To the Editor,
Every year the editorial columns of the local press in Chatham are host to a ritual activity around school budget season (February-April). It typically follows the unveiling of the budget elements the board of education is contemplating for the
following school year and that needs to be voted on by the citizen of Chatham on the third week of April, ever year.
The editorial activity takes the form of a series of one page Op/Ed letters stating the contributor’s opinion about the merits or lack thereof of different choices facing our community regarding our tax funded public schools. Different camps organize, meet on evenings and weekends, list talking points and strategize about how to counter the other camp’s slogans. Flyers are printed, lawn signs flourish and a race to occupy the local media and front yard spaces takes place.
In summary, the popular belief is that one’s position will prevail in convincing the voters, if it is communicated through a loud, frequent and simple message.Similarly, year round, those who do attend the Chatham Board of Education meetings that take place every other Monday at 7:30 p.m. will find a striking similarity of method with the other “opportunity” for community input, called “Public Commentary”, which is a three-minute air time to take the mic and declaim one’s opinions on different topics. Again, camps (for or against different projects) get organized to state loud, frequent and simple messages with the hope to impress and influence the board members.
It is hard to believe that this quasi-medieval process that is based on how large one’s clan is and how big their mouthpieces are can be a substitute to a modern, informed and democratic process to manage the affairs of a rather educated community. As the custodians of the most valuable asset in the K-12 institution, i.e the time our kids spend at school, we owe them something better. A process that genuinely invites the positive contribution of community members, makes every effort to welcome the tax-payers opinion and take the high road to build consensus – rather that shortcuts catering to otherwise well meaning community special interest groups.
But that cannot be achieved if the only avenue for contribution is a one-page letter to the press during budget season or a three-minute monologue during the board of education meetings. Such process does take place in neighboring communities: The Madison School District has its “coffees” where community members are invited to work-sessions, pulling out statistics, numbers and figures to argue their points, not catchy slogans. New Providence has its strategic planning series where topics, ranging from class size to sports to professional development are covered month after month, year round. Millburn has its 5-year plan process that actively seeks the input of community members willing to lend their expertise: the bankers in town help the finance committee; the arts professionals help build and active and innovative program; the engineer and scientists helps keep the curriculum on the cutting edge.
I believe Chatham residents to be smart enough to recognize a good practice when we see one and a community supported strategic plan for our school district is in my opinion an essential missing piece.
We are lucky to have great teachers able to skillfully deliver the instruction our school management crafts; and a competent school administration able to execute on the strategic direction it is given by our board of education that oversees it; and a dedicated board of education able to seek, distill and relay the will of our community. I am also convinced that we have community members willing and able to lend their expertise, do their homework, read-up on rules and regulation of public education, explore best practices in education, understand expectations and requirements for success in college and careers and meaningfully contribute to informing the difficult educational choices and the corresponding financial implications for our community. Our board of education should tap on that resource and pull our community out of antiquated practices of back-door lobbying. That would not be a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
Without a strategic plan that will uncover the investment needs for our school districts for the next 3-5 years, I and others would be very hesitant to support a bond referendum that will tie our hands for the next 20 years, max out our borrowing capacity after we have depleted – for good use- our $4M capital reserve in the last 3 years. The process of building a strategic plan will certainly highlight future needs. A few come to mind:
1. Will we keep the class size for our elementary schools at 25 or does best practice suggest we try to reduce that to a more manageable 18-20 kids/class?
2. Will the adoption of Next Generation Science Standards suggest alternative ways of teaching the sciences – more applied science, more lab-time and can our aging lab science infrastructure support that?
3. Will the staffing profile need to be adjusted, integrating educators with multi-disciplinary backgrounds or a higher percentage of educators with advanced degrees?
4. Will longer school days become the norm and what cost does that expanded educational opportunity come with?
5. Will the generalization of project based learning call for different class-settings (more/smaller classrooms/meeting rooms) vs. the current traditional “30 seats facing a teacher”
Those and many other questions do have a significant impact on the education of our kids and some of them do require significant investment in facilities and personnel. Whether we choose to adopt them or not will depend on their merit and whether we, tax-payers, can afford them or not. But I would hate for us to rule them out, just because we will have committed our limited funds to other projects that with hindsight might be judged as less necessary.
Given the time constraint, let’s do the smart and prudent thing. Propose to the tax payers to invest on those projects that are more consensual and evaluate the more controversial projects in the context of a strategic plan that uncovers and evaluates all the needs. And in any case, let’s ask our board to not artificially bundle these projects. By keeping the choice in the hands of the voters, the board members will fulfill their obligation of representation and avoid overstepping on the voters right to choose with reasonable granularity what they want to support.