Fool Me Once...

Hello My Friends... I've Missed You!

What's on My Needles this Spring 
Although I've drafted a few blogs over the past 8 months, I haven't published anything lately - nor had I realized how long it had been since you'd heard from me. Life sometimes gets in the way of our creative pursuits, no matter how much we love them. Writing has always been my joy and my catharsis. As I write I create a place where I experience life and reflect upon how the world impacts me - and vice versa. So, of course I've missed blogging. (Full disclosure - I wrote this on Thursday and now, on Sunday morning I'm editing it hurriedly before meeting a friend for a run...)

This sunny morning I drove down Country Club on my way to my new job (yes, I have one, but that's not today's topic) and I got inspired... As MR puts it when we get into an intense discussion, "I felt a blog coming on." So I called her for feedback... and I promised to write two blogs. Here's the first. Enjoy!

Fool me once... Fool me twice...

A few times over the years I've succumbed to BRRSD's calls to action to get involved in a district-sponsored activity to improve the schools. The first time (aka fool me once) I joined a large strategic planning initiative. As a relatively new mom in the district, the exercise was eye-opening. Some of it was a bit silly - I really thought we'd end up singing kumbaya during the team building exercises - but I learned a lot. We broke into groups and gave impressions of how the district functioned.

Apparently others shared my views that the majority of the district's efforts went towards the prestigious AI program or kids with the most specialized needs. Whether or not it's only a perception was irrelevant, others expressed this concern. Hearing from them, I felt inspired to work to increase focus on kids in the middle. So after the initial weekend launch, I continued and joined a separate committee to identify and implement next steps. I got excited about "fixing" the language arts program, which I felt needed more attention in the elementary schools.

I was assigned to an action group charged with coming up with plans for one of the identified areas of weakness: I was placed in a group focused on overcrowding at the high school. I was out of my element - my kids wouldn't be in high school for at least five years. It seemed like a million years away (currently my daughter is a freshman in college and my son is a junior at Bridgewater high school, so today we're almost done). We studied information from a professional demographer. We looked at trends from local real estate agencies. We talked teacher-student ratios (this was prior to Christie's severe $10 Million cut to our budget) and we came up with solutions for what to do when the classes of 2014 and 2018 - the two largest cohorts ever - would be attending the high school at the same time.

We presented many proactive solutions:

  • Renting space from the office complexes that abet the school property
  • Changing class times to accommodate kids at attending at different times
  • Sending kids to Raritan Valley Community College for AP-classes 
  • Allow for early graduation for kids who have completed their required classes early (could involve summer school to finish, but they could then apply for spring start to college)
  • Promote (better) the excellent opportunities at our Somerset County VoTech
And lots of things I forgot nearly a decade ago when "long term planning" was the solution.

To my knowledge the district did not implement a single idea brought to them by this committee (my son, by the way, is a member of the "bubble" class of 2016). I was furious - and if I let myself be, I still am. All those thankless hours - months of meetings (I still had to pay for a sitter if my husband wasn't home), thrown away by a district (who knows, a powerful BoE or a powerful Administration, could have been either).

It happened again - several years later, I joined another committee (aka fool me twice). This time I was looking into how to fix disparity at the elementary level. Some schools were very crowded, others had ample space and extra classrooms. More hours, more demographers paid to present forecasts on solutions that didn't get implemented - this time it was the locals (I learned a new acronym, NIMBY - not in my backyard) AND the district who put the kibosh on several ideas my group put forth (although some were apparently agreed to), the most obvious - to me - weren't the way the district went.

But by then I was thinking in terms of budget. I didn't know the acronym at the time, but it became a question of ROI (return on investment). I didn't see the use of spending "tax-payer funds" on large strategic initiatives that go no where. Again, it makes the leadership feel like they are listening to the community without any reason to act.

So fast forward to 2017. These days, my first question to these e-mails is how much money is the district paying to conduct this strategic plan? Add the money and the time that teachers, administrators and community members will spend (both "donated" and "paid") on this wasted effort that falls on the deafest of ears, the BRRSD Administration and our Board of Education, and it's not something that I think is the best use of resources.

My experience over the last decade is that these initiatives are vast programs seeking "input," but really are smoke and mirrors designed to make the community think that their opinions matter when they don't. The BoE members do (vote, propose, support) what they want - Every. Single. Time. Asking others what they think makes them think they are doing the right thing. When really, it's always a foregone conclusion.

So, when I see my inbox fill with solicitations seeking "advice" on how the district should be run, I shy away from anything beyond filling in a quick climate survey or questionnaire. (The recent one on leadership? Ha! MR, I feel a third blog coming on...)

It is important to be involved in the community. Giving back is part of what makes life (or at least my life) worth living. But this spring I'm very happy to sit discovering new shows on Netflix. I'd take Last Tango in Halifax (don't get fooled by the premise or name, it's AWESOME!) over sitting around a conference room in a school library any night discussing my opinion on what would improve the district - but the next step of actionable insights? Can't fool me - the BOE have already decided what they want to do...

And in terms of building the budget? Pleeeease - the vast majority of funding is already pre-ordained to salaries and benefits. What's left are the essentials... our input is minimal.

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