Reflections on our democracy, and a School Committee meeting

Following tonight’s school committee meeting, I want to write down some of the thoughts I’ve been having over the past week, since the vote to remove $246,000 from our school budget passed.

I was surprised when Moderator Julia Califano read the vote tally. I’m not surprised by the number of people who voted to cut the funds. Those 401 voters sent a loud message. Certainly not all of them are against two tier busing and/or changing the start time, but it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of them are, even if only because it costs more than our current system. That wasn’t the loudest message I heard though - only the clearest.

Louder to me, was the indecipherable message sent by the 11,000 voters who did not cast a vote. Tonight, that message decoded itself in my mind:

This is why America, and more specifically, the Town of Barrington, is a representative republic.

We do not vote on every issue. We vote on deciders. The voters are a collection of special interest groups, from as few as the individual voter him/herself to as many as the size of a given voting populace -- maybe more. It falls on the elected officials to evaluate policy based on the entirety of their domain. In this case, the elected officials are our current School Committee members and the domain is the Barrington School District. This domain includes more than current students and faculty. It encompasses all students and faculty for years to come.

It is our job as the voting public to elect people who we think will decide things the way we think will favor us, and who are free of conflicts of interest, able to evaluate information and come to actionable determinations… people who are generally able to make “good decisions.” It is also our job as voters to lobby for what we want, individually and collectively as part of those various special interest groups. It is the job of the “anti-SST” voices to make their perspectives heard.

It is the job of the School Committee to synthesize our input with input from many other sources, and make the determination of what is best.

It is not their job to base policy on:

  • What will get them re-elected

  • How something may enrich their own lives

  • The latest petition

  • The opinion of employees (teachers) or customers (students)

  • What is the most popular or has the loudest support

Three years ago, the School Committee made a policy decision to align the district with medically recommended start times. In order to take feedback from the community -- all of our special interest groups -- into account and overcome some significant challenges, the implementation of that policy was delayed.

During the delay, there was an election. And, regardless of why people voted for whom they voted, three new “deciders” entered the process, who each have that same charge to determine what is best for the District.

I have heard teachers, parents and students all share publicly the obstacles they see and the reason why they don’t believe this change is the right decision. I’ve also heard teachers, parents and students each share why they believe it is the right decision.

This conversation has been happening for years, and the obstacles and reasons for delay haven’t changed. Some, however, have been mitigated. What has changed is that the School Committee has reached a point at which they believe they had gathered enough information to make a determination about how best to move forward. That doesn’t mean ignoring the groups who are against it. It means proceeding anyway. Just as a decision to change the policy and maintain current times would not mean they are ignoring the calls to start high school later. Both decisions have people supporting it and against it.

Moving to later start times and a two tier bus schedule has challenges. Some of those challenges are known and some are unknown. The fact that challenges exist without solutions is not evidence that the School Committee has not considered them. It is evidence only that they believe the benefits to the School District of this change outweigh the detriment of the challenges.

It is their job to make that decision. Having made it, is their duty to see it through.

That duty brings me to another element of our democracy and system of government: our Financial Town Meeting.

The FTM is the closest thing to direct democracy that we have, but it has some aspects that separate it from pure democracy, and I hope I do justice to illustrating why that’s a good thing.

First, the school budget is a single line item. If it weren’t, people could rally to cut football, or drama, or wood shop, or any number of things that only benefit a small percentage of students. The law protects the school budget as a single line item and entrusts the School Committee and District Administration to determine how best to use the funds.

Second, it does not set policy. This holds less true on the municipal side, because if you eliminate all the funds in a salary line item for a one person department, you’ve effectively dictated a policy that a town will not provide whatever service that department would have provided. However, it is still a budget vote, and not a policy vote.

I had concerns that if an overwhelming majority voted to defund the schools that the School Committee may change its policy. My concern wasn’t because I’m a staunch supporter of the policy (I’d say I’m a mild supporter of it, personally). It was because I believe in our system of government and have concerns about a growing trend of changing the rules when we’re not happy with the outcome. We’ve seen it happen at the national level increasingly over the past several years, and it’s happened in our State House. I did not want to see it make its way to our town.

Based on the recommendations of the Superintendent tonight, and the many public comments* voiced in support of the School Committee maintaining its current policy position of medically recommended start times, that concern has been set at ease, but a new one is emerging.

(*Full disclosure: those public comments were exceeded by the comments against new start times; I’d estimate around 2:1.)

I am weary of Committee on Appropriations members having voiced not only specific policy positions, but publicly calling for and distributing a statement of no confidence in the School Committee, based on a disagreement with that policy position. I am concerned that personal agendas on a Committee elected by a small fraction of the voting public (and in some cases, only appointed by the Council) may seek to undermine the policies set by broadly-elected legislators. But, that’s a topic for another day.

TL;DR - There are many challenges to implementing the District’s start time policy. There are many people who have expressed they are unhappy that it is going forward. It is unlikely to help everybody. The School Committee can recognize that, and I believe have communicated that they do in fact recognize that, and still determine the Barrington School District is better off maintaining that policy. Their exclusive authority to make that decision is how our government is designed to work. And, that’s a good thing.