April 19, 2004, 6:45 P.M.
The 800 Pound Gorilla: It never ceases to amaze me how, year after year, we hear many of the same arguments around the Laconia City Budget. What is more amazing, however, is that while everyone is talking, no one seems to be listening.
There is a reason why, in Laconia, and in virtually every other community across the state, the school district portion of the budget consumes the lion’s share of the community’s resources. In Laconia, for example, the school district employs over 400 full and part-time employees and operates over 420,000 square feet of building space, whereas the City employs about 100 people and operates 100,000 square feet of buildings, along with city parks, public safety services and roads. Municipal budgets and school district budgets are driven mostly by labor costs and infrastructure maintenance. Simple math here: if you employ more people, you use more resources. To suggest that we go anywhere near equalizing the city and school district budgets is just plain dumb.
Another lesson that seems to have to be continually relearned is the relationship between the school district and the city. The Laconia School District is what is known as a dependant school district because it gets its funding from the city council, and not directly from the electorate. This is the only sense in which it is dependant, and should the voters choose to make it so, the city could legally return to the school district meeting model which is still in place throughout most of the state. The school district is a legally autonomous, quasi-municipal body governed by the elected school board. The city council has no legal authority over the way in which money appropriated for the district is spent, except that the law requires that the city fund the necessary expenses of operating the schools. The school district is not, in any sense of the word, a lesser body or board answerable to the council. Although it is frequently referred to as the “school department,” it is by law separate and distinct from actual city departments over which the council does possess line item budget authority. The school district is only a “department” from the city’s view, from an overall budgetary standpoint and the use of the term “school department” has often been used as a pejorative description.
The council cannot, that is, it has no legal authority to, tell the district how and where to spend the money in its budget. This is clearly and unequivocally the sole responsibility of the school board. It is for the board to operate the schools, and to conduct the business of the schools, through its administrators and employees. Board meetings are public, as are council meetings, and issues of importance to the community are always available for discussion at those meetings. To my knowledge, no one has come forward to question the district’s focus on literacy or its commitment to the Literacy Collaborative. Certainly, anyone who has been paying attention recognizes that the program has its critics, but that it is also only now reaching the point where results can be measured in actual data, as opposed to national summary or anecdotal evidence. To suggest that the program should be scrapped as too costly at the point where it is beginning to pay off is, well, absurd. That is not to say that the program, or any program, should not be scrutinized; it should. Any program that cannot bear legitimate scrutiny should be eliminated. The key here is legitimate scrutiny. Councilor Cowan, I submit, knows less about the Literacy Collaborative and its efficacy in the Laconia school system than he does about the relationship between intergovernmental agencies. What is more frustrating, however, is his refusal to engage in dialog on issues, but instead to put out cryptic messages in the newspaper.
And then there is Bike Week. We have made no progress on this issue. We rail against a school building plan, yet once again we plan to lose money on a signature event for the city. It is easy to deflect the discussion from Bike Week to the school budget because Bike Week funding, and Bike Week as a potential revenue source, is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that no one seems to want to deal with. The next cycle is about to begin. If there is no plan for changing the way we deal with Bike Week now, planners will say it’s too late because vendors and participants, as well as businesses in the Weirs, have made plans based on the status quo. Still, the council fiddles while Rome burns. Solving the Bike Week problem benefits everyone and answers the age old question of how we are going to pay for it all. One thing we should not be doing is putting off planning and building new schools in order to continue to finance Bike Week for the benefit of a few.