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Give business a fair shake

Jim says:

Back in the fall, sweet little children came by our house soliciting funds to build a track at the elementary school in our backyard. Seemed like a great idea, so we supported the project, even though deep down in my heart, I believe that if the school system did not waste so much money, the tax dollars they confiscate from us could have already supported it. However, children are not responsible for incompetent administration.

On the first day of the school’s holiday vacation, I was awakened by heavy construction machinery that sounded like it was in our kitchen. I went downstairs, peered through the windows across the creek, and discovered the track was being built less than 200 feet from my back door. This continued from then until 6 p.m. on 31 December, with breaks only for Christmas Day and the weekend. Now, I can look forward to teachers with electric bullhorns creating all sorts of noise as the new semester opens in January.

To my knowledge, there was no building permit issued, no public hearings, nothing. The school just did what it wanted to do, the heck with the neighbors. If this had been a paper mill, or even a retail store, there would have been pickets with signs protesting the project. In fact, a couple of years ago, Wal-Mart attempted to build a store within a couple of miles of us, and the neighbors got it stopped, neighbors whose children no doubt go to school across from my backyard.

Quite frankly, I would rather have Wal-Mart in my backyard than a school. Actually, I don’t mind the children out playing at recess, the noise of their playing (not teacher’s yelling) is soothing to me (as opposed to some neighbors, who, even being teachers that work there, say, when home themselves due to sickness, can’t stand the playground noises). What I do mind is the garbage truck that comes every morning at 4 a.m. and the milk delivery truck that comes about 5 a.m. I also mind the fact that the parking lot is wide open, partially screened from the street, and an invitation for all sorts of nefarious nocturnal activities. The local police know me well—my most recent call was concerning someone apparently practicing parallel parking about 10 p.m. at night and consequently flashing their headlights into the back of our house as they swung back and forth.

Now, of course, we can move--all of this has obviously not been so obnoxious that it has forced such a decision--yet. What I object to is the arrogance of the school system and that they can get by with actions that would be pounced on if they were an honest-to-goodness tax paying business. These inept adults that administer our schools hide behind the innocent little faces of the children and insinuate one is some sort of mean-spirited individual if they question anything done in the name of education, no matter how Rooneyesque (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) they, the administrators, are.

There is even a bigger picture issue here, though. Business is the source of taxes, schools are the recipient of taxes. Treating the ones who spend our tax revenues as if they were collectively some sort of fragile soul while constantly berating those that are the source of all created revenues is just plain backwards. This is an attitude that must change if there is any hope for the future in the civilized world.

Travis says:

I do not agree with your sweeping generalization that schools are coddled and businesses vilified. Voters regularly reject supporting their local schools. When I was in elementary school, Gwinnett County, Georgia, rejected a bond referendum that would have built magnet schools – schools I would have tried to attend. Just this fall, the school district where we now live, Jefferson County, Colorado, rejected a bond for school capital improvements. Meanwhile, states and localities fall all over themselves to provide tax abatements for businesses. Often these “business incentives” are NOT subject to voter approval.

I’ve slept in your basement, so I know what it’s like to be rudely awakened by noise emanating from the school across the creek. On the other hand, I’ve also hit golf balls on their playground and played basketball on their courts. One person’s headache is another person’s amenity.

Here’s a point I will concede: if you help fund your local schools, you ought to be getting something in return. Public schools should be more integrated into their communities, providing opportunities for civic engagement to every local resident. Here are some ideas:
  • Every school library should be a community library. Likewise, computing resources should be available for public use.
  • School gyms should be open on nights and weekends to provide recreational and exercise opportunities for nearby residents.
  • School classrooms and larger meeting spaces (cafeterias, etc.) should be made available for social or religious organizations during nonschool hours.
  • Community gardens could be located at schools with ample space.
  • Schools should be willing to host community events – potluck dinners, neighborhood festivals, swap meets, music performances, farmers’ markets, etc.
Schools are expensive and capital intensive, we ought to use their infrastructure more wisely. Schools should be gathering places for their communities, and open for any appropriate use – from NRA meetings to Sierra Club meetings, ballet class to basketball practice, religious services to political meetings. Users must be responsible and respectful. They should pay for operating costs – utilities, custodial services, insurance, and related items – and should remove their materials when they depart. School design should take community mindedness to heart, which could include anything from providing ample adult sized restrooms in elementary schools to installing modular climate control systems.

I disagree with your description of school administrators as “inept” and school systems as “arrogant.” I’m sure there are a few bad apples, maybe even more than a few, but running a school or a school system is an incredibly difficult job. Every parent wants what they think is best for their particular kid, while the administrator has to look at the big picture – and pay particular attention to children whose parents are not particularly engaged in the education system. I would strongly encourage anyone disgruntled with their local schools to get involved. Volunteer to mentor a child, tutor, or teach adult literacy classes. At least read a book about the challenges of educating kids in failing neighborhoods – Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It is particularly good.

A community with failing schools will fail, just as a community with failing businesses will fail. It is not an either/or decision.

Members Opinions:
January 20, 2009 at 3:32pm
Sorry, Travis, I agree with Jim: School officials are innately arrogant. We've helped fund a weight room, theater and indoor hockey rink, each of them with the promise that they would be user-friendly to the public. Generally the public gets the 5:00 AM slot.
George Mead
January 23, 2009 at 11:24am
Mr. Mead,
I cannot argue with your personal experience. There are, however, plenty of churches that worship in schools, plenty of youth and adult sports teams that practice or play games on public school campuses, and schools are used for other public purposes – our polling station in Austin was in the elementary school next door. Ramping up these types of activities might be difficult, but it shouldn’t be impossible.
Travis Hale
February 03, 2009 at 4:03pm
Your examples are all valid.

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