Speaking Of Students

I turned on Channel 79 tonight expecting vitriol and venom.

The show was the RTM education budget discussion. After decades worth of Town Hall meetings — from busing Bridgeport students and recalling a Board of Ed chairman to bundles of budget battles — I thought I knew the drill.

During public comment, speakers would sputter and spew.  They’d impugn opponents’ motives and integrity, stopping just short of assailing their ancestors.  It would be a nasty night, and when it was over I’d want to take a shower.

It’s only 10 p.m., and this thing could go on until tomorrow.  But so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear reasoned discussion, rational discourse, even dollops of humor.  It came from both sides of the aisle.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised too by the vigorous defense of our school system by folks on the other side of the aisle from me — citizens who in past years have wielded sharp elbows but who tonight embraced the importance of education, and the way it is delivered in Westport.

But I was most pleasantly surprised by the speeches of the youngest attendees.  Unlike me, they did not sit home watching on TV.  They got themselves to Town Hall.  And then they stood up to speak, in public, in front of a bunch of adults.

The students — many from Staples, some (particularly impressively) still in middle school — were poised and passionate.  They were articulate and clear.  They were funny.

They talked about their lives.  They talked about the importance of preparing themselves to live in a global village.  One quoted from the Board of Ed’s own mission statement.

Now it’s 10:15 p.m.  The RTM just voted overwhelmingly not to restore $1.4 million previously cut.  Odds are, more disappointment lies ahead for our young people.

But whatever the outcome, they’ve already done themselves proud.  They’ve done their parents proud, their school system proud and their town proud.

Maybe their calm yet insistent presence helped create the overall civil tone for tonight.  If so, they taught us well.

5 responses to “Speaking Of Students

  1. I agree that seeing Westport students flex their intellectual muscle and communicate eloquently on behalf of restoring the monies cut from the budget serves as testimony on the excellence of our schools. It is disappointing to them, and in turn, to some of us that their pleas went unanswered. However, there seems to be an alternative path. Based on conversations I’ve had with sources within the RTM and in town government, the truth seems to be that the RTM is disenchanted with the School Superintendent’s performance. Last night’s refusal to restore the $1.4 million was a vote of no confidence in him and in the way in which he’s managed the school budget allotted to him. There are whispers of wretched excess that remains in the budget: bureaucratic positions that seem unnecessary, wasteful spending to use up excess budgeted funds by year’s end rather than providing incentives to save, and of expensive computing hardware being tossed in the trash rather than being repurposed at another school. Increased transparency and engaging in a dialog about how to save and about what should and should not be cut seems a path he could take to save our schools from financial harm. In fact, it could become a “teaching moment”, in which everyone involved in schools could innovate to do more with less to save the beloved programs that remain, and to restore those like Collaborative, that have already fallen victim to the budgetary ax.

  2. jim Goodrich

    Thanks for your posting Krista. I was at the RTM meeting last night listening to overwhelming support for reinstatement as well as acknowledgement by RTM members that e-mails and calls to them also supported reinstatement.

    The negative vote for reinstatement was surprising. What is more surprising is that the negative vote is all about personalities; “whispers of wretched excess”, and so forth. Thank you for helping me understand what was going on behind the scene. It has, however, caused my other concerns.

    The very idea that RTM members would find it acceptable to punish 6,000 students because of their annoyance with the Superintendent is nothing less than stunning. The fact that RTM members even lacked the courage to state their specific concerns is simply unacceptable.

    The example set by the RTM members to the many students in attendance have left those students with a less than positive impression of their local government.

  3. I was also there last night and was quite impressed by the students and the adults who were advocating reinstatement. Unfortunately I was not shocked by the outcome of the night as it appeared beforehand and during the hearing that many of the RTM members had already made up their minds and were merely letting the public vent as a formality.

    To hear that one of the possible reasons for the cut was a personal grudge between the RTM and the superintendent is disheartening to say the least.

    If certain representatives are guilty of this, they need to deal with this situation on a more dispassionate basis or we should find people who can better represent the interests of their constituents. We deserve better of our RTM in these challenging times.

  4. Luisa Francoeur

    Maybe it is time for a “town manager” instead of un-representative town meeting.

    I’d also like to see the economic “back story” get some play as in exactly what diminished position is the Town of Westport in due to “the economy”? Are property tax receipts down substantially? Any other indicators?

  5. Chris Grimm

    As with many items that come before RTM, a well organized group of speakers does not necessarily represent the views of the majority of Wesport residents, right or wrong.

    The RTM is only the last body to hear the budget. In past years, when there have been public statements at the RTM budget meetings to cut the budget, those who would have suffered from the cuts have argued “listen to the BOE and the BOF!” Well, that’s what the RTM did this time, as they do every year. Now RTM shouldn’t have listened? It’s all about whose ox is gored.

    The “bottom line” is that unemployment in this country is 8.9% and we are in a recession. But initial budget proposals would have resulted in substantial tax increases to every homeowner. Fiscal discipline was overdue. A Town Manager (within State law) would have NO influence on this process. Get the facts about governance before you trash RTM because you didn’t get the desired result on an issue, please.

    Anyone concerned about specific programs being cut should contact the BOE because they, not RTM, have the real ‘line item’ control.

    When I served on RTM, I saw the process as follows (others may fairly disagree):
    1. The Administration should represent what they feel is best for the students, with little regard elsewhere.
    2. The BOE, while informed by the Administration, the parents, and students, should be the policy makers and advocates for the education system, while keeping a more watchful eye on the budget, setting priorities amongst the items that are on the Administration’s wishlist.
    3. The BOF should consider the financial impact of the budget, insisting on fiscal responsibility, while having no say in education policy.
    4. The RTM, the court of last resort, reviews all of the recommendations and says yes, no, or revises the bottom line – but they have no line item say and can only review in the broadest terms.

    The irony of the process is that all parties can do a superb job, even though their recommendations may all be different. Personally, I tire of the piling on re the Superintendent, because I don’t expect him to ask for the same things that the BOE or BOF ask for, as his role is different from their roles. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t ask for what he asks for, but it doesn’t mean he should be given everything he asks for, either.

    These are all simply budgetary checks and balances. When there is no restraint at any level, spending goes out of control. That nobody thinks the budget is perfect probably means that it is a lot better than it has been in the past.