I attended a spirited Kirkwood School Board meeting Monday night, July 19. The school board was to decide on whether to place two bond proposals before the voters. The public was invited before the meeting began to make comments. The room was full, extra chairs were brought in, and citizens talked about their concerns and/or opinions about the proposals. Ten people spoke in opposition to both proposals, two people were in favor of these proposals, and one taxpayer was in support of one, but not the other.
You can access the bond language here:
One is a $33 Million bond for school additions and improvements, the other is for a $15 Million bond for an aquatic center and other athletic improvements. Note the language explaining the bond proposals: "The two ballot proposals address facility issues and are a response to the following immediate needs of the district's long-range facilities plan". What is so immediate about enormous expansions at elementary schools and a swimming pool for a district that projects a flat enrollment over the next few years?
Many taxpayers may think supporting this bond issue is a good idea as they might agree with the all day kindergarten concept. Kirkwood presently has room for 1/2 day kindergartners, but there is not adequate room for full day enrollment for all students. What these same taxpayers may not realize is this proposal is not just for constructing new kindergarten rooms. The first bond proposal expands ALL classroom grades and gymnasiums. Upon visual review of the proposed master plan drawing, three elementary schools appear to almost double in size. However, the population of school children in the Kirkwood School District is not increasing. (It has stayed at a 5,000 enrollment level for the last decade). Why do we need these large schools for an area that is landlocked and thoroughly developed?
We will be writing about the district over the next several months, asking questions about the proposals themselves and the bond language used. What is NOT in the language of the proposals is as important as what IS contained in the proposals. Today, however, I want to focus on the nature, responsibility and conduct of the Kirkwood School District Board.
What IS the function of a school board? The language from the district's site states: "As elected representatives of the citizens of the Kirkwood School District, the seven-member Board of Education serves as the governing body for the community's public school system. The school board sets district policies, selects the superintendent of schools, adopts the annual budget, and determines the tax rate". The board is in charge, as the governing body for the schools, to approve ballot language for bond proposals.
Why would some taxpayers raise objections with these current bond proposals set forth by the Kirkwood School Board? We can't afford them (this District has experienced doubled tax revenues and spending the last 10 years), and they are luxuries, not needs (the half day kindergarten requirement mandated by the state is currently being met and the swim team practices at the nearby junior college). After listening to the Board give its reasons to support these proposals, I believe in this instance, it did not made a sound business and educational decision.
The majority of the taxpayers who appeared to make comments were against both proposals. After public comment, the Board made its decision. The superintendent had a prepared speech, he thanked everyone for their comments, and informed us the Board was approving both proposals to be placed on the ballot. We were thanked for our opinions, emails, phone calls, etc., but the message was apparent: the decision to approval the proposals was predetermined. This was our only public venue to voice our opinion, and while we were welcomed, our words were inconsequential to the outcome.
You can access the video below of the members' statements and separate videos may be posted at a later date of citizens' remarks. (An aside, a video such as this will be the only accurate record of your participation in a Kirkwood school board meeting. While your name will be listed as making a comment in the minutes, the content of your remarks , whether pro or con on an issue, are not documented. Citizen comments are not documented as they are not part of the public record. The meeting has not been officially called to order, so it is not legally necessary to record what citizens say).
Reviewing what the members said about their decision raises some interesting thoughts and questions. One member stated that "significant people in the community have been asking" the Board to bring this to a vote. According to the members, there has been continuous work on the facilities plan over many, many years. According to the members, this has been an ongoing process and it would appear intense pressure has been placed on this board for all day kindergarten and a swimming pool.
One member stated, "We are responding to the needs of our kids and wants of some taxpayers...we all share the same financial concerns you have...we are not robber barons out there spending money we don't have or try to be irresponsible...we really try hard". I would like to point out some troubling facts on spending money we don't have: the district is currently deficit spending from the operating fund, of which 80% supports teacher salaries and benefits. Next comes the question of responsible governance: supporting and allowing a vote on a huge expansion in a recession with a stagnant pupil population; does that seem like a sound business decision?
One member stated that he "struggled to support Proposal 2". He believes the "timing is difficult" and the question arises, "why now"? He believes there are benefits from all day kindergarten, and the low financing we can receive today would mean it would be cheaper for present day construction. He supports these proposals because they are "long term benefits" in "short term" economic pains. He makes good points that construction would be cheaper in today's market; however, if we are dipping deeper into our reserves (which we are) to meet budget, why is the Board presenting proposals to the voters which will keep them in debt? How does this school member know we are in a short term poor economic situation? Viewing the latest economic reports, it seems the US will not emerge from this recession for several more years. Our national debt is now in the trillions and we will find it difficult in the years to come to settle THIS debt, much less another local debt.
I would also like to see the reports the district uses regarding the definitive benefits to all day kindergarten. Again, look on the Internet. You will find reports on the pros and cons of each viewpoint. Each side can make good arguments. But even, as stated above, if a taxpayer believes all day kindergarten is desirable, Bond Proposal 1 goes far beyond constructing new kindergarten space.
I understand groups placing pressure on boards for their wishes and desires. I realize certain groups hold sway because of financial support they provide the district. However, the Board should remember its fiduciary responsibility for all Kirkwood taxpayers. This "group" the board kept referring to apparently kept asking for improvements and additions. One member stated that "this proposal that's coming before us tonight didn't originate with the School Board. The proposal originated with a group of community members and parents and school district leadership. This district has a long-term facility plan; this Board is responsible to update and try to fund...the pool has never been on the ballot...it is time to decide." The Board wants to put it to rest, "thumbs up, thumbs down" once and for all.
Does the Board represent a certain group or does it represent what is in the best interest of ALL the citizens? I appreciate the political process and a group wanting to place an issue on the ballot. However, in this economic turmoil and no student growth, these issues should never have been brought to the voters. Who is this "group" the Board keeps referring to in its statements?
The Board wants us to believe it is protecting democratic process by letting the voters decide this issue once and for all. Could the exasperation the members demonstrated be designed to lead us to believe they are being fair? I am certain the members are exasperated. But that is not the issue at hand. The board is washing its hands of the decision making process it is charged to perform as a governmental body. It is financially irresponsible for this board to place these proposals on the ballot at this time. What has not been said by the Board is...when big money is behind a ballot initiative, it is difficult to defeat. The taxpayers AT LARGE depend on their elected officials to make reasoned and sound decisions, NOT decisions made to appease those who have become impatient because long term wants (not needs) have not become realities.
The Kirkwood School board members should be reformers, NOT facilitators. We are facing turbulent times in uncharted waters and we need reformers who will protect the interest of ALL taxpayers, instead of facilitating the wishes for a certain segment of the population.