentary. It's not always the case that ad hoc comments from the audience get the attention of the board while they're in the middle of a motion. I've got to hand it to Mr. Falco. Dude can run a meeting. I think he did an admirable job balancing the need for additional public comments with getting through the painful process of making budget cuts.
- Yeah, it's annoying when people don't 'get it.' It's annoying everywhere. When you've got critical budget issues on the table, people show up who otherwise haven't been regular or even semi-regular attendees. (Me included.) Some of those people are going to be unfamiliar with the process, or with Robert's Rules or with goings-on from the past few board meetings.
- We were harsh on the finance guy. Mr. Singer, I believe. (It's tough to see who is who from the back of the auditorium.) District residents and teachers were jumping out of their seats to point out that he didn't know what dollar figure represented the total number for cuts that needed to be made that evening. But if you listened carefully, he answered every question put to him accurately. The confusion stemmed from having cuts on the table and approving cuts in the last round of meetings. Simply put, you want your finance guy to accurately answer whatever budget line-item questions are put to him. He's not your big-picture guy who's going to stitch it all together for you to present a comprehensive picture. Your board president is.
- A lot of people don't understand these are working meetings. There's a lot of outrage when people hear "this is the first time I'm seeing these numbers" from a board member or there's actual work being done during the meeting. That shouldn't be a surprise to people. State law dictates that this business be conducted out in the open, so it's not realistic for people to expect that business is already conducted by the time the meeting rolls around. This is what's supposed to happen. Again, not a big deal (see #2) until the outrage gets dialed up to the point it starts derailing the meeting.
Anyway, I still have some unanswered questions. Lauren and I elected to leave when the guy in the Eli Manning jersey got up, and it became obvious he was asking questions that other folks had already covered in prior meetings. (See #2, again.) That, coupled with the fact that it was 90 degrees in the auditorium with a bazillion percent humidity, and that we had a babysitter at home about to make a three-figure sum watching our three kids, compelled us to bail.
My unanswered questions are thus:
- Who, specifically, directed our administrators to draw down our reserves starting in 2008? Without a name, the community can't hold that person accountable (assuming that person is an elected official) unless we know who it is. I start to get nervous when people say things like "We were told to draw down our reserves and then it would be made up to us." It smacks of "mistakes were made." I'm not hearing a name and it makes me nervous that perhaps there isn't anyone to hold accountable.
- What's the long-term plan? I know some of these financial developments are recent. As in "last week" recent. But we knew the reserves were being drawn down to unacceptable levels back in July. Where's the plan?
With regard to #2, you saw some proactivity when certain board members insisted we start building up our reserves again, lest we end up in the same boat a few months down the road. Sixteen grand is nothing when it comes to the total budget. It might as well be zero. You can't manage cash flow on a $300MM budget with $16 grand in the bank. Period. But while we saw proactivity when it came to the reserves, we didn't hear a tremendous lot about long-term plans for efficiency, reducing costs and addressing the revenue side of the equation.
I'll also bring up two things I'd like to address. To paraphrase one of the meeting speakers, I doubt these will make me popular.
First, let me say that I get how teacher unions work. My dad taught for a krillion years at Comsewogue. We used to get all the NYSUT stuff at home. I identify with teachers and I get it. I do value teachers tremendously. But I will say that the "it's all about the kids" rhetoric coming from the teachers rings a bit hollow when teachers show up solely to represent their self-interest. To give you an example, when the board made its cuts to clubs, a lone teacher started clapping behind me. She was immediately glared down by red-shirted teachers sitting around her. It was almost comical. And it suggests that she would have continued to applaud that sad compromise, but her teacher buddies reminded her it was a lost pay opportunity for the teachers. As the board intimated several times, no one likes to make these painful cuts, but if you're going to show up solely to represent your own interests, just cut the bullshit and say that. There's nothing wrong with coming to a meeting to represent your own interests, but it gives people pause when it's in the guise of "for the kids" and in-meeting behavior reflects something else.
Secondly, I'm a bit concerned that somebody may have misinterpreted some of my comments concerning executive session on Sachem Moms. Read the law, please. (Section 105) When I raised the issue in a thread on Sachem Moms, it was because I was listening to the audio recording of a prior meeting, and I thought the reason I heard on the recording that was used to justify the board adjourning to Executive Session wasn't particularly valid. At this meeting, though, when the board went into Executive Session, the reason it gave was specific, clear and wouldn't cause a reasonable person to believe the board was discussing another matter that ought to be discussed in the open. So I'm worried somebody misinterpreted what I said and opted to act on it. Hopefully not. I was out of the room and taking a walk in the much-cooler hallway when this happened, but my wife filled me in when I got back.
Anyway, I'm hoping to be more involved in the goings-on of the school district. I'm just not sure what that level of involvement can be at this point. Realistically, I work in the city and commute for over four hours per day. I'm not home enough during the week to be able to volunteer for things, run for positions or make large time commitments that might take me away from my business. To the extent my very capable wife has time, though, I know she'll maybe be able to take some good ideas to the community. I'm looking forward to that.