Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Safety in Numbers

It's been an intense, if not productive, fortnight here in The Rose City as we creep towards a decision on the next municipal operating budget for the fiscal year starting 1 July. Last week, two City Council members asked Norwich Public Utilities for $202,000 to fund the salary and benefits of two school resource officers the Board of Education eliminated from their budget as part of their financial reorganization that included closing two schools and reallocating students and functions.

A day later, underscoring the pain throughout the state as revenues continue to fall short of both projections, and actual expenses, the State Police announced they would be removing nineteen troopers from schools across Eastern Connecticut to save an estimated 1.2 million dollars.

Meanwhile the Norwich Police Department received a federal grant of over $230,000 for a river patrol boat that some have wondered if it's necessary, without ever defining what the present posture is or asking what the true needs are. I keep seeing Crocker and Tubbs speeding across the Harbor in a cigar boat with Jan Hammer in the background and hope, really hope, there's more involved here than that.

The Norwich Teachers League was the subject of a LOT of on-line commentary from local readers for not offering contract concessions to the city without assurances the City Council would fully fund the Board of Education's budget. Many home-owners across the city feel they are at the end of their financial rope and insist the City Council hold to its own vow of a flat budget while suggesting those who live here with school-age children, as renters and not homeowners, are not carrying the same amount of the tax burden as they are. Not just they see public education, and the percentage of the municipal budget needed to fund it, as an expense rather than an investment.

We're a funny lot, we really are (though it's probably hard to see the humor right now through the pain). We prefer problems that are familiar (and the more general the description of the problem, the better) rather than risk solutions or ideas that are not. I listened and read as people argued about the costs of policemen in classrooms as if it were the most normal expense in the world, except in the world in which most of us grew up, there were no police in our classrooms.

Twenty-first century schools have more metal detectors than our airports, for, sadly, very good reasons. Instead of expending the time, talent and resources, to understand the underlying causes and mitigating them, we've expanded our notion of 'the cop on the beat' to include the hallways between the school cafeteria and the library. We're arguing about the price of gas instead of wondering why we got into the clown car in the first place. An argument I heard debated how nineteen state troopers can cost 'only' 1.2 million dollars while two Norwich police persons are over two hundred thousand dollars. I think that ignores the larger question: how did we become people who need to do this to our own children?

Some of our Brave New World looks a lot like the old one that technology, access to tools, equality of opportunity and enhanced diversity were all going to change. The gap between the promise and the performance has grown not only exponentially but obscenely. We've got more children having free or low-cost breakfast in schools than ever before because how we live with one another has shifted from when you and I were school-age. We have health clinics in schools because we've concluded we need to have them someplace and can't figure out where else they could be located.

We've spent, literally as well as a figuratively, a generation using government to accomplish programs that have little to do with why we created government in the first place, offering the argument to one another that 'someone has to do it!' Unless and until we can agree to define and then refine those tasks our government should be doing and which ones are our responsibilities, we can hold budget hearings until the cows come home (and guess who'll pay the dairy subsidy?) and never fix the fundamental problems. We'll continue to put out fires with gasoline and take solace that our mileage may vary, but sadly, never the outcome.
-bill kenny

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