Friday, May 27, 2016

And Now, Over to You

I spent most of the day yesterday out of the house and away from social media. By the time I got home at seven, I had missed all the excitement of the County Council meeting. Thank goodness I had two articles in the Howard County Times plus eyewitness accounts on social media to bring me up to speed.

If you haven't already, you might want to read:
The most immediate takeaway is that the County Council unanimously passed the County Executive's budget for the school system, not the substantially larger one submitted by Central Office. It maintains the specific allocations for negotiated compensation for teachers, for special education, and for the hiring of necessary new teachers. In addition,

[County Council Chair] Ball's proposed [budget oversight] committee will help the Council analyze the Board of Education's budget and provide recommendations in preparation for next year's fiscal year 2018 budget, Ball said. The audit, by the county's auditor, may include analysis of items that have been frequently questioned in public sessions during the current budget season, including special education, the school system's health and dental fund and legal services.

The County Council has spent a huge amount of time on this. In this decision we see the culmination of studying two different budgets, hearing from the school system and community members, working collaboratively with the County Executive and with eachother to respond to a difficult challenge. I think they have navigated this treacherous terrain astoundingly well.

Yesterday was a victory for community input, for financial prudence, and for transparency in our school system. But it wasn't the end of this matter by any stretch of the imagination. Tuesday morning, at 8 am (remember that?) the Board of Education will respond as they hold their annual meeting to vote on their budget.

I would like to believe that the message that the County Executive and the County Council are sending here will be received. Experience suggests that it will not. How will Central Office (instruct the Board to) respond? Tune in Tuesday morning to find out. The more eyes on this, the better.
Nice job, County Council. Enjoy your holiday weekend. You've certainly earned it.




Thursday, May 26, 2016

Commencement

Yesterday my social media feed was dominated by this photo:

Why? Some people mentioned possible costs, in light of the current budget crisis, but overall the reaction was not to money but to message: how does this look? What does it say to the community? On a day which should be about young people graduating and beginning new lives we are dumbstruck by another moment of institutional disconnect.

But let's move on. As parents we know that these days should be about the kids, and about the families who have supported them in their educational journey. Four years ago Tom Coale wrote this post about commencement speeches on HoCo Rising. It's especially relevant to me today. He quotes a speech by writer David Simon:

So for God's sake, fight. And get angry if you need to get angry. A little anger is a good thing if it isn't on your own behalf, if it's for others deserving of your anger, your empathy. And if you see the wrong around you getting bigger and uglier, then speak up, and call that wrong by its true name. Learn to refuse, to dissent. And in demanding something more from yourself and from your society, you may be surprised to find that you are not entirely alone. That other voices are saying the same things, that others want the same things.

That's a good message for everyone, not just for graduates. The title of his piece, "Yesterday Was About You, Tomorrow Is About Us" feels particularly apropos. When the new journey begins, it's a journey we take together.

I hear that by later in the day the specially-printed sign had been removed from the Superintendent's private trailer. Someone must have gotten the message that when it comes to commencement, it's not about you, it's about us.




 

 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Not-So-Public Meeting

This Thursday. 7:30 PM. Board of Education Budget Adoption. Teachers will be present wearing red, parents in support will be wearing blue to support the adoption of a fair and equitable budget.

Never mind, Scratch that.

That meeting was canceled yesterday. It's been rescheduled for 8 am Tuesday. If you're a teacher? Can't go. If you're a parent? You're either getting a child off to school or on your way to work. Can't go. Aw...too bad. I'll bet there are plenty of employees at Central Office to fill those seats.

Transparency. Accountability. Responsiveness. Collaboration with stakeholders.

Nope.

When I learned of this last-minute switch yesterday I was, as my mother would have said, "fit to be tied."

So I thought. And I thought. Who might be available at 8 am on a Tuesday morning the day after the Memorial Day?

Dear ___________,

I have just received word of the following schedule change:

The BOE final budget approval meeting scheduled for Thursday has been rescheduled for Tuesday at 8am. Reportedly with the County Council vote Thursday morning they would not have sufficient time to obtain any input from the superintendent/staff about what cuts to make.

A meeting time of 8 am clearly excludes attendance at this event by teachers, staff, and most parents. It seems a rather odd way to hold a public meeting.

I am inviting you to attend in our place. Your constituents, the stakeholders of the Howard County Schools, are again shut out by a system supported by our own tax dollars. Therefore we must turn to our elected officials to do for us what we cannot.

Please let me know if you will be able to attend Tuesday's meeting. I apologise for the late notice but I only just found out myself.

Thank you so much for your service to our community.

So far I have invited the entire County Council, the County Executive, all of the Howard County Delegation, and State Comptroller Peter Franchot. I would have invited the Governor but I couldn't find an email address.*

Do I think they will be able to change their plans at the last minute to attend a hastily-scheduled 8 am meeting? Well--can you? Is that an easy thing for any of us to do? Even though their attendance is unlikely, I still think they ought to know how their constituents are being treated. So I am inviting them both as a request for assistance and as a way of keeping them "in the loop", so to speak, as to how community members are experiencing this year's budget process.

I've heard assertions that time is tight at the end of the year, what with graduation season upon us, making it difficult to reschedule this meeting. That may be true. I can't help but wonder why the school system didn't take the time needed to propose a financially responsible budget in the first place.

I'm sure a lot of people are wondering that today.

 

 

*No, I'm not going to report back on who does or doesn't respond. I feel bad enough having to bother them at all about this.

 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Magic

Magic. Right now it feels as though we need some. So when I saw this on Twitter I jumped on it.

The magic returns to Howard County's Enchanted Forest--WTOP, Michelle Basch

If you need a lift, take a moment to click on the link and enjoy. There's a story, several photo galleries, and a short video. And if nostalgia alone isn't enough to lure you in, there are goats. Baby goats. Lots of them.

The Clarks of Clark's Elioak Farm invested time, money, and labor over a period of years to make this recreation of the Enchanted Forest go from a wish to a dream come true. As I look out the window and see rare blue sky and sun I almost wish that I could call in sick to work and just go hang out with storybook scenes and adorable animals. I think it might be soul-restoring.

Why am I feeling so in need of recharging and renewal?

Well, its going to take time, money, and hard work to restore our school system to one we can trust and be proud of. The closer you are to what is going on right now the more you know how true that is. Just as the Clarks couldn't wave a magic wand to make their dream come true, neither can we. I'm sure they faced challenges and rough days. So do we.

It seems as though every day brings a disturbing revelation or an infuriating decision that moves us backwards, away from our goal. It's disheartening, even to the most determined.

So when I got a chance to look at some real-life magic in Howard County, I jumped at the chance. It can be done, this says to me. We can work together to make it so.

But maybe we need some baby goats, just in case.





Monday, May 23, 2016

Party On, Columbia!

This year's Wine in the Woods was a little bit less Brigadoon and a little more Okefenokee Swamp. I felt a little sad as I made my way downtown to volunteer at the Inner Arbor Trust booth. In my imagination I saw a sparsely attended event, with locals scared off by the dismal weather. I wasn't sure there'd be anyone there at all to stop by and chat about Merriweather Park in Symphony Woods.

I was wrong.

You cannot stop these people from their annual Spring Rite. They were there with their camp chairs, listening to music. They strolled on muddy paths in rain ponchos, munching on turkey legs. They waited in line for a taste of wine and again for funnel cake. It was pretty amazing.

People stepped into our tent, out of the drizzle, to look at drawings of the park. Some had heard of it. Some hadn't. Everyone knew about Merriweather, many knew about the renovations there. Once we started talking, they always had good questions. "What will the pathways be made of?" "Will bikes be permitted on the paths?" "What different ways will the Chrysalis be used?"

My personal favorite were the young couple who came in, with great enthusiasm, asking:

"Can you tell me more about the giant floating picnic table?"

They lived in Long Reach, they said, and liked it. Before that they had lived in Oakland Mills and really liked that, too.

"I've really gotten a kick out of everything I've learned about the park so far."

Perhaps people who are willing to come out in the rain are the sort of people who are predisposed to have a good time. Add to that the people who are willing to stick their heads into a tent with drawings and plans of a park in progress as being, at the very least, open-minded. There was definitely no Whine in the Woods where we were.

Every year more people learn about the park. It may be a long, slow process of evangelism, but it's genuine. And it's taking root.

One feature of the new park that came up several times during the afternoon: pervious pathways. A rainy day schlogging through the mud really puts the need for that at the forefront of one's mind. Inner Arbor Trust President and CEO Michael McCall talked about how much impact the weekend's visitors would have, tromping over the grounds in the rain. It's clear that "pervious pathways" aren't just a trendy environmental buzzword, but will have a significant positive impact on the natural environment in the park.

As I walked back to my car, I saw three women walking along, talking companionably. They each rolled along their WITW essentials: camp chair, picnic cooler, tote bag. At one driveway they stopped, and I heard them exchange goodbyes.

"Thank you so much. And thanks for including me in your birthday celebration. It was wonderful."

If that isn't #awesomeColumbia, I don't know what is. Not only can we come out in the rain for Wine in the Woods, but we can make it a party, too.





Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blooming

Today is a very special day for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. (UUCC) They are dedicating their new worship space, and celebrating the transformation of their entire building. There is a special service at ten am, and a concert at five pm. The seeds for this transformation began in the gathering of "desirements" in 2010. Six years, a lot of work, and a dedicated capital campaign have made this day possible.

This quote from Andrew Michael's HoCo Times article shows that members of the congregation were considering their options as early as 2007:

By 2007, Executive Director Maureen Harris said the congregation began questioning whether to expand or move to another location to accommodate the congregation's growth. With a desire to stay at the interfaith center, members knew something had to change when each service ran out of seats, and members frequently had to stand.

In a time when many churches were dealing with the challenges of declining membership and attendance, UUCC was growing. And they wanted to stay right where they were, in an area which has been derisively called "Inner City Columbia." That didn't faze the UU's, whose tradition has pretty much been that of blooming where they are planted.

When I visited in November, I noticed:

By all the measures of church life--two well-attended weekly services, active Sunday school and youth programs, charitable outreach, a variety of activities and events throughout the year--UUCC is lively and strong. I once joked with a priest that a church's membership would never grown any larger than the room used for coffee hour. The one at OBIC is large but the UU's easily fill it and could use more room. That's a pretty amazing thing.

Last Sunday, after the service, people in attendance were invited to write blessings, inspirational thoughts, and prayers on the unfinished wall behind the podium/stage area. I thought about my parents, life-long Unitarians. I had done a little research before coming to the service. Why did my family go to the Unitarian Society downtown, but my grandparents went to the First Unitarian Church in the wealthy suburbs? I never really understood this while I was growing up.

Some history:

The Unitarian Society of Cleveland was organized to keep a Unitarian presence in the inner city when First Church moved to Shaker Heights in 1951.

There it was. My parents had decided to keep blooming where they were planted. My grandparents had not. The old neighborhood didn't feel like their neighborhood anymore, and they left. My parents joined with other likeminded members to create a new church.

If you go to the dedication service or the concert today, you will see the same wall, now beautifully finished. Underneath are the wishes, hopes, and prayers of a determined congregation. And also this:

 
Sending best wishes to the Rev'd Paige Getty and members of UUCC for a joyful day and a continued vibrant presence in our community.

 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Rundown

Here's what we know:

The HCPSS budget survey was unethical, inaccurate, and manipulative.

The response to the survey was 1,104: 171 employees-only, 93 employee/parent and 748 parent-only. (We know employees were threatened and coerced to take part.)

HCPSS sent out a press-release style announcement which was big on spin, short on facts, and hailed the public response as "unprecedented."

Give me a break. More people engaged in The People's Voice petition asking that the Board not renew the Superintendent's Contract.

In short, the warning "don't take the survey, it's a trap" was completely justified.

Who believes all this stuff? Central Office, perhaps, and members of the public who don't follow the school system and think it's safe to believe what they send out. They should be able to. We all should we able to. Sadly, that's not the case.

Who doesn't believe all this stuff? The County Executive and the County Council. Yesterday was the deadline for the Council to respond to HCPSS demands for more money. From HoCoTimes reporter Fatimah Waseem:

No amendments have been prefiled from the #hocomd council to change school budget thus far. Deadline was 2 pm.

@HoCoGov administration does not plan on further increasing @HCPSS budget. Story to follow. #hocomd

The HCPSS public relations machine is working overtime, but the one thing they are not able to do is convince us of things that we know to be false. A parent remarked yesterday, in reference to the sample size of the survey:

There are approximately 57,000 students in the system. Assuming 1.5 parents per household, and the total number of parents who responded, this represents less than 1% of the population. The survey was flawed, HCPSS knows it, yet they are still flouting these numbers as if they have made some kind of major accomplishment. Want a better statistic? Of approximately 255,000 votes for the board of education spots in the primary election, 75% voted for anyone other than the three incumbents who were up for reelection. This is not a stupid population HCPSS is serving.

Extra, extra! Read all about it!

This is not a stupid population HCPSS is serving.

Keep up the good work, Howard County people. Keep supporting our students, our teachers, and Howard County Government as they negotiate this complicated and treacherous issue on our behalf.

Let the PR machine spin its wheels. We know better.