The Manistique Area Schools Board meeting of 03/04/02 started off with some introspection by various members, concerning the results of the school millage ballot proposals of 02/26/02. The thoughts expressed varied from a degree of elation for the passage of the outdoor athletics facilities proposition to a degree of depression concerning the resounding NO votes for the two propositions concerning the renovation and replacement of academic infrastructure.
Generally speaking, the general discussion was typified by "...surprised and saddened...", "...time to regroup...", "...stumped...", and "...back to the drawing board...".
No discussion of consequence considered why the two academic related propositions failed or what options might be considered to turn the negative response around.
Following the election results discussion, the Board considered the projected consequences of an operations and maintenance budget revenue loss, due to some sixty less students to be enrolled, next year.
Following that depressing discussion, the Board then considered the priorities of infrastructure related projects to be completed with the limited Public Improvement Funds that accrue due to the closing of the Hiawatha Elementary School. It was painfully obvious that only a portion of the projects could be completed, with the limited funds, as the consequences of accelerating infrastructure deterioration, new technology and academic facilities requirements vied for steadily decreasing funding. It was equally evident to Board members, expressed in their discussions, that, judging by the recent election results, the majority of the voting community cared not.
To round out an agenda of generally depressing business, came a "public comments" tongue lashing of Board members by the recent past president of the Board, Jim Anderson. In a forthright and prickly style, he pointed out the Board's lack of leadership, and its inability to establish priorities and follow them through to completion. He also stated that, with the decreasing significant failures of the past four academic facilities related millage proposals, a "sinking fund millage" proposal is "...about the only way it will be done...".
Mr.Anderson's comments addressed part of which I had intended to touch upon, when I addressed the Board. Following Mr. Anderson, I addressed the Board concerning my perception that since last Summer, when I first took a serious interest in school issues, I had seen or heard nothing of consequence that indicated any substantial public support of any of the election propositions, by any government, organization, business or individual entity, except one.
That entity, Paul Olsen, reporter of the Pioneer Tribune, has been, with his detailed reporting, the only one to draw a complete picture, in words, of where public education in Schoolcraft County is going.
M.A.S. School Superintendent Ken Groh confirmed my limited observations and conclusion that, in fact, for the latest election effort, no significant endorsement was offered from, or came from, any significant section of the community, and no endorsements were solicited by the M.A.S. Board.
There will be many that will take Mr. Anderson to task, for what he said and how he said it, even though what he said was earned. If one considers the significant lack of public support, at the polls and from the various community entities and "leaders" that beat their chests about what they do for the community, it is obvious that the lack of leadership charge can be leveled at most organizations and individuals of influence, in Schoolcraft County. Given the content, context and meaning of Mr. Anderson's message, it would have been inappropriate and hypocritical of him to deliver it in terms of glowing praise and recommendation.
My perception and conclusions go beyond Mr. Anderson's presentation. I concluded, long ago, that most local folk in elected public office have less than the general public welfare as their standard for action, and a significant portion of the private sector would have it stay that way. Whether those in public office serve special interests by design, incompetence, ignorance or stupidity, is of no consequence. The effect is the same, and relative to most issues that impact the general public, the general public pays the bill.
For those that might wish to attach a perceived lack of leadership to Ken Groh, keep in mind, it is Mr. Groh's responsibility to administer policy established by the Board. He is bound by the same rules that bind City Manager Housler as the administrator of Manistique City Council policy. He can suggest policy alternatives but it is not the responsibility of, and it is not desirable for, the Superintendent of Schools, or the City Manager, to determine or lead the establishment of public policy, as they are paid policy administrators, not elected policy makers.
It took the failure of three millage proposals to prompt me to find out, for myself, why the M.A.S. Board insisted that new and upgraded educational facilities were required. Now that I understand the background issues and reasons, I am supportive of the Board's millage goals, but I still fail to see significant leadership and action required to achieve general public acceptance and support of the Board's millage goals. Relative to "hard sell" public projects, it is guaranteed that with little effort come little results, as the fourth failed millage election may confirm.
I fail to see easily accessible, open and effective communication channels between the Board members and the general public, beyond the open public meetings and the coverage by the Pioneer Tribune newspaper. Both those public channels leave one and all open to recrimination and abuse from members of the community that express their political opinions outside of the context to which the opinions relate. That leaves one communication channel left, the secret ballot box, whereby individuals may express themselves effectively, and anonymously. I suspect that message was not missed.
An interested observer might conclude, by the election results and the lack of public participation in meaningful public discourse with the Board, that the Board is out of touch with the general electorate. Late last Summer, Board members expressed their awareness of the apparent lack of communication between themselves and the public, and to the best of my knowledge have done little to change it.
An interested observer would be hard pressed to find any advertisement of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, postal addresses, or any other similar medium by which ideas might be shared outside of the public arena; without invading the domestic and professional privacy of the various Board members, or the interested citizen.
That same observer would be hard pressed to find significant use of available computer and television technology to enhance Board-to-public communication.
It might be reasonable, from an observer's perspective, to conclude that Board members do not wish to communicate with the electorate, or cannot take the "heat" that is, inevitably, part of uninhibited discourse. Maybe Board members are ashamed of promoting the important educational issues that they represent.
Board member protestations that "anyone can be heard at public meetings" and "its all in the newspapers" had far greater relevance during the birth of this nation, than now. In the 21st Century, most folk have many more interests and responsibilities vying for their time and attention, even if they were willing to suffer the consequences of voicing their opinions in public. The feeble, unfocussed and ineffective efforts of the Board and its known and unknown supporters, to gain the support of the Schoolcraft County community, are likely reflected by the last four millage election results.
It might be helpful for Board members to use other communications options, in addition to the efforts of the Pioneer Tribune and public meetings, to communicate the importance of the various school issues to the general public. It might be helpful to use, consistently, all available, effective and affordable methods of information dispersal and discourse with the public. It might be helpful to empathize with all views, before espousing policy that spits in the face of many. It might be helpful to consider those facets of human nature that are motivated by perceived gain and loss. It might be helpful to justify more decisions based on objective information, rather than offering "feel good" solutions based on personal opinion and rationalization. It might be helpful to admit mistakes, when recognized, and act, subsequently, to avoid similar mistakes.
It might be helpful to develop a safe degree of insensitivity to personal disparagement while developing a greater degree of sensitivity to the perspective of others. It might be helpful to play the "Devil's advocate" when considering the potential merits and value of the perspective of all that have the courage to voice an opinion. It might be helpful to consider the possibility that any justified criticism has merit, and extract and use whatever pertinent value may be evident.
It might be helpful to remember that most rational folk will hold public officials responsible and accountable, to one degree or another, for reasons more or less applicable to public reasoning and decisions made. Those decisions, that will impact in a favorable or unfavorable manner upon the perceived self interest of any member of the public, will elicit opinion and commentary that will be personal or issue related.
Personally, I give short shrift to "political correctness". I expect public officials to accept, as civilized educated adults, the fact that effective local public service is to appeal to the majority interest. If it is not to the general public's benefit to hold certain views, I expect serious attempts, by those holding public office, to modify those unhealthy opinions and get done what is required to maintain our relatively civilized and successful society.
Consistent, objective, just, and effective action, with the general public interest as the standard for choice, is what I want to see, regardless of whether I want it, or not, and regardless of whether others want to hear me and others "bitch" about it, or not. With the "glory" of public office, comes a degree of responsibility and accountability to the "I" in public, that stands to gain no particular benefit from any one public decision, but must still pay all the bills.
Board members might take a hard look at the Schoolcraft County's 2000 census demographics and make reasonable efforts to educate and persuade all those without K-12 children, to help pay for the upgraded school facilities that are required. That approach is more likely to lead to increased future YES votes, than more of the same, regarding the needed improvements.
Given the history of the failed efforts to influence passage of the last four school millage elections, one might conclude that extended efforts of a different type are needed to secure the revenues required.