Frequent Blog-Lebo commenter David Franklin put together this account of last night's Mt. Lebanon Candidates Forum, which we offer as a Guest Post:
Last night as I was driving home from work, I remembered that the Candidates Forum was taking place at Jefferson School. I wasn't planning to attend after hearing that the last such event was a waste-of-time, no substance, lovefest. However, as I thought about it, I convinced myself that given the critical issues facing our community and the various battle lines that have been drawn, that this Forum would indeed be different. I've also subscribed to the theory that if you don't participate, then don't bitch. Since I complain a lot (publicly) on this site, I figured it was equally important for me to attend and hear this stuff firsthand and draw my own educated conclusions.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed on all counts. I don't want to be overly critical of the League of Women Voters who put this event together, but the questions that they selected from the audience left me asking "Where's the beef?" After the obligatory opening statements, the moderator tossed them a juicy softball about the foreign language program. Obviously, each school board candidate said foreign languages were important in an ever global economy, yadda, yadda, yadda. The next question asked each candidate to identify the greatest "challenges" that the Board faces in delivering quality education to our students and how he/she would address those challenges. "This ought to be good," I whispered to a friend sitting next to me.
Again, a let down. "Nothing to see here," said the officer. "Move along."
See, here's part of the problem, with 6 people vying for 4 spots and each candidate afforded the opportunity to respond to each question, by the time 3 or 4 speak there's really not much for the remaining 2 to add except, "Me too." So as I tried to stay tuned in to the same rhetoric for the 5th and 6th time, it dawned on me . . . when asked to identify the "biggest challenges in delivering quality education" not one candidate . . . not a one . . . mentioned anything about the high school project. Presumably, since we have already set off down the path to spending over $100 million on a new high school to replace one that (according to published reports) is in such dire need of demolition, then certainly ONE of these candidates would see this Project and its related debate, scheduling, costs, etc as one of the greatest challenges IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COMMUNITY, not to mention in the delivery of quality education during his/her. But alas, not a word. (In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. Gardner noted that it was important to maintain our facilities, but that was it.)
I had no intention of submitting a question when I arrived, but this got me squirming in my seat (either that, or it’s just hard for my 42 year old bones and wide frame to sit still in auditorium chair designed for 6th graders). So I jotted down the following and handed it to the proctor who was pacing the aisles collecting questions, "I'm amazed that when asked to identify the biggest challenges facing the delivery of education, not one of you discussed the $115 million high school project. Does that mean that we should be thinking about using that money for those challenges that you DID identify?" Sadly, my attempt at a GOTCHA never made it past Thelma and Louise, who were seated in the front of the auditorium screening the questions that were presented to the moderator.
To her credit, the moderator conceded the first two questions were softballs and we could no longer avoid the $115 million elephant in the room (my words, not hers) so here comes a question on the high school. She didn’t read any specific question from the audience, but instead in a somewhat stumbling fashion suggested that a lot of the questions that had been submitted revealed that people are concerned about the overall price tag, the taxes and the short and long term impact on their family finances. By any account, a promising lead in. But then, like the air being let out of an auditorium-size balloon, came the question . . . Can you tell us or estimate what level of increase we can expect in the millage? Huh? Seriously? We don’t even have a price – how can these people (even those that have been intimately involved) be expected (with no advance notice) to throw out an estimated change in the millage? As expected, everyone punted, and who could blame them. The incumbents said, “I have no idea just yet,” and the newbies wisely deferred to the decisions that have already been made by the Board or adopted “a time will tell” approach. It was the school board debate equivalent of asking Marc Andre Fleury what his goals against average will be NEXT YEAR. Okay, maybe not, but you see my point. Why not ask them if they support the current plan (whatever it is), why not ask them if they support the recently proposed community advisory board (although most said they did), why not ask them what their max spend is or might be, why not ask them how we are going to pay for it? This forum has been in the planning stages for weeks and THIS is the high school question we get?
Interestingly, almost as if they knew that we were all longing for something more, the DAD Team took the opportunity to throw out 2 critical morsels. First, Mr. Remely announced that the Board has been successful in negotiating a drastic reduction in the architect’s previously quoted cost for attending the anticipated advisory board meetings. Notably, he suggested that those costs have been reduced from any amount in excess of $200,000 to something well below $20,000. Mr. Silhol then took his allotted time to defer a prediction on the millage, and instead offer up that the DAD team is committed to reducing the overall cost of the Project by 10-15%. (He reiterated this position in his closing statement by suggesting that the DADs promise to reduce the overall cost down to around $95 million.) Gutsy call, particularly in a time when the price of most things is staying the same or going up, and when there’s certainly no way to predict what lies ahead during the 3 or 4 year life of this Project.
And then, as quickly as it started, it ended. While most in attendance no doubt came in search of some heated debate or at least more information about the largest project in our town’s lifetime, we got that ONE impossible-to-answer question. As my one buddy suggested to me, “The entire hour should have been spent on the high school issue . . . period.” Sure there are other big issues on the table, but when you invite the community to a candidates’ forum THIS YEAR, you have to go there! And stay there! No such luck. The last 2 questions focused on how to deal with a recent loss of funding in drug and alcohol awareness programs and whether we should move to a full year school calendar. You’ve got to be freaking kidding me? Is there really someone in Mt. Lebanon who is lying awake at night fretting over whether we need to go to a year long school system?!?! And if there is, how did that question ever make it past the question gatekeepers?
On this point, my friend had a great idea. The League should have reached out to someone like Jon Delano to moderate this event. We pay a whole lot of lip service to how sophisticated and educated we are here in Mt. Lebanon, but we handle what could have been a great debate or exchange of ideals like a 7th grade History report. These people are going to control the overall well being of this community’s finances and oversee the education of our youth for a long time to come and I’m supposed to be concerned about their views on Spanish for 4th graders and a 365 day school year? I guarantee you that every single person on that stage walked off and breathed a collective SIGH of relief . . . “That was easy,” they all must have thought. Another lovefest. Yep, you all dodged a bullet.
Unless you want to cast your vote based on the DAD’s promise of chopping 10-15% off the high school price tag, you couldn’t have left last night’s forum with any thing to really sink your teeth into. In fact, I was trying to recall if these 6 disagreed on ANYTHING. There were only a few. Mr. Ostergaard suggested that to be truly responsible and accountable the Board must project its needs not just on a 1 or 3 year basis, but also on a longer term basis. After Mr. Ostergaard’s allotted time, Ms. Posti followed by proclaiming that the projections that are used in running a business (and suggested by Mr. Ostergaard), do not work in the world of education. Sadly though, there was no opportunity to follow up on what I found to be one of the truly intriguing moments of the night. Yep, that was the highlight. A final nugget (or crumb) came during the closing remarks, when Mr. Silhol suggested that for the upcoming teacher negotiations we will need independent advocates, and as a result the DADs have not and will not accept any campaign contributions from those who have a dog in that fight or an axe to grind. Obviously, these remarks imply that others on the ballot have or will accept such money . . . . but on this night there would be no opportunity for further discussion. Harrumph!!! Where’s Jon Delano??
A number of people left after the School Board portion of the program, but a larger number stayed for the forum between the Ward 2 and 4 Commission candidates. That was nice to see. As an aside, I guess-timated a paid attendance of about 110; but when you take out the League volunteers, other elected officials who came to observe, and the family members of the 10 candidates, the actual gate was probably about 75. That number makes a statement all by itself. Much like the atrocious numbers that accompanied the primary election in May, last night’s community participation revealed a level of apathy that troubles me greatly. I’ve been at Traffic Board meetings where 100 people showed up to scream about a single stop sign or a speed hump, but when the folks who will control this once-in-a-lifetime period in our community’s history are gathered for open Q & A, we rustled up a mere smattering. About .002% of us to be more precise.
In the end, I suppose we’ll get what we deserve.
Labels: high school renovation, mt. lebanon high school, mt. lebanon school board