The Final Indignity

Your trusty local reporter, as always selflessly volunteering for the betterment of the community, has never been thrown out of a public meeting. But, after being asked to attend the local school district's Budget Reduction Committee by Superintendent Hutchins, and soon after I'd seated myself, I got the bounce from the Friday morning event.

Having been invited for my alleged budgeting expertise (which I actually have, albeit not in educational circles) my presence seemed to unnerve the school staffers who made up the committee. Also on hand was Bev Dutra of Philo, whose budget and educational credentials are more than alleged because she spent her working life in edu-administration.

The meeting got off to an uncomfortable start. Before committee chair and high school principal Jim Snyder could even begin, former school board member Eric Arbanovella, OCD, emphatically told the committee that they were violating a board bylaw regarding committee membership. Quickly working himself into a major tiz as a puzzled audience looked on, Arbanovella concluded by demanding that the bylaw be strictly adhered to. He then strode to the conference table where he slammed a copy of the highlighted bylaw down on the table and fairly shouted, "And that's all I have to say!" as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Several of the women in the room (most of whom I don’t know and was not introduced to) seemed uncomfortable with the presence of Dutra and myself, expressing concerns about confidentiality, whether or not the meeting should be open to the pesky public, whether the meeting was properly noticed, who could or could not vote on various budget recommendations, what the agenda should be, and so forth.

After a short and oddly heated exchange with one of the school staffers, Ms. Dutra concluded that her input was not welcome so she gathered up her papers and left in a huff.

That left only yours truly as "the public." I explained that I was there at the pleasure of the district and that if they wanted to consider the meeting to be an ordinary staff meeting instead of an open public meeting, that would be fine; I’d be happy to leave. After several more minutes of somewhat tense and apologetic discussion, the school people concluded that it would be better to treat it as a staff meeting not open to the public.

So I voluntarily departed, relieved of the responsibility of spending six more hours of unseemly behavior and confused dithering when all I hoped to contribute was a few suggestions about how to form their recommendations, how to prioritize them, how to deal with capital equipment expenditures and reserve funds, how to avoid laying anybody off via schedule and operating hours adjustments and voluntary hour reductions, how to distinguish between expenditures that could be postponed and expenditures which must be cut, how to handle future revenue questions for both this fiscal year and next, etc..

Before she left, Ms. Dutra handed out her own written list of budget reduction suggestions which were much more blunt and specific:

“Cut 90% of all travel and conference money. Cut all but emergency staff overtime. Cut 100% of all consulting or staff education money — as an alternative request that staff with union support develop and present internal professional growth/study programs. Cut or reduce instructional aide positions in regular and special ed classrooms, perhaps using class size as the major criteria or have teachers share half-day instructional aides. Combine or reformat all administrative assistant positions. Reduce maintenance, and consider possible maintenance reorganization and consolidation. Continue to reduce cafeteria overruns. Ask faculty to embark on a study project to combine or block classes (the old example of English and social studies taught by one teacher). Encourage reduced time/pre-retirement opportunities for all staff and faculty (Willie Brown Act). Pull out of the budget crunch with the focused future goal — a commitment to raise teacher salaries (for original employment and to retain quality staff and reward years of work in this district). Establish ongoing budget committees in both campuses with the goal of educated contributions by district committees and consistent fair input from staff on a regular basis which would quiet emotional reactivity.”

What rational educator could argue with this? The room should have been grateful that Mrs. Dutra had produced a rational, eminently do-able way forward.

None of Ms. Dutra’s input ever made it to the table. Neither did mine.

However, according to the preliminary agenda that Mr. Snyder had prepared, subjects that would make it to the table included:

“Transportation, preschool, half-time superintendent, half-time administrative assistant/half-time high school assistant (split between sites)- small savings but no one loses job. High School Dean position, reduce mechanic position to half-time mechanic — half time bus driver. Reduce one bus driver (maybe shift to full-time grounds), maintenance position, supply budgets/ordering, others?”

Even if all these things were done, and some of them for safety reasons should most definitely NOT be done, they wouldn't come near closing the budget gap.

Conspicuously missing from Mr. Snyder’s list was anything having to do with teachers, not to mention lawyers and public relations consultants, and other outside costs.

The Budget Reduction Committee was scheduled to continue their proceedings most of the day Friday. They are supposed to prepare some recommendations for the school board in the next few weeks, in time for the Board to consider and vote on recommendations and for the district to submit its final balanced budget to the County Office of Education sometime before the end of March.

We wish them luck.

PS. I should point out that most of the people in that dreary gathering seem to assume that their beloved community newspaper is firmly allied with Mrs. Hutchins, the superintendent who is obviously the root of their unhappiness. Evaluated from a fiscal perspective, we understand staff unhappiness. The Superintendent, backed by her board of trustees, made a couple of hires and fires that cost the district a lot of time and money for buyouts plus the district's bumbling lawyers, self-certified educational lawyers who are always great ones for running up their billable hours and passing out bad advice that costs even more money. No, we don't have any personal beef with Mrs. Hutchins. How could we? We don't work for her. All we know about the seething, super-secret workings of Boonville Unified is what we see at the meandering meetings we occasionally attend. We do think, however, that Mrs. Hutchins stepped into a no-win situation bequeathed her by the previous administration, an administration that didn't supervise anyone, that ran the district like some kind of half-assed commune. A new person appears, exerts a little authority, which Ms. Hutchins was hired to do, and the communards start whining, and are still whining, nostalgic for the halcyon days of "full-time pay for half-time work," in the bracingly true assessment of Debbie Sanchez. If the snivelers reject out of hand positive suggestions for righting their district's fiscal ship, whose fault is that? It isn't the Superintendent's, and it's only partly the School Board's for not itself getting it done. PPS. There's also the female boss prob in a school constellation dominated by other females. Just saying, but a good part of the criticism we hear of Ms. Hutchins is purely subjective, not based on anything at all but vague hostilities having nothing to do with the educational mission, whatever that is anymore. As many women will admit when the sisterhood isn't listening in, they'd rather work for a man than a woman, other things being equal.

6 Responses to "The Final Indignity"

  1. Michael Slaughter   March 2, 2018 at 4:05 pm

    “[Several women] seemed uncomfortable with the presence of Dutra and myself…”

    No, not “myself.” The word is “me.”

    Reply
    • mr. wendal   March 2, 2018 at 6:12 pm

      I’m glad I’m not alone in knowing that “me” and “myself” are not interchangeable. I enjoy Mr. Scaramella’s columns in general but he must have been bitten by the bug. There seems to be be a contagious revulsion to uttering the word “me” going around but substituting “myself” makes a person sound not very bright. Will someone who does this please explain their reasoning?

      The incorrect use of “myself” has become common. It’s heavily misused by both elected officials and staff at all of the local public meetings and I find it distracting.

      And, as heard for the past year or so at those public meetings, why is “robust” used as the only adjective for something that’s strong or healthy or vigorous or…? Everything is robust. There must be something in the water.

      Reply
      • izzy   March 3, 2018 at 2:38 pm

        Just a theory here: maybe myself sounds a bit more removed and objective than the more intensely personal me. We inhabit that pronoun. And objectivity must be projected in the public sphere, unconsciously or not. Or else. As though there was such a thing.

        Reply
  2. Mark Scaramella   March 3, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    So… Let’s see. Grammar and word choice (of one (1) word) is more worth commenting on than the content of the piece. Teachers unwilling to deal with budget problems, staffers refusing ordinary public input, impenetrable school budgets, major administrative errors (all metaphors for public ed in general)… No comment.

    Right. One more metaphor, I guess.

    But yes, I’ll surely watch myself and myself’s word choices in the future. In exchange, maybe commenters can offer to pay more attention to content.

    Reply
  3. Eric Sunswheat   March 4, 2018 at 7:37 am

    Content of the article appears to be irrefutable and remarkable, thus the commenters sublime praise is expressed by quibbling over one word, an exercise in rudimentary grammar education, that seemingly miffs the author at first glance.

    Reply
  4. Betsy Cawn   March 4, 2018 at 10:45 am

    The reporter who finds himself or herself in the situation described in “The Final Indignity” affords the readers an individually unique insight into these typically civil proceedings, while attempting to minimize the role of the self who experiences the event as a resident relying on the services of the agency conducting the process. As a “member of the public” who engages with many quasi-legislative, quasi-jurisdictional bodies (committees, boards, and commissions created by governmental authorities), I often find myself stifling my personal reactions — to incompetent or ignorant or downright rude appointees (and equally inept “staff”) — while functioning as an individual participant in the organization’s conduct of publicly-funded health and safety operations on which my own life may some day depend.

    Participating as a “self” in the existential sense (referent to time and place) requires putting “oneself” aside for the duration of the group interaction, which may later be described as an event that “I” attended, or an experience that affected “me” — but the natural inclination of a participant-observer to minimize the focus on one’s personal experience invites the common misuse of “myself” that is the least of the concerns this essay raises.

    I, myself, am more concerned about lack of accountability and effective action planning by a body of decision makers whose determinations can directly impact my community, neighborhood, family, and individual health. The particulars of this committee’s dismal performance are examples of commonly encountered public service intermediaries, few of whom are actually “supervised” by their founding agencies.

    If the school district’s Board of Trustees accepts the Budget Committee’s ineffective decision-making (as reported), the public will — as usual — pay the price in lost assets and wasted time. Isn’t that the important matter at hand?

    P.S. — The direct role of local residents in the conduct of public education, environmental health, law enforcement, and municipal services is one of the most important aspects of rural life; the importance of having reliable reportage on these nearly invisible governance systems is critical to the health of our small communities. Long live the AVA.

    Reply

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