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5/14/2013 1:03:00 PM Column: Have you visited your local government body lately?
Matthew Baker NT Reporter
Something amazing happened this year in Lincoln Junior High School in La Salle. Residents started attending the monthly La Salle Elementary School Board meetings. I’m not talking about the parents who show up early to see their children recognized by administrators and then leave before the real business starts or the faculty members keeping an eye on policy or contract issues. Those people are always there. The new thing — at least new in relation to the five years I’ve been reporting on the school board — was people came to hear about and comment on the school’s budget issues. In particular, band supporters showed up month after month earlier this spring to make sure the school board and administration knew how they felt about the school’s fine arts and extracurricular programs. Even further, a small group of district residents started meeting with La Salle Elementary superintendent Dan Marenda to learn more about the district’s budget and discuss ways to advocate for improved school funding. Having written about the district’s impending budget crisis for years, an issue Marenda and the school board have been very open about and is not limited just to La Salle, it was refreshing to see the public show some interest. If a small group of people can improve the way the state funds schools remains to be seen, but it at least felt like the issues I was writing about weren’t happening in a vacuum visited only by school board members and reporters. I would venture a guess that members of the board and administration shared at least some of that same feeling. Sadly, as soon as the board approved a budget plan that will keep band and other extracurricular activities alive for another year the crowd disappeared. In the meetings since —admittedly, this time of year doesn’t feature much exciting school board action — the board meetings have returned to poorly attended affairs. Yet the reality is school funding for La Salle and any other public school in the state is almost certain to decrease in the coming year, which means anything from the school band to the basketball team could be on the chopping block again next year. I can understand why one wouldn’t want to attend every school board meeting. I’m paid to attend and report on the activity and it’s still difficult to get excited about dropping in on the monthly meetings. The meetings easily run well over an hour and the subject matter isn’t always easy to understand. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly don’t remember learning about public school financing and administration at any point in my education. (Note to state legislators: this is not a request to create an unfunded mandate requiring elementary schools to teach local government finance.) So while I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to attend a school board meeting, I would recommend everyone give it a try — the same goes for city council meetings. If you live in La Salle, pick almost any elementary school board meeting — the big issue stuff is generally the same, anyway — and you will almost certainly hear firsthand how state funding impacts education, how student mobility rates and low income populations impact administration efforts, and what is being done to address the issues. If you live elsewhere, pick any public body meeting that seems important to your community. Try to go in opinion free and afterward you can decide whether the board, council or administrators are doing a good job.