Learning on the job is a good thing, right? So, the Sag Harbor School Board is to be commended for finally figuring out the fund-balance thing. You know, that pesky thing they have to figure out about how much padding to put in the budget to make sure they don’t run out of money in case there are unexpected expenses during the year. It’s hard because the State Education Department says you have to put something aside, but it can’t be too little and it can’t be too much. Up ’til last year, it seems, the Board has had trouble with the too much part. The limit used to be 2% of the total budget. Then recently it went up to 4%, but the Board just kept socking the dough away accumulating fund balances of more that 16% in at least one recent year. Then, as part of their learning process I guess, they let the pendulum swing the other way, letting the fund-balance get so low last year that they got a little slap-on-the-wrist letter from the State auditors.
But this year…this year they assure us they’ve got it figured out and the fund-balance, like little bear’s porridge, will be just right. As I said, learning on the job is good. I really mean that. Now, what about those accounting errors? They are the other villain in this year’s budget scenario, yet the Board was a little less specific about those. However, the District’s new business official, Janet Verneuille, assures us she’s got a handle on it, and from the depth of knowledge she displayed at a recent budget presentation, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m also inclined to giver her a word to the wise…it’s not necessary to try to defend or even explain the mistakes of your predecessors. They were their mistakes, not yours. Defending them makes them look like your mistakes. Correct, don’t defend.
Which, by the way, is advice the School Board should take to heart as well. In the current political climate — yes, the School Board is political — you can’t win an argument with the public. The public is angry, and that anger is not aimed at anyone in specific. Are you an elected official? If the answer is yes, just assume that the public is pissed-off at you. The best thing you can do is to publicly accept your role in whatever mistakes were made, apologize sincerely, and then be completely transparent about what you are doing to fix the problem. Don’t defend, don’t argue, and especially don’t get arrogant.
Unfortunately, when there’s a lack of leadership, defensiveness, argumentativeness and arrogance often appear to fill the void. Former Board President Walter Tice got it exactly right at Monday evening’s Board meeting when he admonished the board for expecting the public to, again, vote on a budget in which the dollar amount of the single largest expense — teacher’s salaries — is a guess that can’t even be revealed to the voters. Tice advised the board to get the contract settled before the budget vote so that the public could have confidence that the proposed budget accurately reflected the amount the District would need to meet its obligations — not too little, and certainly not too much. That being a concept the board and administration have had difficulty with in recent years, they should carefully consider the wisdom of Mr. Tice’s advice.
The good news is that leadership can be learned on the job. All that’s needed to get the contract negotiation ball rolling again, is for one or more Board members to accept the fact that it is the Board’s job to get it done and to stop making it personal. As things stand right now, the animosity directed by some board members towards the teachers’ union is palpable, and that’s not appropriate. This is not an ego battle. Board members must put aside their personal feelings and their preconceived notions of whatever it was they thought they could “accomplish” in the negotiations, and actually start to negotiate. A leader would recognize that “winning” is no longer the most important point. (It actually never was.) Preserving the vision, the quality, and the harmony of the District is what’s important now. A leader would know this, and would do whatever is necessary to make his or her colleagues understand it as well. I know that leader exists on this board. I just hope that he or she is ready to start learning on the job.